Geneva — Parents, caregivers, service providers and law enforcement officials all need extra support to minimise the increased risks to children, the UN human rights experts said.
"Globally, confinement measures and the disrupted provision of already limited child protection services exacerbate the vulnerability of children living in psychiatric and social care institutions, orphanages, refugee camps, immigration detention centres and other closed facilities, as cases of violence, sexual abuse and exploitation of children confined in these premises are likely to go undetected," said the UN Special Rapporteur on the sale and sexual exploitation of children, Maud de Boer-Buquicchio.
"At a time of lockdowns and isolation at home and elsewhere, children are at a greater risk of experiencing violence and exploitation, as well as challenges to their mental health. This is especially true of those who are already in vulnerable situations, who must not be left behind," said Najat Maalla M'jid, UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General on violence against children.
The experts urged governments to ensure that adequately staffed and equipped child protection services and law enforcement are available and accessible to all children. This includes toll-free 24-hours hotlines, free texting services, remote psychological and social services, and mobile shelters for minors.
"Where such vital services are missing, the victims are bound to endure the abuse and violence by their very caregivers or the members of the inner circle of trust. We have to ensure that child protection is fully embedded into the response to COVID-19, with adequate resources allocated both during and after the pandemic," they said.
"As community ties are weakened due to the crisis, we must all remain alert and report any suspected child abuse. Travel restrictions and the increase in the numbers of online users also will likely result in a significant spike in cybercrimes, such as sexual grooming online, live streaming of child sexual abuse and the production and distribution of child sexual abuse material.
"Robust collaboration between private industry and law enforcement is key to ensure early detection of cyber cases and the effective blocking and removal of child sexual exploitation material online.
"Such operations entail dedicated and trained police forces to monitor the encrypted paedophile networks, lawfully access retained IP addresses to secure evidence, and engage with the overseas companies and enforcement agencies while strictly guided by international human rights law," the experts said.
"The loss of household income will disproportionately hit the world's most vulnerable children, thus making them an easy prey for child labour, domestic servitude, prostitution, forced begging and other exploitative situations, with likely lasting effect on these victims.
"We should all make significant efforts to support frontline operators in the child protection services, neighbourhood and community watchdogs and law enforcement. We must also empower children to participate actively in responding to this crisis, including through peer-to-peer initiatives. That way, we can make sure that children's dignity and rights are protected and that no child bears the collateral consequences of this unprecedented pandemic."