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Leila Zerrougui, UN envoy for children and armed conflict, said former child soldiers -- who foreign donors were funding to rehabilitate their return to society -- were effectively being locked up without trial and denied visits from their family.
"They are held in detention without due process," she told reporters in Kenya after a four-day visit to Somalia.
While some centres were treating children well, others were little more than prisons, she said. Some children were assessed to pose little threat to wider society.
Centres must follow "international standards dedicated to rehabilitating and reintegrating them into the society, rather than punishing them," she said.
She singled out the Serendi Rehabilitation Centre in the capital Mogadishu -- part funded by the Norwegian government -- where 55 children including those who once fought for the Islamist Shehab were being held.
Children there were trained in new skills but are blocked from leaving, denied family visits, and have no access to any legal process to challenge their detention, she said.
"It is not a rehabilitation centre, it