Protecting the children of MENA
The Islamic State (ISIS) released a macabre propaganda video in July showing the execution of 25 Syrian soldiers in Palmyra’s ancient Roman amphitheatre. Shockingly, the executioners were children and teenagers.
This was not the first time ISIS has used minors to carry out horrendous acts of terror. The jihadist organisation has relied on children to perform other sordid acts, including suicide bomb attacks. According to the UN Human Rights Council, ISIS “has established training camps to recruit children into armed roles under the guise of education”. In such camps, the “cubs of the caliphate” receive armed training and ideological indoctrination.
The fate of children under ISIS is probably the most tragic manifestation of child abuse in the Middle East and North Africa region. But children suffer in many other battlefields as well, as fighters or innocent bystanders. In Yemen, hundreds are enrolled by militias, especially the Iran-supported Houthis. Between the end of March and the middle of June, at least 279 children were killed and 402 injured in Yemen, UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) statistics show.
When they do not fall as direct casualties of armed violence, children suffer the consequences of displacement and neglect within or outside their countries of birth.
The most direct consequence is a lack of education. Despite improvements in schooling rates during the last decade, 21 million children and young teenagers in the region are either out of school or at risk of dropping out, according to UN agencies. This figure includes 3 million children in Syria and Iraq where war is destroying educational facilities or parents are too wary to send their children to school.
Children are forced instead to work at a very low age.
Reports by the non-governmental organisation Save the Children and the UN Children’s Fund reveal that children are working in more than 75% of households surveyed inside Syria.
When outside of the school or family setting, children are vulnerable to sexual exploitation and other illegal activities. Children in conflict areas are also exposed to malnutrition and disease, which is spreading due to plunging vaccination rates.
Instability and turmoil in many Arab countries, including in places which have enjoyed a modicum of peace, have led to children being exploited by unscrupulous operators, who have no qualms about putting the health and safety of minors at risk in an ever-expanding informal economy. Children even find themselves aboard unseaworthy boats along with other illegal immigrants trying to reach European shores.
These tragic circumstances affect the lives of many in the region. No less than 157 million out of the more than 400 million people in the Middle East and North Africa are under the age of 18. But the tragedy goes beyond the sheer numbers. The terrible plight of Arab children will mean a future of lifelong physical and psychological trauma and wasted potential for both the children themselves and the entire region.