Saving children from war and terror
Children in the Arab world’s war zones and swathes of lawless territory live at the mercy of predators, including terrorist groups and armed militias.
Jihadist and other terrorist groups such as the Islamic State (ISIS), al-Qaeda, the Taliban and Nigeria’s Boko Haram have long histories of abducting, training and using children in their violent exploits.
Children are more susceptible to jihadist indoctrination and are more vulnerable to pressure.
They are more difficult to detect by security. Children also provide more shock value when they carry out their gruesome acts. Last month, ISIS broadcast a nine-minute video showing children in military uniforms executing hostages presented as “atheist Kurds” and “spies”.
ISIS has developed a programme for training the “Cubs of the Caliphate”.
The German weekly Der Spiegel reported that about 1,500 children have been drafted by ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The group has deployed child suicide bombers to stage attacks in both countries.
In July, security forces in Kirkuk, Iraq, stopped a young boy from setting off an explosive device in a residential neighbourhood. The 12-year-old boy reportedly told police he had been abducted by masked men who forced him to wear the explosive vest. A teenager in March detonated a suicide bomb at a Baghdad stadium, killing 29 people and wounding 60.
A report in April by the UN secretary-general noted that groups affiliated with ISIS have operated training camps south of Sirte, Libya, “with a graduation ceremony for 85 children under 16 years of age reportedly held last December”. The report mentioned executions and sexual abuse of children.
Children are also at the mercy of militias in war. Human Rights Watch has accused Iraqi militias of recruiting children in the battle for Mosul.
Bill Van Esveld, senior Human Rights Watch children’s rights researcher, called upon “the government and its foreign allies to take action now or children are going to be fighting on both sides in Mosul”.
UNICEF, the UN children’s agency, warned a few months ago that at least 20,000 children in the Iraqi city of Falluja faced the risk of forced recruitment into fighting.
The exploitation of children stems from their precarious situation resulting from displacement and lack of care. One-in-three children in Syria has been born since the start of the war. They have experienced only conditions of violence and conflict.
To make matters worse, too many children in the Arab world have been deprived of a decent education because of ongoing fighting. Across the region, more than 13 million children are unable to attend school due to conflicts, especially in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Sudan and Yemen.
More than half of Syrian child refugees in five host countries are not receiving schooling, according to UNICEF.
Bolstered by international assistance, the Jordanian government has pledged to make room for all refugees in its schools. This is a welcome development, given that last year no fewer than 90,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan went without schooling.
Saving children requires action on all fronts. It is a necessity if the region is to have any future.
As UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake said recently about the situation of children in the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo: “Empathy is not enough. Outrage is not enough. Empathy and outrage must be matched by action.”