Monday, February 04, 2008

Children in Iraq

This article is from Al Jazeera from last month, but I was prompted to look deeper into the subject of human trafficking in Iraq after listening to a free netcast from Yale University featuring Yanar Mohammed, founder of the Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq (available on iTunes under iTunes U). The article deals specifically with the problem of Iraqi children and how the conflict is worsening their chances of becoming victims of trafficking:

Local officials and aid workers have expressed concern over the alarming rate at which children are disappearing countrywide in Iraq's current unstable environment.

Omar Khalif, vice-president of the Iraqi Families Association (IFA), an NGO established in 2004 to register cases of those missing and trafficked, said that at least two children are sold by their parents every week.

Another four are reported missing every week.

He said: "[The] numbers are alarming. There is an increase of 20 per cent in the reported cases of missing children compared to last year."

"In previous years, children were reported missing on their way home from schools or after playing with friends outside their homes. However, police investigations have revealed that many have been sold by their parents to foreign couples or specialised gangs."

According to police investigations and an independent IFA study, Iraqi children are being sold to families in many European countries- particularly the Netherlands and Sweden - Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria.

"Taking advantage of the desperate situation of many families living under poverty conditions in Iraq, foreigners offer a good amount of money in exchange of children as young as one-month old and up to five years of age, " Khalif said.

He said there are fears children are being trafficked for the sex trade and the organ transplant black market.

Children drugged

Hassan Alaa, a senior ministry official, said that while it has been difficult to precisely trace where the missing children are taken, government forces have captured 15 human trafficking gangs operating in Iraq in the past nine months.

"Many were carrying false documents prepared to take some children out from the country."

"During their confessions, they said many children are sold for as little as $3,000 and for very young babies, the price could reach $30,000," Alaa said.

The interior ministry has stepped up its security at checkpoints and border posts throughout Iraq.

He said that the child traffickers resort to drugging children with powerful sedatives during the trip out of Iraq. When they drive up to a checkpoint, the police are told the children are merely sleeping.

"All the children leaving Iraq now have to be woken up and interviewed by the police and border patrols, except those who are infants and unable to speak," Alaa said.

Extreme poverty

Mahmoud Saeed, a senior official at the ministry of labour and social affairs, says extreme poverty and nationwide unemployment have pushed parents to the edge, forcing them to make decisions once believed unthinkable.

"Desperate seeing their families without food and hygiene, parents prefer to give their children for adoption, to save their lives," he said.

Saeed said the ministry was making employment a national crisis issue in 2008, hoping to find immediate work for the poor. He is hoping international aid agencies and NGOs will increase their participation and investments in projects geared towards helping children. 

But for many parents, help will inevitably come too late. 

Iraq is on the Special Cases list of the State Department's 2007 TIP Report as it states, "Iraq was in political transition during the reporting period and is therefore not ranked in this Report [meaning the country's efforts are not placed into the tier system]." It has been on the Special Cases list since 2003. Although in 2007, it reported that there was credible evidence that this problem was getting worse and that legislation is severely lagging behind international standards.

UNICEF also painted a grim picture for the current state of the children in Iraq. Among their findings:
  • Almost a million children of primary school age are now out of school indefinitely,
  • Almost 75,000 children have resorted to living in temporary camps or shelters by the end of 2007,
  • Almost 25,000 children were internally displaced per month throughout the year,
  • Approximately 1,350 children were detained by police for "security reasons."
While the report also details good things UNICEF has been able to see accomplished in the time period, the violence and instability is obviously still affecting children. The displaced children and children living in temporary housing and refugee camps are especially vulnerable according to information on the UN Special Representative of the Secretary General for Children and Armed Conflict:

Evidence indicates that refugee and internally displaced persons' camps are often recruiting grounds for child soldiers because of the convenient concentrations of children in these zones. These children also face severe protection risks during flight as well as outside camp boundaries that can include killing or maiming, sexual violence, abduction and trafficking.

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