Protect the rights of children of foreign fighters stranded in Syria and Iraq

Statement by UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore

21 May 2019

NEW YORK, 21 May 2019 – “The thousands of children of foreign fighters languishing in camps, detention centers or orphanages in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere are among the world’s most vulnerable children. They live in appalling conditions amid constant threats to their health, safety and well-being. They have little family support: While most are stranded with their mothers or other caregivers, many are completely alone. 

“These children are ‘doubly rejected’ – stigmatized by their communities and shunned by their governments. They face massive legal, logistical and political challenges in accessing basic services or returning to their countries of origin.  

“In Syria alone, UNICEF estimates that there are close to 29,000 foreign children, most of them under the age of 12. Some 20,000 children are from Iraq while more than 9,000 are from around 60 other countries. 

“An additional 1,000 children of foreign fighters are believed to be in Iraq. 

“Most of these children were born in the conflict areas controlled by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant or traveled there with their parents. The rest – mostly boys – were either coerced or manipulated into supporting armed groups or had to do so to ensure their own survival. All are victims of deeply tragic circumstances and egregious violations of their rights. They must be treated and cared for as children.

“While acknowledging each country’s sovereign right to protect its national security interests, UNICEF urges Member States to also fulfill their responsibilities to protect everyone under the age of 18 in line with the Convention on the Rights of the Child. This includes those children who find themselves linked to armed groups in their territory or abroad. It also includes children who are citizens of these Member States or born to their nationals. 

“In particular, UNICEF urges Member States to:

•    Provide children who are their citizens or born to their nationals with civil documentation;
•    Prevent these children from being stateless or becoming stateless; 
•    Support their safe, dignified and voluntary return to and reintegration in their countries of origin; 
•    For children who are detained, ensure that detention is a measure of last resort and for the shortest time possible. 
•    For children who are over the age of criminal responsibility and who are accused of criminal acts, make sure that internationally recognized standards for fair trial and juvenile justice are applied.

“These children must be treated primarily as victims, not perpetrators. Every decision regarding them, including on repatriation, must take into consideration the best interest of each child and be in full compliance with international legal standards. 

“UNICEF is working closely with a broad range of partners including Member States, international organizations and other parts of the United Nations, to help ensure a coordinated and coherent approach to this issue.

“So far, only a fraction of children has been repatriated. For countries which have requested UNICEF support, our teams have facilitated the repatriation of more than 270 children. This support has included liaising with ministries and consular representatives, providing legal assistance, accompanying children back to their countries, and helping reintegrate them into their extended families and communities. 

“But with thousands of foreign children still stranded in terrible conditions in Syria, Iraq and beyond, UNICEF believes that the international community should do far more to protect them. 

“UNICEF remains deeply concerned by the plight of thousands of Syrian and Iraqi children who have lived under the control of the Islamic State in their own countries and who continue to be at risk. For these children too, detention should only be a measure of last resort and international standards of juvenile justice must apply. All children affected by the conflicts in Syria and Iraq must have their rights upheld at all times.” 

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