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IS children, the lost generation

The misallocation of resources, social stigma and de facto administrative discrimination uphold obstacles to the reintegration of children in Iraq born under or recruited by the Islamic State.
Woman and children of Islamic state militants walk as they surrendered in the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria, March 14, 2019. REUTERS/Issam Abdallah - RC12226DF3C0

A prominent Islamic State (IS) leader was killed March 29 by Saraya al-Salam Brigades, an Iraqi Shiite militia in Salahuddin province. According to the militia, he had been responsible for the recruitment of children for the terrorist group.

Besides its deployment of child soldiers, IS also used various techniques to indoctrinate children born and raised in the so-called caliphate. These techniques ranged from military training to the establishment of school curricula encouraging students to engage in violence.

Juveniles In Iraq allegedly involved with IS face harsh sentences. According to a recent Human Rights Watch report, an estimated 1,500 children are currently being held by the Iraqi government and the Kurdistan Regional Government for alleged IS involvement.

Al-Monitor visited Tasfirat Prison in Tel Keif, a town north of Mosul. The facility is one of three detention centers holding IS suspects prior to their trial at the nearby Ninevah counterterrorism court.

Juveniles are kept separate from adults, but in similar, crowded and windowless cells holding up to 250 individuals. “The prison is meant to be a temporary facility. But IS suspects spend between days and up to nine months here,” a high-ranking administrator of the prison told Al-Monitor. If found guilty of IS-related crimes, juveniles face up to 15 years in prison.

According to international standards, children recruited under the age of 18 by military organizations are considered victims rather than criminals, whether they willingly engaged in violence or were forced to do so.

Mohammad Tallal, the head of Mosul’s counterterrorism department at the Ministry of Interior, told Al-Monitor that a lack of financial support from the federal government is preventing the establishment of rehabilitation programs, the only long-term solution to the detention of juveniles.

“Without such programs, we are not able to release teenagers affiliated with and indoctrinated by IS. Right now they pose a danger to society. But if they stay in prison, they will remain criminals just the same. We need support to finance their rehabilitation,” Tallal told Al-Monitor.

Not only juveniles, but also young children are kept in similar cells with their mothers in Tel Keif prison. “When we arrest the mother, we ask if she wants to leave her child with a relative. Some do, but others have nobody,” the senior manager of the prison told Al-Monitor.

The refusal of relatives to take in children of convicted or suspected IS members stresses the widespread social stigma children with IS relatives are facing.

Kheiri Jaburi, a member of the Iraqi youth parliament in Mosul, is adamant, saying, “We refuse children who are victims of IS and children with IS relatives to grow up together. The children of IS members should be sent far away.”

Al-Monitor visited Jadah camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in southeast Mosul. The camp shelters over 52,000 individuals still unable to return to their former place of residence. Their homes have either been destroyed or they fear retribution by the local community.

Jadah camp for internally displaced people, Mosul, Iraq, March 19, 2019. (Charlotte Bruneau/Al-Monitor)

RNVDO, a local organization, manages the camp since its establishment in 2014. "Families with IS relatives live alongside the families of victims in Jadah. Our main challenge is to make it possible for them to coexist,” Ayman Abduljabar al-Jabori, the camp's manager, told Al-Monitor.

Many families in the camp face challenges with their legal documentation, often lost or confiscated during the war. Riad and his family were detained over a year in the closed al-Hol camp in Syria, before being transferred to Jadah camp several months ago.

He told Al-Monitor that he did not recover his or his children’s identification papers. Without legal documentation, living in Jadah remains the only option for many IDPs who are unable to cross the many checkpoints outside the camp. Their children also bear the costs, he said.

“Many children born during the IS occupation were not issued birth certificates preventing them from their rights to citizenship, education and health-care services. They become outcasts,” a lawyer told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “Procedures for the renewal of legal documents are lengthy, expensive and require clearance by the intelligence services. Some families who have a suspected IS member on the run have been failing to get clearance.”

Raed al-Maslah, the head of Ninevah’s counterterrorism court, told Al-Monitor, “IS relatives are a time bomb. Runaway IS members might use their families to carry out attacks. At the same time we have to prevent discrimination of innocent people.”

The lawyer, who has been working with IDPs for several years, said, “After the liberation from IS in 2014, local governments were openly preventing IS relatives from getting their ID papers. Recently the federal government allegedly issued a directive asking local administrations to deliver documents as per the Iraqi law. Although the situation did improve, the directive is not always applied on the ground.”

The lawyer, who faced several such cases, explains that local administrations dread dealing with IS relatives because they are afraid of being accused of collaboration with the terrorist group by the intelligence services.

In addition, local lawyers are not always willing to work with IS relatives, fearing stigmatization and retribution by local communities.

According to Shirwan Aldoberdany, a parliamentarian from the Kurdistan Democratic Party for Ninevah governorate, corruption at different government levels is another factor that seems to be transforming the camps into permanent settlements.

“International organizations played an important role during and after the liberation. But we have a lot of questions regarding corruption of the local government that is benefitting financially from the funds allocated to IDPs,” he told Al-Monitor.

The Iraqi lawyer believes that the solution is not legal, but political. “We need courageous political decisions. One option would be to mandate international organizations with the protection of children with IS relatives," he said.

This would mitigate the problem of stigmatization faced by local organizations and alleviate corruption risks, he added. “We don’t want people to be scared of the system because it could collapse completely. We need to start afresh after Daesh [IS].”

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