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UNICEF’s warning on stigmatised children

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On Monday, the United Nation’s Children Fund (UNICEF) warned that children raised in the Islamic State’s (IS) “caliphate” should not be treated as terrorists. Speaking during a press conference in Beirut, Lebanon, UNICEF’s Middle East director, Geert Cappalaere, said the fate of children whose jihadist families recently fled IS’s last bastion in northeastern Syria should not be ignored. According to him, “the message that these children are not wanted is growing stronger and stronger. This is a problem that cannot be swept under the carpet. These are situations that are not necessarily unprecedented: look back at the Rwandan genocide in the mid-90s. We saw thousands of children there who were associated with people who had been committing atrocities. These children have been successfully reintegrated within the Rwandan society. There is a solution for these children. It requires political courage, political commitment. These children are children; they are not terrorists. Let’s not allow ourselves to be fooled by claims of military victory, there is so far little to be gained, from the children’s perspective.”

While an estimated five million children have been born since the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011, thousands of foreign children originating from 43 different countries are currently housed at the Al-Hol camp, a point of refuge for those people fleeing IS territory. Most of the children lack food and clothing, and are a pitiable sight there. Many of the European countries, still smarting from the effects of terror attacks by their own citizens in conjunction with IS jihadists, have been reluctant to address the issue of bringing them home. The situation is a fallout of the depletion of IS power, particularly in recent weeks. With heightened attacks by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, IS is all but uprooted from Syria. Shelled on all sides and lacking access to food and water, many of the jihadists have surrendered, and their families are in tatters.

The big Syrian question has raged in Europe and America, with many wondering what would be the fate of the hapless children. We are well aware that governments across Europe are carefully weighing their responsibility to the children in a region which has a propensity for fresh conflict. Among other questions, they are pondering whether enforcing the fundamental human rights of the children would mean taking back their terrorist parents and potentially setting their societies up for further terror attacks;  and whether grand­parents whose own children joined the Islamic State can be trusted to raise their grandchildren as law-abiding, terror-shunning citizens. These questions, and many more, are legitimate, but the central point of concern, at least for now, should be how to rescue the children from the appalling conditions in which they are currently trapped in Syria. While their parents no doubt erred in shelving the comfort and security of their respective countries and joining a terror group to, among others, call the territorial integrity, peace and tranquillity of those very countries into question, the fact still must be admitted that the children now caught in the web of war and intrigue made no conscious choice to be in their current condition. They neither joined a terror group nor encouraged anyone to do so. What is more, the majority of them are still far too young to understand why they are experiencing so much misery, let alone why their parents are being viewed with distrusts and disdain across the globe.

Happily, the thinking in Europe and the rest of the world seems to align with the point we are making here. The point was well captured by Belgium’s Immigration Secretary, Maggie De Block, when she said: “We won’t punish young children for their parents’ misdeeds. They have not chosen the Islamic State. That is why we want to make efforts to bring them back to our country. For the parents, the situation is different. They themselves have deliberately chosen to turn their backs on our country and even to fight against it. Solidarity has its limits. The freedom you enjoy in our country to make your own decisions also means you bear responsibility for the consequences.”

To be sure, this is the kind of ideal to which every society should aspire. The state should be able to rescue and protect the children even from their parents. It should victimise no one because of the circumstances of their birth. While not canvassing that those who joined IS to inflict terror on the world should go scot free, we think that the affected countries have a moral duty to bring the children home without delay, even if it would mean separating them from their parents once this has been done. The law would of course be expected to take its course. Already, Russia has shown the way forward by repatriating 27 children, while France and many other countries are contemplating heeding US President Donald Trump’s call that they bring the IS fighters and their families home, then cause them (the fighters) to face prosecution.

We endorse UNICEF’s call for humane and responsible treatment of the affected children. They deserve no form of stigmatisation. Rather, they should be rehabilitated, where necessary, and integrated into their home societies without delay.

The post UNICEF’s warning on stigmatised children appeared first on Tribune Online.

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