With so many kids stuck in Syria, does the world still care about child rights?

Thousands of children are stranded, and getting them out would be all too easy

More than 25,000 children from Iraq and a number of foreign countries are stranded in north-eastern Syria. AFP

There is hardly any human right more uncontroversial or universally agreed-upon than the rights of a child, at least in principle. Out of the nine binding international treaties on human rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child is the most subscribed, ratified by every UN member state except the US. The success of that treaty is not only a landmark event in the advancement of an international framework for human rights, but also a pointer to the universality of the spirit underlying it; in nearly every culture, religion and legal system, special protections are given to children – particularly to shield them from the actions of adults.

Many have made the case that human rights have been on the decline this century, pulled back by a long thread of global events ranging from the US-led “War on Terror” that began in 2001 to the rise of far-right populism in the decade after to the climate of fear sparked by the pandemic in the past two years. It will take the benefit of hindsight decades from now to judge whether that was really the case, but the rights of children are probably a good canary in the coal mine that tells us which way the winds are blowing.

The state of affairs is particularly clear in instances where it is not conflict or chaos that threatens children’s wellbeing, but sheer political will. The perfect illustration lies in the situation of thousands of children stranded in north-eastern Syria, who are citizens of a large cross-section of countries from Europe and Central Asia. Their home governments’ inaction in protecting them is indicative of a tragic and growing consensus among too many countries that there are instances where the rights of children do not matter much.

A month ago, Save the Children, a charity, warned that it will take 30 years to repatriate the 7,300 children of non-Syrian and non-Iraqi ISIS fighters stranded in unsafe camps in north-eastern Syria, if such repatriations continue at their present pace. This is the tip of the iceberg; the camps also house more than 18,000 Iraqi children in need of their own repatriation.

The obstacles to the repatriation of these children are clear, a result of the ambivalence of the countries who are meant to take them, demonstrating a disregard for their obligations – legal and moral – to protect their own citizens. In many cases, the surviving mothers of such children are former members of ISIS themselves. Governments do not – or do not want to be seen to – want to spend resources rescuing those mothers from a quagmire of their own making, and so the children suffer. That supposed unseemliness aside, solving the problem would, from a purely logistical point of view, be relatively straightforward. Kurdish authorities who administer the regions in which the camps are situated have all but begged foreign governments to come and collect the children.

Children play in a displacement camp for Yazidi people, north of Dohuk, Iraq, on January 26, 2022.  AFP
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Kurdish authorities have all but begged foreign governments to come and collect the children

For children who are actually from the region, the challenges are more complicated, but equally egregious. This is particularly true in the case of children born to Yazidi women who were kidnapped and raped by ISIS fighters. Elders from the Yazidi community, a highly insular minority religious group in Syria and Iraq, have decreed since the fall of ISIS’s so-called caliphate in 2019 that any Yazidis kidnapped by the group would be welcomed back into the communities. Their children, however, would not, because they were born to non-Yazidi men and the community’s religious beliefs preclude such individuals from living among them. It does not help, in this instance, that Iraqi law identifies one’s religion based on that of their father, forfeiting any legal claim these children might have to a Yazidi identity.

The religious beliefs and legal peculiarities are not the only obstacle – mothers have been warned that their children would be discriminated against for the rest of their lives, tainted by association with their militant fathers.

Consequently, for the past three years Yazidi women unwilling to abandon their children have been forced to live in the Syrian camps with other widows of ISIS members, reportedly disguising themselves as Muslim Arabs to avoid any harassment or forced repatriation to their home community. For those who wish to return to Yazidi villages, the situation is even worse. Their children have mostly ended up in orphanages in Syria and Iraq, left to the care of charity workers.

The common thread for all these children – foreign or Iraqi, born to radicalised mothers or Yazidi victims – is stigma. In countries outside the region, particularly in the West, the stigma comes from the politicisation of these child welfare cases. In Iraq, it is a deeper, older stigma drawn from tribalism. Neither presents a valid excuse; both are exactly the kinds of harmful mentalities that human rights laws are designed to protect victims against.

As with the foreign children of ISIS fighters, it will take years for the Yazidi children and their mothers to see their rights restored. In recognition of the Yazidis’ plight, some western countries have offered to take Yazidi women and their children in. While the outcome would be a noble service to these families, the hypocrisy would, of course, be more than apparent; the only thing differentiating the children who are already citizens of these countries from their Yazidi counterparts is the alleged sins of their mothers.

If the goal is to do the greatest humanitarian good and create a sustainable way out of the horrors ISIS created, then there is a better way. Instead of trading their own responsibilities away to cover for Iraqi human rights failings, foreign powers can bite the bullet, accept responsibility for their own citizens and look after their children. They can also help Iraq, for its part, take steps to reinforce the rights of Yazidi women and children to thrive at home, with or without support from their community.

From the day ISIS fell, a little over three years ago, the scars its brutality left on the Middle East were clear. It will take at least a generation, billions of dollars and huge, national efforts to heal them. Most of the steps involved will be gruelling and complicated. But doing right by these children and their mothers would be one of the easier ones. And getting the job done would send a strong signal that the world hasn’t forgotten something that once seemed so obvious to nearly everyone, the rights of the child.

Published: April 26, 2022, 4:00 AM
Sulaiman Hakemy

Sulaiman Hakemy

Sulaiman Hakemy is opinion editor at The National