Following the final collapse earlier this year of ISIS's territory, which once stretched across vast tracts of Iraq and Syria, world leaders have focused on what to do with the many foreign fighters who travelled to join the so-called caliphate. While an important question, this has diverted attention from an altogether more vulnerable group: the children born under ISIS's brutal reign. There have been fears that these youngsters could become a lost generation, traumatised by the conflict they have seen and, in many cases, also rendered stateless.
For nearly three years, ISIS ruled large areas of Iraq with an iron fist. In 2017, it was driven from its stronghold of Mosul. Until now, children born in these areas have only possessed ISIS-issued papers, which are not recognised by the Iraqi authorities. However, after months of deliberation with parliament and civil rights groups, the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights has announced that the country will establish special courts to help provide these children with official documents.
An estimated 45,000 children lack birth certificates, which are essential to obtain Iraqi citizenship, and live trapped in refugee camps. Many are orphaned, which makes the task of providing identification all the more difficult. This administrative limbo has contributed to their isolation from society and prevented them leading normal lives. Under the current circumstances, these children are not eligible to enrol in school or for access to medical care and welfare benefits.
While it is easy to believe that those who chose to join ISIS deserve little sympathy, such a response lacks nuance and should certainly not apply to innocent children. Denying them basic rights and official identification is, effectively, punishing some for their parents' crimes and some for being born in the wrong part of the country at the wrong time. In a recent report by the Norwegian Refugee Council, one official stated that lack of official identification has prevented newborns from receiving vaccinations in some areas. While the immediate effects of such an approach are pressing, the long-term implications are equally serious, potentially shutting young people out of the economy, greatly reducing their opportunities for advancement and leaving them vulnerable to radicalisation.
This ongoing crisis has been described as a “human time-bomb” by the secretary general of the NRC, Jan Egeland. Having already endured years of warfare, these young people have been denied a childhood. Fortunately, Baghdad has recognised that they should not be denied a future. The announcement of the special courts is to be supported as a vital first step on the road to providing thousands of young people with the safety and security they deserve.