Rising number of children detained in Iraq over national security concerns and suspected Isis links, UN says

More than 1,000 minors – some as young as nine – are behind bars in Iraq, the United Nations says

<p>People demonstrate during a gathering called by the National Coordination of the Families of Moroccans detained in Syria and Iraq, in front of the parliament building, in Rabat, Morocco, 28 January 2022</p>

People demonstrate during a gathering called by the National Coordination of the Families of Moroccans detained in Syria and Iraq, in front of the parliament building, in Rabat, Morocco, 28 January 2022

More than 1,000 children are being detained in Iraq on national security-related charges, some due to suspected links with Isis, according to a United Nations report which says the number of detained minors has increased significantly in recent years.

The UN Children and Armed Conflict report said that 1,091 children – some as young as nine – were behind bars in Iraq, which is a “serious protection concern”.

It is a “sharp increase” on the number recorded at the end of June 2019 when the UN said there were 778 children held in Iraq on similar charges, the youngest then being aged 10.

The report comes amid calls for the release of child detainees held on similar charges in neighbouring Syria, after Isis militants took hundreds hostage during an unprecedented attack last month on the country’s largest prisons housing suspected fighters.

The UN’s child agency Unicef, whose representatives have visited Gweiran prison, said there were at least 600 children, both Syrian and foreign-born, present at the time of the attack who “should never have been there in the first place”. Thousands more are scattered between other detention facilities and camps.

Isis was territorially defeated in 2019 by a US-led coalition after the group held swathes of Syria and Iraq. But three years on, security forces in both countries are struggling to deal with the ongoing fallout, not least of which is how to manage tens of thousands of suspected Isis militants and their family members in detention and a resurgence in Isis attacks.

It has seen hundreds if not thousands of children held under unacceptable circumstances, according to the UN.

The UN report on Iraq found that detained children continued to face challenges in gaining access to legal, social and other services, with instances of prolonged pretrial detention and mistreatment. In some cases, children were held with adult detainees, the report added.

UN special representative for children and armed conflict Virginia Gamba said the minors “should be considered and treated primarily as victims”.

“Children held on such grounds should be released immediately and handed over to civilian actors. Their detention should only be used as a last resort and for the shortest period of time,” she added.

There has been growing concern about the number of children behind bars because of alleged involvement with Isis across both countries, with renewed calls for countries to repatriate their citizens.

The report said that a total of 627 children in Iraq had been repatriated to their country of origin since August 2019. A similar report issued last year for Syria, said that by June 2020, 791 children from 22 countries had reportedly been repatriated.

The UN has called on countries to step up their repatriation programmes.

There are thought to be as many as 35 British children in various facilities in northeast Syria,  according to rights groups. So far, by The Independent’s own count, the UK has only repatriated seven unaccompanied minors.

In reaction to the UN report, Human Rights Watch (HRW), which has documented widespread instances of child detainees being tortured in Iraq, said minors should never be detained for alleged association with armed groups.

Jo Becker, HRW’s children’s rights advocacy director, called for reintegration programmes for children who need to rejoin society.

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