Local officials and aid workers have expressed concern over the alarming rate at which children are disappearing countrywide in Iraq's current unstable environment.
“At least five children are disappearing every week,” said Omar Khalif, vice-president of the Iraqi Families Association (IFA), an NGO established in 2004 to register cases of missing children. “And the number could be much higher as we don’t have access to government statistics. In some cases, we’ve received information that they were trafficked to Europe through neighbouring countries.”
According to local investigators and the IFA, unconfirmed information suggests that children are being sold to many countries in Europe, particularly the UK and the Netherlands. However, there is no detailed information on who is buying them and for what reason.
Officials confirm that there are organised international gangs carrying out the trafficking in collaboration with Iraqis who are arranging the abductions from their own country.
Desperate families will often approach the IFA weeks after the disappearance of a child because police – who are usually contacted first – are unable to locate the child in most cases. “My three-year-old daughter was abducted by armed men,” said Baghdad resident Sahar Ibraheem. “We thought it was a kidnapping, but we later received a letter saying that someone had given our child to a rich family in Europe.”
Interior Ministry officials said they had also received numerous complaints from local families about missing children. “It’s a very complicated situation,” said Fatah Hussein, a senior ministry official. “False documents are being used, and we know that many families who cannot have children look to Iraq and Afghanistan for children because it’s cheaper. Some children are sold for US$5,000, others for 10 times this.”
In some instances, families voluntarily sell their children because they need the money. “Sometimes we receive claims from relatives or friends that children have been sold by their own fathers,” said Hussein. “We can’t do anything in such cases, because it was their decision.”
One Baghdad family interviewed by IRIN said that unemployment and poverty had pushed them to sell their child in order to support the rest of the family. “It’s hard to watch your children without anything to eat,” said Abu Karam, a father of nine who sold one of his children for US$60,000. “We sold our child to a foreign family because they paid very well, and he’ll have a good life there. In the meantime, the other children will have some thing to eat.”
UNICEF has begun discussions with the ministries of labour and social affairs to address the issue. “The protracted and escalating civil unrest in Iraq is having an extremely adverse impact on Iraqi civilians,” said UNICEF-Iraq Child Protection Officer Patrizia Di Giovanni. “On a daily basis, Iraqi children are directly and indirectly affected by ongoing violence.”