The increase in drug abuse among children and youths in Iraq is worrying specialists who say continued violence is responsible for the rising number of users - something that is compounded by the easy availability of different narcotics.
"Investigations by local NGOs showed an increase, compared to the beginning of this year, of at least 20 percent in drug abuse among children and youth," said Ali Mussawi, president of the local NGO Keeping Children Alive (KCA).
"In our preliminary reports, released in February 2007, there were more cases of addiction among street children but today the numbers have changed and there are more addicted children from the middle class," Mussawi added.
Mussawi said a survey was undertaken by five local NGOs working on children’s issues. They interviewed 1,535 people – children and their families – in central and southern areas of the country. The interviewees were from the areas most affected by drugs.
According to Mussawi the main reason for the rise in the number of children and young people using illicit drugs has been the psychological effects of violence. It is violence, specialists say, which has led to children finding easy ways to forget about the loss of their loved ones.
"Nowadays, you can find drugs being sold near school entrances in many districts of the capital and some children even smuggle drugs into school," Mussawi added. "We have informed the police about the situation but they say that are too busy with the daily violence to deal with such matters."
UNICEF reports from the field suggest that substance abuse is becoming more of a phenomenon amongst Iraqi children.
|Nowadays, you can find drugs being sold near school entrances in many districts of the capital and some children even smuggle drugs into school.|
"Their environment makes them more vulnerable, with an increasing number ending up on the streets after being displaced, orphaned or separated from their families. Many are also living with intense psychological stress as a result of the ongoing violence," said Claire Hajaj, communication officer at UNICEF Iraq Support Centre in Amman (ISCA).
"We don't have specific programmes for tackling drug abuse in Iraq - but we do focus on providing support for children who are vulnerable to exploitation and harmful practices such as drug abuse - including psychosocial support for displaced children or children separated from their parents, re-integration programmes for children living on the street, care for children injured by landmines and UXOs [unexploded ordnances], and assistance for orphaned children," she added.
Mas'ud Rafiq, 12, is a clear example of the drug usage increase in Iraq. Receiving support from KCA, the youth said he started to consume marijuana with his 14-year-old brother and then found from two of his school friends that it was easily available.
"They told me that the seller comes daily at our school gate and they buy from him very cheaply. I was using my pocket money to buy it. One day I got really sick and told my mother who looked for help as I was suffering from withdrawal syndrome and was in need of urgent help," Rafiq said.
Mussawi said sniffing glue or solvents from liquids such as paint, which have large amounts of intoxicants, were the most common forms of drug abuse among children but recently they have started smoking marijuana and cocaine.
|More on Iraqi kids|
"Drugs were forbidden before and were never available. Today you just have to go to crowded places or in any street of the suburbs to find them and unfortunately they are very cheap," Mussawi said.
Drug abuse amongst children and adolescents is a worldwide phenomenon, not limited to conflict zones. Tackling drug abuse in any country is complex and difficult - and needs to involve the full spectrum of families, communities, and national health, education, legal and social services.
"Providing these services in peace-time can be challenging - but in times of conflict and population movement, the challenges multiply exponentially," Hajaj said.