There is an increasing focus on the suffering of women in wartime. Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) under former Conservative leader William Hague MP had an admirable partnership with the activist-actress Angelina Jolie, dedicated solely to highlighting women’s suffering in war zones around the world and, indeed, since the beginning of time. The recent Srebrenica memorials, held across Britain to commemorate the genocide of Muslim men and boys in Bosnia, chose this year to emphasise the mass rapes that were perpetrated simultaneously against their female relatives.
The increased interest from the media in women’s tribulations can be credited almost totally to the toughness of those women, often from socially conservative backgrounds, who have spoken out. By making their experience known to decision-makers and journalists, forgoing privacy in recalling the most brutally personal details, they have catalysed an unprecedented level of resources towards ensuring that women’s suffering is not ignored.
The same level of resources should now be dedicated to children and their suffering. They too are going through “hell”.
Take the situation in Yemen, for example, where arms provided by France, the United States and Britain are being used by the Saudi-led coalition. Overall, about 4.5 million children and pregnant or lactating women are acutely malnourished, according to the United Nations Office for the Co-Ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, which manages responses to large scale crises. This represents a grim 148 per cent increase since late 2014, before the coalition intervention began. Nearly 462,000 children are today suffering from Severe Acute Malnutrition (SAM); that’s almost a 200 per cent increase since before the intervention. Compounded by the cholera epidemic, a child under five dies in Yemen every ten minutes from preventable causes.
In Syria, the use of child soldiers is widespread. On the rebel side, according to Human Rights Watch, it is not just the notorious Daesh and Jabhat Al-Nusrah which use them, but desperate commanders from the Islamic Coalition, the Free Syrian Army and the Kurds, all of whom are backed to some degree, in many cases directly, by the West. They fight against the Assad regime and their associated militias, which are also recruiting children as the number of suitable men falls.
Nearly six million children across Syria, caught between foreign-backed Assad and foreign-backed rebels, now depend on humanitarian assistance, with almost half forced to flee their homes. The UN has set up a “No Lost Generation” initiative to prevent exactly that in Syria; a nation of children whose mental and physical scars are matched by their lack of education.
The risks facing Syrian children are enormous, and go far beyond their immediate health needs. “No Lost Generation” recently began a three year research project into child marriages amongst refugees in Lebanon and Jordan. A survey of accessible areas of Syria showed that, in seventy per cent of “surveyed sub-districts” child labour existed in “its most dangerous and hazardous forms”, including scavenging, smuggling, begging and other “illicit activities”. The same survey found that over seventy per cent of families were separated, in the areas assessed; that one in three schools were damaged, destroyed or occupied by rebel or regime forces; and that a staggering 1.75 million children were not in school. Interestingly, this figure had fallen from well over 2 million largely because of efforts by officials and teachers from the regime side.
The situation in Libya, where law and order is almost totally absent, is even worse. A flow of refugees from its southern borders towards the coast is replete with opportunities for child sex traffickers. Justin Forsyth, deputy executive director of UNICEF, says: “Children and women disappear into a hellhole. They are being sexually assaulted, abused, exploited and killed.” Many children are held for months in makeshift prisons controlled by militias and traffickers for profit.
Sanctuary across the Mediterranean is far from guaranteed. Some ten thousand unaccompanied child refugees, most from or travelling through the Middle East, are thought to be missing in Europe. That is a staggeringly large number.
The social services and welfare system in Britain are contributing to this figure. Late last year, it was revealed that the whereabouts of some three hundred and sixty children was unknown to the British authorities, despite them being registered when they entered the country. Over two hundred of these missing and deeply vulnerable children – whose whereabouts should be a national scandal — have been missing for over two years.
The word “vulnerable” is often overused; it’s a patronising term adopted by charities to deal with their “clients” who are stripped of agency and become commoditised by the system. Every adult, regardless of mental health or in all but the most extreme of circumstances or faculties, is still a human being deserving of dignity. Calling them “vulnerable” as part of some pseudo-scientific methodology fails to empower and return their lives to triumphant normality.
The only circumstance in which the term “vulnerable” is quite obviously useful is when it comes to children. The health risks are huge and their criminal exploitation across the Middle East goes on largely unhindered; our allies are perpetuating it as much as our enemies. Britain’s contribution is both at the supply and demand end. We continue to arm the Saudis and Emiratis, despite a public outcry, so we are complicit in the generation of a children’s crisis in Yemen. Then, when it comes to welcoming child refugees, we welcome too few, and that only under extreme duress from activists; and then we lose track of them once they have crossed our borders. What has happened to these children may later turn out to be nightmarish. What is happening to children in the Middle East will be just as bad. It is a national — and international — scandal.