Children in Somalia face human rights crisis

My mum phoned me this morning, after spotting me doing an interview on the BBC News Channel. “You looked very smart but very serious”, she said. I argued that I didn’t have much choice: when you’re talking about children facing a famine, indiscriminate armed attacks and forced recruitment as child soldiers, it’s hard to be anything but serious.

The situation for children in Somalia couldn’t be more serious. They’re not only facing a humanitarian crisis – which the UN today declared to be a “famine”, an emotive term that they seldom use – but also a human rights crisis.

Amnesty International’s researchers spoke to over 200 refugees who had fled Somalia while researching our new report, “In the line of fire: Somalia’s children under attack”. Many of those we spoke to told us that fear that their kids would be recruited to fight was one of the reasons that they left the country.

Children as young as eight years’ old have been recruited to fight as child soldiers, mainly by the Al-Shabab armed group but also by the Transitional Federal Government, which has the support of the international community. Those recruited by Al-Shabab are given guns, made to plant bombs or administer punishments to those who don’t comply with the Islamist group’s strict code of dress and behaviour.

Kids are recruited using either the lure of money or mobile phones, or simply by force. Adults that try to protect their children are dealt with harshly. A 13-year-old boy who fled Mogadishu in April 2010 told us:

“Al-Shabab were fighting and they even came to my school and tried to make us
join them… If a mother insists that her son won’t go and fight, they will kill her or
beat her.”

Less than a quarter of children in Somalia even go to primary school. Often it’s just because it’s too dangerous to travel to the school, with warring parties fighting in the streets. Schools are also closed due to bomb damage. And the Al-Shabab armed group has forcibly closed some schools, told them that they should not teach girls, or banned the teaching of certain subjects (such as English).

A 14-year-old girl from Baidoa stolod my colleagues:
“Sometimes al-Shabab would come to our school and cane the students and beat the teachers. They even killed one of our teachers. We were told to get out of school
and that we should not be studying here. That time I had to run all the way back
home. It was a male teacher who was killed. They shot him dead.”

I was grilled a bit in the interview on what could be done to help this crisis, and whether British people should think twice before giving money to the famine relief if it could end up in the pockets of Al-Shabab.

I certainly didn’t want to discourage anyone from giving to the famine appeal. And certainly, more resources must be committed to medical, educational and psychological programmes for children in Somalia and those who have fled the country. They have witnessed some appalling things and need help to deal with it. Massive efforts and finance have been piled into the protection of international shipping off the coast of Somalia; precious little has been allotted for the protection of children inside the country.

We also need more international efforts to tackle impunity, in the form of a UN-backed international Commission of Inquiry to identify those responsible for abuses and bring them to justice. As one child told Amnesty International:
“There is so much recruitment of children by Al-Shabab. They do this because they
think that no one will investigate them.”

It’s perhaps another reason for the very serious face: there is no simple solution to the crisis facing children in Somalia. A commission like this won’t happen overnight. But in a conflict that has gone on for 20 years, and looks likely to continue well past the time that this generation of kids become adults, longer-term solutions must be found.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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