With a bright smile and blazing pink t-shirt, a small girl named Layla glides around a Baghdad living room, showing me her latest painting on a flimsy white sketchbook. A prominent activist helped shield Layla’s identity so that she could start kindergarten. She doesn’t know that her education could be taken away at any time.
“Nobody wants to talk about this, but we must deal with this. We need some law just for these children,” stresses Sarab Barkat, General Director for Survivor Affairs, which is connected to Iraq’s Ministry for Social Affairs. “We need programs, rehabilitation, ways to solve this. And now.”
Yet reconciliation is often a discarded practice here, in a country that has endured war upon war over the past four decades. Layla is just one of many thousands of children born to dead or detained Isis fathers and rendered effectively stateless. Some five years after the terrorist group was declared defeated in the war-ravaged state, Layla and her peers have no official documents and effectively no rights.
The term “stateless” refers to a person not classified as a citizen by any state, in violation of international law and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that every child should have the right to a legal identity, nationality and immediate birth registration.
Now, thousands of babies — now school-aged children — born under the Isis regime or fathered by fighters are crumbling through the cracks of the complex Iraqi legal system, leaving them without the right to aid, school and freedom of movement.
These children, punished for the actions of their fathers, will face a painful, ostracized existence: discrimination, social shunning, inability to enter legal relationships, poverty and restricted access to basic medical, food, and community services. And as Baghdad struggles to form a government eight months after its federal elections, untangling the plight of these innocent children is far from a priority issue politicians care to solve.
“It is a big problem. What is the plan for these kids? The government should be taking care of these kids,” says Nawfal Rasheed, the former Minister of Immigration, tells me.
But it’s the lack of care for the children that lurks in the shadows.
Thousands of children remain displaced in decrepit, danger-filled camps across northern Iraq and Syria, in addition to those who hide away from their rejected mothers, trying to pick up the pieces of their broken lives. Under its so-called “caliphate,” Isis issued its own birth and marriage certificates, yet the Iraqi government does not recognize these. It is common for mothers to lose their original documentation or to have had it it confiscated by terrorists.
According to one high-ranking former government minister, who requested their name not be published, not only is there a lack of DNA testing, but the mothers are routinely subject to sexual abuse by security forces skirting the sprawling Jeddah camp in Mosul. The former minister pointed out that sometimes these Isis-surviving women and children can be issued “yellow cards” if they suffice to denounce Isis publicly. Although these may help to access services, they aren’t nationality documents and can lead to even more stigma. Furthermore, displaced women are sometimes made to “participate” in the cycle of abuse with the guards in reciprocation for receiving such a security card. There are no clear statistics regarding how many of these cards have been issued or even how many stateless children there are in the country. “These children should not have to bear the sins of their fathers,” she presses on.
Ryan al-Kildani, a Christian representative in parliament and former leader of the armed Babylon Brigade, explains that the yellow cards effectively make the Isis families “gypsies in Iraq.” He also points out that even the dissemination of cards attracted vehement opposition in parliament. Some politicians do not want to accept any Isis children and do not believe that “minds can be changed” through rehabilitation.
The topic is complicated further by the notion that if a child’s father is a foreign fighter, they cannot assume their mother’s nationality. And then there’s the case of thousands of Yazidi women — who were forced into sex slavery and, in many cases, gave birth as a result of that slavery — whose children cannot be documented as Yazidi. The community does not accept converts, and both parents must be Yazidi for documentation to occur. Furthermore, Iraqi law stipulates that a child must assume the father’s religion. Thus, when it comes to Isis, that is Muslim. Such a concept is a painful pill for any Yazidi mother to swallow.
Iraq’s Nationality Law was amended in 2015 to state that children born to a non-Muslim mother and a Muslim father are considered Muslims regardless of their mother’s religion or situation. This flagrant example of gender discrimination can cause children to then be abandoned entirely, left without parents, identification, or a clear place of birth or nationality.
Even children born to known fathers, such as Syrians, do not formally belong to the Syrian state because they are “born outside the government’s control.” The opportunity to obtain civil documentation for wives and children with Isis affiliation fades more by the day, relegating them to the edges of a traumatized society.
This is not a predicament that can be brushed aside in the hope that it disappears. The legal limbo of innocent children must be addressed. First, the international community can help offer DNA testing to determine the nationality of a child whose father is unclear. The onus is then on foreign governments to take in these children.
Moreover, Baghdad can pass provisions that enable children to assume their mother’s nationality. And for orphaned children, it may come down to issuing them with Iraqi documentation regardless of the circumstance. No child should be stateless, deprived of the fundamental human right to a home, and left to endure a life in oblivion because of occurrences far from their control. States must thus clear the legal barriers to registration and establish appropriate mechanisms in conflict-shattered areas, putting a child’s best interests at the forefront.
And from a global security perspective, outcast children present a serious threat, with little left to turn to except anger and extremist ideology as they grow into adulthood.
At this critical age of early schooling, now is the time to ensure that the profoundly vulnerable Isis young get a proper education, appropriate services, and psychological assistance. This will also require long-term programs designed to support the reintegration of children into Iraqi society – programs for the implicated children and their peers too, who may already be instilled with discriminatory attitudes toward Isis families.
Tashfeen Ibrahim Saqeq, the representative for the Joint Operations Command in Iraq, echoes the sentiment that their “goal is to take care of these kids and rehabilitate them, to give them a good future.”
“We have to prevent them from joining terrorist attacks in the future; we need them to join the society,” he says.
The practicality of that happening is marred by complication and indifference. Peace and progress cannot be achieved if society turns a blind eye to an entire generation of stateless children.