In a new policy brief on Iraq, Watchlist examines challenges facing children allegedly associated with the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The 26-page report, Bridging the Gap: Bringing the Response to Children Formerly Associated with ISIL in Iraq in Line with International Child Protection Standards, highlights the treatment of these children largely as criminals and security threats, rather than victims of serious violations of international law. Many have been detained for their perceived association with ISIL—sometimes without having committed a violent act—with several far-reaching consequences.

Children sentenced for their association with ISIL often face long-term stigma, hindering their ability to reintegrate into society and support themselves. Fearing retribution when they return to their communities of origin, these children may feel they have no choice but to live in camp settings, or to leave Iraq, possibly contributing to long-term separation of children from their families. Moreover, allegations of torture and ill-treatment, poor conditions of detention, and the application of overly broad anti-terrorism legislation may feed grievances and further marginalize affected children and communities, undermining efforts to establish long-term peace and security.

Watchlist’s policy note highlights the need for a comprehensive national strategy or legal framework to guide the Government of Iraq’s response to children formerly associated with armed forces and armed groups. To the extent reintegration support is currently provided to children formerly associated with armed forces or armed groups in Iraq, it is primarily led by humanitarian and protection actors, often on a limited and short-term basis. International donors have a key role to play by investing in long-term, comprehensive reintegration support, which is critical to achieving peace and stability in the region.

Watchlist calls on the Government of Iraq to take a number of steps to protect the rights of children formerly associated with ISIL and other armed groups. These include: amending national counterterrorism legislation to ensure it is consistent with international child protection standards; signing a handover protocol that facilitates the release of children detained for association with armed groups or forces to civilian child protection actors for reintegration; and adopting a comprehensive child rights law. The policy note also provides targeted recommendations to international donors, UNICEF and the UN resident and humanitarian coordinator, and foreign governments with child nationals accused of ISIL affiliation.

The March 2021 policy note is part of Watchlist’s broader work on the impacts of counterterrorism on children’s rights in situations of armed conflict. Watchlist’s previous research has found that, in a number of contexts, counterterrorism legislation has contributed to the misperception of children recruited or used by armed groups as security threats or criminals, rather than victims of serious violations who should receive reintegration support.

Moreover, counterterrorism legislation in many countries is often at odds with juvenile justice standards, creating ambiguity about which laws should apply or take precedence. As a result, many governments are quick to detain children for their actual or alleged association with armed groups, rather than ensuring they receive the comprehensive support they need to reintegrate into society.

Read Watchlist’s policy brief on Iraq: