UNITED NATIONS, May 21 (Xinhua) -- The UN Children's Fund, UNICEF, on Tuesday called for the protection of the rights of children of foreign fighters who are stranded in Syria and Iraq.
"The thousands of children of foreign fighters languishing in camps, detention centers or orphanages in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere are among the world's most vulnerable children," said UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore in a statement.
They live in appalling conditions amid constant threats to their health, safety and well-being and have little family support. While most are stranded with their mothers or other caregivers, many are completely alone, she said.
These children are "doubly rejected" -- stigmatized by their communities and shunned by their governments. They face massive legal, logistical and political challenges in accessing basic services or returning to their countries of origin, said Fore.
In Syria alone, UNICEF estimates that there are close to 29,000 such children, most of them under the age of 12 -- about 20,000 children from Iraq and 9,000 from around 60 other countries.
Most of these children were born in the conflict areas controlled by the Islamic State or traveled there with their parents. The rest, mostly boys, were either coerced or manipulated into supporting armed groups or had to do so to ensure their own survival.
All such children are victims of deeply tragic circumstances and egregious violations of their rights. They must be treated and cared for as children, said Fore.
While acknowledging each country's sovereign right to protect its national security interests, UNICEF urges UN member states to fulfill their responsibilities to protect everyone under the age of 18 in line with the Convention on the Rights of the Child, she said. "This includes those children who find themselves linked to armed groups in their territory or abroad. It also includes children who are citizens of these member states or born to their nationals."
These children must be treated primarily as victims, not perpetrators. Every decision regarding them, including on repatriation, must take into consideration the best interests of each child and be in full compliance with international legal standards, she said.
UNICEF is working closely with a broad range of partners to help ensure a coordinated and coherent approach to this issue, she said.
So far, only a fraction of children have been repatriated. With thousands of foreign children still stranded in terrible conditions in Syria, Iraq and beyond, UNICEF believes that the international community should do far more to protect them, said Fore.
UNICEF also voiced concern about the plight of thousands of native Syrian and Iraqi children who have lived under the control of the Islamic State and who continue to be at risk, she said. "For these children too, detention should only be a measure of last resort and international standards of juvenile justice must apply. All children affected by the conflicts in Syria and Iraq must have their rights upheld at all times."