UNICEF Ambassador and Scottish actor Ewan McGregor recently drew attention to the plight of Iraqi youth when he visited the Harsham Displacement Camp in northern Iraq.
The situation for children in Iraq is becoming increasingly desperate. According to the UN, around 3.6 million children – one in five – are at serious risk of death, injury, sexual violence, abduction and recruitment into armed groups.
For youths like 16-year-old Laeth, future choices are limited. Laeth was forced to flee his home in Mosul after his father was killed in conflict, and he now lives with his grandmother in a caravan in the Harsham camp.
“We lived in Mosul and our lives were good,” Laeth said. “Before coming here I used to go to school. Sometimes I would go and say hi to my mother. I used to go out with my friends, we used to have a good time, it was very nice.”
Despite his situation, Laeth has chosen to channel his emotions into music and performance, helping as a volunteer at the camp. It's not something many youths in Iraq have to opportunity to do. Peace-builders have warned that many Iraqi youth like Laeth face a difficult choice between fight or flight.
A recent report by the International Crisis Group shows that dis-enchanted youth in Iraq have become easy quarry for predators, be they IS, Shiite militias or populists preaching Iraqi nationalism.
The report claims that the youth of Iraq are its greatest asset, and that while the government’s reform capacity may be limited, it must address its youth crisis as its top priority if it is to hold Iraq together.
Findings show that the current vacuum sucks youths into one of three directions: protests (with aspiration to dramatically transform a non-functioning system); fighting groups on either side of a sectarian divide; or migration toward Europe. This counters conventional wisdom that youth of Iraq are being radicalised on a large scale, and suggests that young Iraqis are not radicalised so much as recruited into organisations that provide community and direction, regardless of ideology.
If that is the problem, then what's the solution?
The International Crisis Group says the solution lies in giving Iraqi youth viable alternatives that can reduce fighting groups’ ability to attract them in the first place.