Iraq: Iraqis resort to selling children

Al Jazeera
Unicef says an estimated two million children in Iraq continue to face threats, including poor nutrition, disease and interrupted education.
"Abu Muhammad, a Baghdad resident, found it difficult to let go of his daughter's hand but he had already convinced himself that selling her to a family outside Iraq would provide her with a better future.
"The war disgraced my family. I lost relatives including my wife among thousands of victims of sectarian violence and was forced to sell my daughter to give my other children something to eat," he told Al Jazeera.

In 2006, Abu Muhammad and his family were forced to leave their home in Adhamiya, a district of Baghdad, after militia fighting claimed the streets in his once tranquil neighbourhood. They began living in a makeshift refugee camp on the outskirts of Baghdad, but he soon lost his job and the children, unable to make the daily trek, quit school.

"There wasn't enough money to spend on books, clothes and transport," he said. His daughter, Fatima, the youngest of four children, began to show signs of malnourishment and a local medic said she had become anaemic.


By mid-2007, conditions for his family had become desperate and his children, once healthy and bubbling with life, had become gaunt and lethargic. It was then that a translator and a Swedish couple claiming to be part of an international NGO arrived in the makeshift refugee camp.

"They heard about my situation and the woman, who said she could not have babies, offered some money to give her my youngest daughter of two years old," he said.

"I refused in the beginning but the Iraqi translator was constantly coming at the camp and insisting with the same question. One day I found that my children would die without food and a clean environment and the next time he came to my tent, I told him that I agreed." He gave the translator all personal documents and after a week the couple came with new documents for Abu Muhammad to sign, authorising the adoption and to pick up his daughter.

Abu Muhammad, who received $10,000, believes he is now damned by God, but he says his inner turmoil is allayed somewhat by his belief that Fatima will have a better life than many in Iraq. "I could see her love in the first time she looked at her," he said of the adoptive mother.

Alarming disappearances

Local officials and aid workers have expressed concern over the alarming rate at which children are disappearing countrywide in Iraq's current unstable environment.

Omar Khalif, vice-president of the Iraqi Families Association (IFA), an NGO established in 2004 to register cases of those missing and trafficked, said that at least two children are sold by their parents every week. Another four are reported missing every week.

He said: "[The] numbers are alarming. There is an increase of 20 per cent in the reported cases of missing children compared to last year." "In previous years, children were reported missing on their way home from schools or after playing with friends outside their homes. However, police investigations have revealed that many have been sold by their parents to foreign couples or specialised gangs."

According to police investigations and an independent IFA study, Iraqi children are being sold to families in many European countries - particularly the Netherlands and Sweden - Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. "Taking advantage of the desperate situation of many families living under poverty conditions in Iraq, foreigners offer a good amount of money in exchange of children as young as one-month old and up to five years of age," Khalif said. He said there are fears children are being trafficked for the sex trade and the organ transplant black market.

Children drugged

Hassan Alaa, a senior interior ministry official, said that while it has been difficult to precisely trace where the missing children are taken, government forces have captured 15 human trafficking gangs operating in Iraq in the past nine months. "Many were carrying false documents prepared to take some children out from the country."

"During their confessions, they said many children are sold for as little as $3,000 and for very young babies, the price could reach $30,000," Alaa said.

The interior ministry has stepped up its security at checkpoints and border posts throughout Iraq. He says that the child traffickers resort to drugging children with powerful sedatives during the trip out of Iraq. When they drive up to a checkpoint, the police are told the children are merely sleeping. "All children leaving Iraq now have to be woken up and interviewed by the police and border patrols, except those who are infants and unable to speak," Alaa said.

Extreme poverty

Mahmoud Saeed, a senior official at the ministry of labour and social affairs, says extreme poverty and nationwide unemployment have pushed parents to the edge, forcing them to make decisions once believed unthinkable. "Desperate seeing their families without food and hygiene, parents prefer to give their children for adoption, to save their lives," he said.

Saeed said the ministry was making employment a national crisis issue in 2008, hoping to find immediate work for the poor. He is hoping international aid agencies and NGOs will increase their participation and investments in projects geared towards helping children. But for many parents, help will inevitably come too late.


Khalid Jabboury, 38, a father of seven and displaced on the outskirts of Baghdad, says giving his daughter up for adoption to a Jordanian family has given him nothing but torment. He said: "After one year I heard from some relatives that they had seen my seven-year-old daughter working as a servant for the supposed new family and she was being beaten as well."

He says he was paid $20,000 but wants to give the money back if a local NGO can assist in her repatriation.

The IFA's Khalif says there is nothing the NGOs can do once children have been taken out of Iraq.

Ruwaida Saleh, 31, a mother of three, is also praying for her eight-year-old daughter Hala's safety. Saleh says her daughter disappeared in July 2007 and has not been heard from since. "The police told us to give up, but I cannot. I have nightmares she is being raped," she said. "I will hold God's hands and beg Him to have Hala in my arms again one day. It is a pain without explanation that I will carry to my coffin if I never find her.""

By: Afif Sarhan

4 January 2008