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By Afif Sarhan
April 6, 2009 / The Guardian
Corruption, weak law enforcement and porous borders are compounding a growing child trafficking crisis in Iraq, according to officials and aid agencies, with scores of children abducted each year and sold internally or abroad.
Criminal gangs are profiting from the cheap cost of buying infants and the bureaucratic muddle that makes it relatively easy to move them overseas. Accurate figures are difficult to obtain because there is no centralised counting procedure, but aid agencies and police say they believe numbers have increased by a third since 2005 to at least 150 children a year.
One senior police officer said at least 15 Iraqi children were sold every month, some overseas, some internally, some for adoption, some for sexual abuse. Officials believe at least 12 gangs are operating in Iraq, offering between £200 and £4,000 per child, depending on its background and health. The main countries in which they are sold are Jordan, Turkey, Syria and some European countries including Switzerland, Ireland, the UK, Portugal and Sweden.
According to Colonel Firaz Abdallah, part of the investigation department of the Iraqi police, gangs use intermediaries who pretend to be working for non-governmental organisations. During negotiations with the families, members of the trafficking gangs prepare the paperwork: birth certificates, change of names and the addition of the child to the passport of the intermediary or any other person who is paid to take the child outside, usually to Syria and Jordan and from there, to Europe or other Middle East countries.
"The corruption in many departments of the government makes our job complicated [because] when those children come to the airport or the border, everything looks correct and it is hard for us to keep them inside the country without significant evidence that the child is being trafficked," Abdallah said.
"A couple of weeks ago we caught a couple with a six-month-old baby leaving by car from the Iraqi border to Jordan. One of our police officers found the age difference between the couple strange and asked our office to check. After arresting them we found out that the girl was sold by her parents and was going to be taken to Amman, then after that, to Ireland where a family had already paid for the baby."
One dealer, who asked to be called Abu Hamizi, said child trafficking from Iraq was cheaper and easier than elsewhere, given the readiness of underpaid government employees to help with the falsification of documents.
"Before we try to negotiate with any family we study their living conditions, their debts, the goods they own, and when we feel that the relatives are suffering with unemployment and cannot feed their children, we make our approach that in most of the time is welcomed as we are seen as aid workers," he said.
"During the period of investigations, we present ourselves as employees of a local NGO and offer some food and clothes. After we get their trust, we make our offer that varies according to what we have found out. If the family is really poor they can accept very low deals but sometimes with more literate ones, prices are higher.
"We prefer babies but sometimes families request children from one to four years old but they are rare cases."
The traffickers said they would check up occasionally to ensure the child was doing well. But Abu Hamizi said he once heard from a colleague that one of babies sold last year was used for organ transplants in the Middle East.
Though Abu Hamizi insists that "client" families were well-treated, a 2007 report by the NGO Heartland Alliance found that traffickers employed the threat or use of force, coercion, abduction, fraud, deception, abuse of power or vulnerability, or giving payments or benefits to a person in control of the victim.
Sarah Taminn, 38, a widow and mother of five from Babel, said she had already sold children aged four and two in the past year. She had no regrets despite receiving less money than promised by the dealer.
"People might see me as a monster but if they know how hard it is to live in a displacement camp, without a job, support or husband, they might change their idea," she said. "I did anything possible to keep them with me but I lost my husband while I was pregnant with my fifth child and life became too hard. I love all my children. I know that the families who adopted them will give a good life, food and education that I would never give."
Aid workers say very little is being done to overcome the problem. "Reports of trafficking are increasing because people are much more aware now and they feel confident enough to talk about this child rights violation," said Fatuma Ibrahim, chief child protection officer of Unicef from the Iraq Support Centre in Amman. "Of course, Unicef is very concerned about these reports and we are working with the Ministry of Labour and Social Services to follow up on reports of alleged 'adoptions'."
Aid agencies are warning parents that many children are used as sexual workers or sold to paedophiles. "We tried to approach many of these families to alert them about what can happen with their kids but we have been threatened and two aid workers were killed after they tried to prevent a child negotiation," said one aid worker, Ahmed Sami.