Al Shabaab is recruiting more children to fight in their ranks, a new Human Rights Watch report released on Monday has revealed.
The report says the terrorist group has been on the accelerated recruitment drive since late September 2017.
HRW says Shabaab ordered elders, teachers in Islamic religious schools, and communities in rural areas to provide hundreds of children as young as 8 or face attack.
The armed group’s increasingly aggressive child recruitment campaign started in mid-2017 with reprisals against communities that refused.
Hundreds of children many accompanied have fled homes to escape forced recruitment, the report shows.
"Al Shabab’s ruthless recruitment campaign is taking rural children from their parents so they can serve this militant armed group," Laetitia Bader, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch, said.
"To escape that cruel fate, many children have fled school or their homes," she added.
The report further revealed this is not the first time Al Shabaab are targeting children in its listing of members.
"Over the past decade, they have recruited thousands of children who have been indoctrinated and deployed to various battles."
The findings came weeks after analysts and rights organisations raised fears that ongoing repatriation Somali refugees from Daadab camp to Somali could provide an easy pull for al shabaab recruitment.
Amnesty International, in a report on December 22,
said the refugees were being pressured to leave Dadaab camp back to insecurity, drought and hunger in Somalia.
The report showed returnees left due to dwindling food rations and services, or because of fears, stoked by Kenyan government officials, that they would be forced back with no assistance.
Recently in Baidoa, the capital of Bay region, Human Rights Watch spoke to 15 residents from three districts in Bay region largely under Al-Shabab control – Berdale, Baidoa, and Burhakaba districts – as well as child protection advocates and United Nations officials.
The findings match similar trends in other parts of the country since mid-2017.
Village elders said that in September Al-Shabab ordered them to go to Al-Shabab-controlled Bulo Fulay and to hand over dozens of children ages 9 to 15.
A resident of Berdale district said: "They said we needed to support their fight. They spoke to us in a very threatening manner. They also said they wanted the keys to our boreholes [watering points]. They kept us for three days. We said we needed to consult with our community. They gave us 10 days."
Two other community residents said that they received threatening calls, including death threats, after the 10 days ran out, but as of late 2017 they had not handed over the children.
Three residents said that in September Al-Shabab fighters forcibly took at least 50 boys and girls from two schools in Burhakaba district and transported them to Bulo Fulay, which witnesses say hosts a number of religious schools and a major training facility.
Two weeks later, a large group of armed Al-Shabab fighters with their faces covered returned to the village, entered another local school, and threatened and beat the teacher to hand over children.
"The government with UN agency assistance should ensure that displaced children, including those without adult guardians, receive protection and appropriate schooling. Children should not flee one danger zone for a new one," Bader said.
HRW called on Somali government, with the help of international donors, to identify Al-Shabab recruitment drives, including their location, scale, and use of educational institutions and use that information to inform protective measures.
Doing so would also help efforts to assist displaced children, such as addressing their health, shelter, and security needs and providing them free primary education and access to secondary education, as well as appropriate psychosocial support.
"Al-Shabab’s campaign only adds to the horrors of Somalia’s long conflict, both for the children and their families," Bader said calling the group to immediately stop abducting children and release all children in their ranks.
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