LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Militant groups are using people smugglers to recruit desperate unaccompanied migrant children, who pledge allegiance to jihadists in order to continue their migration journey, a report found on Monday.
At least 88,300 lone migrant children are at risk of being radicalized in Europe, according to Quilliam, a counter-extremism organization that operates across Europe and North America.
The report said militant groups like Islamic State, or IS, as well as Boko Haram recruited people living in refugee camps by paying money, and by funding the onward journey of child migrants if they joined their group.
“I have been a member of IS for almost a year now. I do not believe that all what they do is good, but they have given me a lot. I have a place to sleep, get food, go to school and receive some money,” said 15-year-old Syrian refugee Mohammed, recruited in a camp in Jordan.
“I hope I do not have to fight. But if my boss says I must, I will, because they have given me so much,” he was quoted as saying in the report.
Conflicts and poverty in the Middle East and Africa has forced some 1.4 million people to head to Europe, fuelling the region’s largest migrant crisis since World War Two.
Children rely on human smugglers, often under a “pay as you go system”, making them prone to exploitation and abuse including rape, forced labor, beatings and death, said the United Nations children’s agency, UNICEF.
Lone migrant children in Europe have no clear way of escaping abusive or exploitative adults as there are no unified policies in place to protect them, according to a 2016 report by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights.
Quilliam researcher Nikita Malik said militants prey on children because of their lack of “mental and physical resilience”, and attract new recruits by offering food, protection, transport and money through people smugglers.
Islamic State can offer up to $1,000 to migrants en route to the Mediterranean coast, and up to $2,000 for those living in refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon, the report said.
Sexual violence and forced marriage also ties girls to militant groups, it said.
“Money paid by refugees to smugglers not only helps to fund Islamic State activities, but refugees are signed up to support IS in exchange for their travel,” said Rosalind Ereira, founder of charity Solidarity with Refugees, in a statement.
“Where we fail to offer security to refugees, we leave the door open for radicalization. We need to understand that the provision of safe and legal routes for refugees is in the best interests of all of us,” she added.
Reporting by Lin Taylor @linnytayls, Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian issues, conflicts, global land and property rights, modern slavery and human trafficking, women's rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories