Concern over Missing Libyan Children Renewed

12/08/2011 - More than 1,000 missing children in Libya were the subject of a meeting held by Libyan civil society groups in Tripoli yesterday. The case of 105 orphans missing for the past six months was a particular concern.

Last month, Libyan officials from the Ministry of Social Affairs announced that more than a hundred orphaned children were missing. The unknown whereabouts of the 105 missing children from a state-run orphanage in Misrata brought to light important child protection concerns in the country, which continues to be rocked by armed conflict.

More recently, however, the 53 missing girls and 52 missing boys, aged 1 to 18 years old, were the subject of Thursday's meeting of the General Union for Civil Society Organizations in Libya. The meeting was held in Tripoli and presented the findings of more than three months' worth of testimonies and other evidence on cases of missing children in the country.

Misrata is a city under the control of forces opposing Colonel Mummamar Ghaddaffi, Libya's controversial head of state (though he is now unrecognized by several governments). As of mid-July, anecdotal evidence collected from locals seemed to indicate that the children had been taken from Misrata to Europe, possibly to France to Italy. However, local media have reported that the 105 orphans represent just over a tenth of the 1,000 missing children in the country, allegedly kidnapped by rebel forces. Others still allege that the children have been taken to Tunisia or Turkey.

"We want the truth and we hold those countries responsible for the well-being of these children who are neither soldiers nor combatants," said Libyan Social Affair Minister, Ibrahim Sharif, earlier this week.

Libyan officials and local religious leaders, along with other allies, have called for an investigation into the whereabouts of the children by the United Nations (UN).

Violence in Libya, characterized by fighting between pro-Ghaddaffi forces on one side and NATO and anti-government forces on the other, has intensified. The scale of the violence and its effect on civilians has prompted UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, to issue a word of caution against the belligerents in the region.

All sides have been urged to "exercise extreme caution in their actions, in order to minimize any further loss of civilian life," said Mr. Ban in a statement yesterday.  

Children are among the most endangered civilians during situations of armed conflict. They become vulnerable to a number of different types of atrocities, some of which have been seen in Libya. For instance, children are put directly into the line of fire in being recruited into armed groups, used as human shields or targeted specifically by snipers. With the level of social disruption caused by displacement, children also become vulnerable to sexual and economic abuse, as well as human trafficking. 

More than one million people have been affected by the crisis in Libya, 800,000 of whom have fled the country.