Jessica Jahn and Yvon Dandurand

Thousands of children are being trafficked by terrorist and violent extremist groups and yet these most vulnerable children are rarely recognized or treated as victims (Cook & Vale, 2018). They are feared, rejected and stigmatized. Their legitimate claim to victimhood is routinely denied, which adversely affects their ability to secure protection, receive assistance, and mitigate the risk of revictimization. Their social reintegration once they escape the group or are rescued is deeply problematic and always uncertain. Clearly, the assumption that these child victims have adopted an extremist violent ideology, combined with their own forced involvement in violent activities, are used by some as reasons to deny them the status of victims, and with it, any sympathy, support or assistance. In many instances, because their innocence is contested, they are also denied repatriation and any chance of successfully reintegrating with their family and community.

There is an understandable concern that these children may have been radicalized, either before or after their recruitment, and that they subscribe to a violent extremist ideology. These child victims tend to be seen, sometimes rightly so, as potential security risks. However, even when radicalization is a factor, it usually tends to be the result of deception, coercion, and abuse of vulnerability as a means to lure these children in order to exploit them. In other words, whether or not a child was radicalized during the recruitment process is insignificant for the purposes of identifying children victims of trafficking: they are still considered victims of child trafficking under international law.

It should be clear that the recruitment of children into armed and/or violent extremist groups constitutes a form of trafficking in persons, even if the use of children as combatants is not specifically listed as a form of exploitation in the UN definition of trafficking (UNODC, 2018). Just as child trafficking obviously involves the act of recruitment for the purposes of exploitation, so does child recruitment (an act) into violent extremist groups (for the purposes of exploitation) falls within the ambit of the definition found in the United Nations’ Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children.

Recruited children are exploited in various ways, including sexually, in forced labour or supportive roles as domestic labourers, porters, messengers and lookouts, or in combat roles, including for planting explosives, carrying out armed attacks and suicide bombings or as human shields. Much like other children vulnerable to sex and labour trafficking, children at risk for trafficking by violent extremist groups are typically impressionable and easily duped. In fact, the recruitment and exploitation of children for use in armed conflict is explicitly listed as both one of the “worst forms of child labor” and as a form of slavery in the Convention Concerning the Prohibition and Immediate Action for the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour (Article 3; 1999). With children as young as four reportedly trained by ISIS to use weapons and forced to kill captives (Bloom, 2017), the exploitation that these children suffer has lifelong adverse consequences.

However, because these children are often portrayed as having voluntarily joined an extremist group, thus ignoring the groups’ deceptive, coercive and often violent recruitment techniques as well as their exploitative practices, they are not afforded the rights-based treatment and response to which they are entitled. Thus, once they manage to escape from the group or are rescued, the children’s ability to secure protection, mitigate the risk of revictimization, and socially reintegrate are deeply compromised. In fact, these children are too often treated as collateral damage in the global fight against terrorism and violent extremism.

These children sit uncomfortably at the intersection of what might be characterized as the “guilty” offender, as opposed to the “innocent” or “blameless” victim. They obviously do not fit the common stereotype of the “ideal victim”. In his seminal work, Nils Christie identified a series of attributes to explain the social construction and formulaic imagery of the “ideal victim”, to whom the “complete and legitimate” victim label is readily awarded, including but not limited to people perceived as weak, engaging in a respectable project, and those found to be in a non-blameworthy place or circumstance (1986: 18-19). Victimologists are trying to better understand the macro and micro politics behind claims of victimhood, successful or not, sometimes in defiance of the legal fiction of the “faultless victim”. In the meantime, when measured against Christie’s yardstick, children kidnapped, trafficked, or conscripted by violent extremist groups typically fall short of meeting the criteria for ideal victim status.

Individuals who are perceived as responsible in any way for their own victimization are not readily recognized as victims (Dunn, 2010). Even if innocence is often associated with childhood, child victims of trafficking by violent extremist groups are still perceived as partly responsible for their victimization since they succumbed to “radicalization”. Because we can often persuade ourselves that child-victims of trafficking by violent extremist groups had a choice or that they somehow brought their own victimization upon themselves, we tend to discount their plea for support and assistance. Their claim to victimhood forever remains conditional on their ability to establish and re-establish their innocence and demonstrate their lack of agency and powerlessness.

An example may serve to illustrate the point. In recent consultations, it was revealed that, in Iraq, when girls who had been conscripted by a violent extremist group could escape or were eventually released, or when they were arrested by the police or military authorities, they were usually sent to a penitentiary until they reached the age of twenty-two. It was also clear that many of these girls had been sexually abused or used as sex slaves by members of the group. However, a girl could be released earlier from the penitentiary provided that she could find employment (a near impossibility while still in detention) or married. A proud penitentiary representative and a military official explained that penitentiary leaders often try to find a husband for these girls (someone who has the means to support the girl) and marry them if they agree to such an individual (but of course their choice and consent in that matter are quite limited). The officials talked with some pride about their success in arranging a marriage between a fourteen-year-old girl and a much older man so that she might be released. This was all part of the social reintegration strategy for these girls.

Recasting the children exploited by violent extremist groups as primarily victims may lead to important shifts in public intervention priorities and practices. In the present context, international and domestic resources are mostly devoted to policy initiatives designed to identify early signs of children at risk of being “radicalized’ or recruited, provide families with prevention tools and support, and engage in counter-terrorism communication initiatives (UNODC, 2017; 2019a). Far less attention is actually given to rescuing, supporting, rehabilitating, and reintegrating these child victims.

Our social response ought to overcome the false dichotomy between security interests and defending children’s rights. These interests are not conflicting but reinforce one another. It is necessary to ensure that society is protected from the threat of terrorism, and this goal will be better served by comprehensive protection of children’s rights. Initiatives designed to prevent child trafficking must include specific strategies to prevent the recruitment and exploitation of children by violent extremist groups. By acknowledging children involved in violent extremist groups as primarily trafficking victims, existing initiatives can be tailored to their specific circumstances, including restorative justice, repatriation, reintegration, and family reunification programmes.

Bloom, M. (2017). ISIS Terrorism Targets Children in Unthinkable Ways. Newsweek. Retrieved from

Christie, N. (1986). The Ideal Victim, in Fattah, E. A. (Ed.)., From Crime Policy to Victim Policy. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Cook, J. & Vale, G. (2018). From Daesh to ‘Diaspora’: Tracing the Women and Minors of Islamic State. London: International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

Dunn, J. L. (2010). Judging Victims: Why we stigmatize survivors, and how they reclaim respect. Boulder: Lunne Rienner.

UNODC (2017). Handbook on Children Recruited and Exploited by Terrorist and Violent Extremist Groups: The Role of the Justice System. Vienna: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Available at:

UNODC (2018). Countering Trafficking in Persons in Conflict Situations: Thematic Paper. Vienna: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Available at:

UNODC. (2019a). Training Manual: Prevention of Child Recruitment and Exploitation by Terrorist and Violent Extremist Groups: The Role of the Justice System. Vienna: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

UNODC. (2019b). Training Manual: Rehabilitation and Reintegration of Child Victims of Recruitment and Exploitation by Terrorist and Violent Extremist Groups. Vienna: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

Further Reading:

UNODC (2017). Handbook on Children Recruited and Exploited by Terrorist and Violent Extremist Groups: The Role of the Justice System. Vienna: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Available at:

UNODC. (2019a). Training Manual: Prevention of Child Recruitment and Exploitation by Terrorist and Violent Extremist Groups: The Role of the Justice System. Vienna: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

Photo by Nael F on Unsplash.

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