Boko Haram militants in northeast Nigeria have sent out 83 child bombers against Nigerian targets this year, according to a tally by United Nations Children’s Fund.
This is four times as many child suicide bombers used in all of 2016, UNICEF said.
The UN agency said out of the 83 children deployed by the atrocious insurgents, 55 were girls, mostly under 15 years old and 27 were boys. One was a baby strapped to a girl. Nineteen children were used last year, UNICEF said.
The Boko Haram insurgency, now in its eighth year, has claimed over 20,000 lives and forced more than two million people to flee their homes over eight years.
The frequency of suicide bomb attacks in northeastern Nigeria has increased in the past few weeks, killing at least 170 people since June 1, according to a Reuters tally.
UNICEF, in a statement released on Tuesday, said it was “extremely concerned about an appalling increase in the cruel and calculated use of children, especially girls, as ‘human bombs’ in northeast Nigeria. The use of children in this way is an atrocity”.
Boko Haram is trying to create an Islamic state in the Lake Chad region, which spans parts of Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Chad. It gained notoriety by abducting more than 200 girls from the northeast Nigerian town of Chibok in April 2014. Aid groups say it has kidnapped thousands more adults and children.
Children who escape are often held by authorities or ostracized by their communities and families. Nigerian aid worker Rebecca Dali, who runs an agency that offers counseling for those who were abducted, said children as young as four were among the 209 escapees her organization had helped since 2015.
“They (former abductees) are highly traumatized,” Dali told Reuters on Monday at the United Nations in Geneva, where she received an award from the Sergio Vieira de Mello Foundation for her humanitarian work.
Her team, which includes former police officers, identified some returnees as having been trained as suicide bombers.
“There were two girls taught by Boko Haram to be suicide bombers … The girls confirmed that they were taught that their life was not worth living, that if they die detonating the bomb and killing a lot of people, then their lives will be profitable,” Dali said.
Some 450,000 children are also at risk of life-threatening malnutrition in 2017 by the end of the year in northeast Nigeria, UNICEF said.
President Muhammadu Buhari said on Monday the country would “reinforce and reinvigorate” its fight against the group following the latest wave of attacks.
*UNICEF Press statement
Abuja, Geneva, 22 August 2017 – UNICEF is extremely concerned about an appalling increase in the cruel and calculated use of children, especially girls, as ‘human bombs’ in northeast Nigeria. Children have been used repeatedly in this way over the last few years and so far this year, the number of children used is already four times higher than it was for all of last year.
Since 1 January 2017, 83 children have been used as ‘human bombs’; 55 were girls, most often under 15 years old; 27 were boys, and one was a baby strapped to a girl. The sex of the baby used in the explosion was impossible to determine.
The use of children in this way is an atrocity.Children used as ‘human bombs’ are, above all, victims, not perpetrators.The armed group commonly known as Boko Haram has sometimes, but not always, claimed responsibility for these attacks, which target the civilian population.
The use of children in such attacks has had a further impact of creating suspicion and fear of children who have been released, rescued or escaped from Boko Haram. As a result, many children who have managed to get away from captivity face rejection when they try to reintegrate into their communities, compounding their suffering.
All of this is taking place in the context of a massive displacement and malnutrition crisis – a combination that is also deadly for children.
There are 1.7 million people displaced by the insurgency in the northeast, 85 per cent of them in Borno State, where most of these attacks take place.
Northeast Nigeria is one of four countries and regions facing the spectre of famine, with up to 450,000 children at risk of severe acute malnutrition this year.
UNICEF is providing psychosocial support for children who have been held by Boko Haram and is also working with families and communities to foster the acceptance of children when they return. This includes providing social and economic reintegration support to the children and their families.
UNICEF also supports reconciliation activities in northeast Nigeria, led by respected community and religious leaders, including influential women, to help promote tolerance, acceptance and reintegration.