DUBAI // An increasing number of children are being enlisted in the militias of Somalia and Yemen, and more are dying after being caught in the middle of battles, a top UN official said in Dubai yesterday.
"The recruitment of children by armed groups is on the rise," said Dr Rima Salah, the deputy executive director of the UN Children's Fund (Unicef).
Dr Salah is in the UAE as part of a regional tour, and will hold four days of meetings with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and local aid agencies, dealing largely with child protection and peaceful resolution to the strife in Yemen and Somalia.
Her comments followed the release of UN statistics showing more than 200 children had been killed and another 600 injured in the two countries this year.
"Our aim is to protect children and to ensure that they are not enrolled in armed groups and by non-state actors," said Dr Salah. "We are also trying to prevent children from getting caught in the crossfire."
Last month, 24 children were killed in armed conflicts in south and central Somalia, nearly double the number of child deaths in every other month of this year.
Another 58 sustained serious injuries - the largest number of children injured in a single month this year. An equal number have been killed and injured in both countries so far.
"Several hundred children are also used as guards performing security functions for militia and armed groups," Dr Salah said. "We need a political solution with humanitarian aid and development."
The UN says more than 600 youth have been recruited as child soldiers and another 200, mostly girls, are estimated to have been raped in Somalia.
The Unicef official is also in the region to appeal for funds to prevent children from dying of hunger.
This week, the UN signed an agreement with the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, for stronger links with its 57 member countries, including the UAE.
"We really seek to engage the OIC countries in coordinating humanitarian work … we are looking at financial contribution and are seeking to reinforce our partnership with the UAE," Dr Salah said.
Unicef officials are hoping the UAE will contribute to their global appeal and help the agency to procure food and provide immunisations.
The UAE announced in September that it would vaccinate 1 million children between the ages of six months and five years against measles and polio in the Horn of Africa.
Last week, the UAE's Permanent Mission to the UN promised more than US$7.1 million (Dh26m) at the UN Pledging Conference for Development Activities 2011 in New York, to assist its development programmes and initiatives for the next year.
Of that amount, it promised $100,000 for Unicef's activities.
But the organisation needs more than $115m to increase relief operations in the Horn of Africa, Yemen and flood-affected Pakistan before the end of this year.
Dr Salah will also visit Unicef's new humanitarian warehouse in Dubai during her official tour.
The agency's first aid transit centre for famine-hit Somalia is expected to speed up the delivery of food supplies to malnourished children.
Previously, food was delivered to the region by sea. Now more than 5,000 tonnes of corn-soya blend flour will be sent from the Dubai warehouse every month to Mogadishu and the other affected regions of the country.
Dr Salah said therapeutic food - a mixture of protein, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals - from Europe would be stored at the centre.
The UN says more than 1.5 million children in southern Somalia are in dire need of assistance.
Of these, 450,000 children are acutely malnourished, including 190,000 who are at a high risk of death within weeks.