GENEVA - The lives and futures of more than three million displaced children in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo are being threatened by armed militia groups, the U.N. Children's Fund warns.
Official U.N. data confirm 91 children were killed in eastern Congo's Ituri province between January and August of 2020, but UNICEF says it believes the actual number is much higher.
Speaking on a video link from Kinshasa, the UNICEF representative in the Congo, Edouard Beigbeder, says millions of men, women and children are living in a climate of insecurity in the most violence-afflicted provinces of Ituri, North Kivu, South Kivu and Tanganyika.
He says children are particularly vulnerable.
"Thousands of children are trapped within armed groups or subjected to sexual violence and forced labor," Beigbeder said. "There was a 16 percent increase in the recruitment of children as militia fighters in the first six months of 2020 compared to 2019."
In the first half of last year, UNICEF says an estimated 4,000 children were recruited into armed groups in Ituri alone.
Eastern Congo has been plagued by chaos and violence for years, most of it stemming from political rivalries, fighting that involves various rebel groups, and struggles over natural resources.
UNICEF is renewing its call for an end to the chronic violence and conflict, which has fueled one the world's worst humanitarian crises.
The U.N. says more than five million people have been displaced by conflict and violence, 50 percent of them in the last six months alone.
Beigbeder calls the levels of violence barbaric.
"Entire families are hacked to death, including children," he said. "Rape and other acts of violence against girls and women are rampant. The violence is taking place in a country that has the highest numbers of people in the world who are food insecure and more epidemic outbreaks than any other country in the world."
UNICEF says displaced families live in crowded settlements that need safe water, health care and other basic services. The agency says it is delivering relief assistance despite being hampered by insecurity and a lack of money.
UNICEF's 2021 humanitarian appeal for $384.4 million is only 11 percent funded. The funding shortage is a manifestation of increasing indifference by the world community to the fate of millions of deprived children, according to the agency.