According to new numbers released by the United Nations, the number of child soldiers recruited to fight across the Middle East and North Africa has more than doubled in one year, rising from 576 in 2014 to 1,168 in 2015. UNICEF notes that the real number of child soldiers recruited into these conflicts is likely significantly higher, as many cases go undocumented.
The most notable increases were found in Syria, Yemen and Iraq, which have suffered ongoing violence for years. Civilian infrastructure in these areas has been under attack for significant periods of time, eliminating basic services families need to survive. As resources dwindle, families are forced to send children to work in what are often unsafe conditions. Furthermore, ongoing violence creates unrest within communities, making them more vulnerable to radicalization. This is of particular importance for children, as they are less capable of resisting indoctrination by extremists.
Of the 28 million children throughout the region who are in need of immediate humanitarian assistance, 90 percent of these live in areas where violence persists. This indicates that a significant population of children are at risk for child soldier recruitment as they live in areas of conflict, lack access to basic necessities and likely do not have the means to gain an education. In many cases, families have elected for their children to join the fight as a measure of protection. While in the past most child soldiers were assigned roles as guards, cooks or similarly inactive roles, recent reports point to minors participating actively in violence.
The case of South Sudan, where the United Nations reports 18,000 child combatants recruited over the past four years, is also alarming. Many former child soldiers report consciously deciding to join the conflict, though they may not have understood what was going on. In an interview with the Guardian, several former child soldiers with the Cobra Faction in South Sudan recalled that their education and standard of living had been poor and local violence inspired them to join the fight. They explained that they were drawn to the rhetoric espoused by the militia, though they did not fully understand its implications.
Rebel commanders in South Sudan have claimed that they are forced into child soldier recruitment and that it is not a voluntary choice. Their logic is that due to the lack of education, infrastructure, food and other key factors, children are left to stagnate. By recruiting them to fight, they are then able “to achieve something better.”
This mindset is precisely why foreign aid is a key tool in stemming the growth of child soldier recruitment. Both the international community and those who participate in child soldier recruitment note that the practice results largely from the lack of education and basic goods and services. Employing foreign assistance to stabilize communities through providing food and clean water and creating the infrastructure necessary for reliable functioning would minimize the opportunities and incentives for indoctrination.
Former Secretary of State Colin Powell has said that “terrorism really flourishes in areas of poverty, despair and hopelessness, where people see no future.” Child soldier recruitment flourishes here as well, which is why the use of aid as a preventative measure can prevent increases in child soldiers in the future.
– Alena Zafonte