Child Soldier Recruitment In The Middle East And North Africa Is On The Rise

The use of child soldiers by governments in the Middle East and North Africa has doubled over recent years. South Sudan, in particular, has seen a sharp increase in child soldier recruitment due to the conflict in its capital, Juba. As of this year, 650 children have been recruited against their will, and there is growing, widespread fear amongst local governments in South Sudan and international organizations such as the UN and UNICEF that this number will only increase.

In the Middle East, children are often snatched from their ordinary lives to serve Jihadist armed forces, loyal to the Islamic state. Before these children are dispatched to the front, they have been reported to be socialised into being ‘cubs of the caliphate’ at IS sponsored schools. At these schools, children are inevitably manipulated by the group’s violent and extremist ideology and made to believe that the military is their only destiny, and violence a necessary means to live and maintain power.

Armed forces take advantage of young boys and girls to serve their life-destroying missions because of the fact that child soldiers, as opposed to an adult counterpart, are psychologically more vulnerable and thereby easier to manipulate. ISIS has previously used child soldiers in suicide bombing attempts and deems them an integral part of their strategy to train a young generation of followers to carry out their violent ideology in the decades to come.

The UN and international organizations, including UNICEF and Children and Armed Conflict, have launched campaigns such as ‘Children, Not Soldiers’, to construct action plans that involve negotiation with armed groups in hopes of persuading them to end child recruitment. Progress thus far has been made in countries of concern, such as AfghanistanChad, the Democratic Republic of the CongoMyanmarSomaliaSouth SudanSudan and Yemen, who have signed action plans to end the enlistment of child soldiers. However, following recent conflicts, children are being illegally recruited to serve armed forces in Iraq, Syria, South Sudan, Nigeria, Mali and the Central African Republic. It is undeniable that the UN needs to strengthen its efforts to negotiate with Middle Eastern and North African governments and its armed forces in order for its action plans to deliver more lasting results.

From the rising number of child soldiers, it is clear that the UN has addressed the urgency of the situation insufficiently. The efforts which have been undertaken by the UN include the construction of action plans, which aim to ‘oblige governments to ban their military from drafting and using child soldiers while releasing current child soldiers and re-integrating them into civilian life’. While many governments of concern have signed the UN’s action plans, it may be said that the UN has missed the mark in preventing illegal recruitment, as proven by recent military activity executed by children in these countries.

Humanitarian organizations including the Culture Resistance Network and UNICEF have been more active in attempting to prevent the number of child soldiers from rising and providing aid to demobilized child soldiers. The Culture Resistance Network has worked with leading international coalitions and demobilised soldiers, who have been forced to serve the armed forces of extremists, in order to generate awareness of the escalating issue at both the local level within the countries the issue is most active, as well as the international community. Child Soldiers International is another international organization whose goal is to “promote the widespread adoption of international legal standards and prohibit the military recruitment and use of hostilities of any person younger than.”

UNICEF, on the other hand, has been particularly active in working with the South Sudan Government in creating interim centres that provide aid to child soldiers who have been demobilised, and health care and counselling programs to help them re-integrate back into civilian society. Providing psychological aid is crucial not only for healing the child’s psychological wounds and social stigmatization, but also to reverse the violent, anti-west ideology they have been taught by religious extremists.

Despite these efforts in place, the number of child soldiers has grown in number. This is a clear indicator for the UN to redress its action plans and to act on them more aggressively. Furthermore, it is undeniably necessary for the international community to strengthen its communication with one another, in order to properly monitor child soldier activity in countries of concern, report findings and act immediately on said observations.

For most countries in which cases of child soldier recruitment are preeminent, it is actually undertaken illegally, against the governments’ approval as countries like these, including AfghanistanChad, the Democratic Republic of the CongoMyanmarSomaliaSouth SudanSudan and Yemen, have all signed the UN’s action plans. It is critical that international institutions such as the UN interact often with the governments in which illegal child soldier recruitment occurs, in order to prompt these local governments to strengthen their judicial responses to child soldier recruitment. Commanders who have violated the law need to be prosecuted to make clear that their illegal actions will have consequences. Intervening more assertively with these countries is critical for the UN to make lasting change, even if negotiating with armed groups is what may be required as the UN’s next step.

Moving forward, if the UN were to build their relationships with the governments in which child soldier recruitment occurs, it is likely that these efforts will prompt local governments to be more active in working with the UN in constructing a solution. If these local governments are more active in stopping this issue, and raising awareness of the inhumanity of child soldier recruitment with its local populations, the ideology of violence being the only solution and the beliefs that prompt young children to believe they have a role in it, can be reversed.

The first step that I contend should be on the agenda of discussion between the UN and the governments of countries of concern, is monitoring the presence of schools that socialise young children into believing their near future is destined to the military. Persecuting the military groups that organize and run these schools is necessary, as these are the training grounds amongst which a sizeable proportion of child soldiers are recruited. Offering children alternatives to military and religious education is also necessary, and will require the UN to press local governments to invest more in democratic education for its youth populations. Increasing the standard of education these children receive will thereby reverse entrenched ideologies that prompt young people to feel as though it is their duty to serve in the military, and that risking their lives is their only future available to them.

For the countries in which child soldier recruitment occurs through means other than socialisation, i.e., situations where children are kidnapped or mothers are being forced to hand their children into the military,  it is necessary for the UN and other international institutions to be more active in creating watch groups, to monitor the activities of armed groups. Lastly, international cooperation between members states involved is essential in increasing communication. This will enable the international community to act on problematic observations more promptly, decreasing the chances of the current child soldier recruitment crisis from aggregating.

Hannah Barter-Konecny