How child soldiers are recruited from refugee camps

We all think we know what a child soldier looks like, but we’d be wrong. AFP/Georges Gobet

The commander of United Nations peacekeeping forces in Rwanda during the terrible conflict in the early 1990s has put forward legislation in Canada to help former child soldiers seek refuge there.

During Lieutenant-General Romeo Dallaire’s time in Rwanda, 800,000 people died in just a hundred days. The experience left him suicidal, after being unable to stop the genocide.

Thousands of children were part of the forces in that conflict, but the problem is much more widespread, with many still thought to be involved in fighting in Africa, Asia, and around the world.

The Conversation spoke to Professor Simon Reich of Rutgers University who has examined the involvement of child soldiers in violent conflict in Africa over five decades.

Where are children most at risk of becoming combatants?

It’s difficult to hone down the data about how many child soldiers are involved across the globe at any one time but current estimates suggest 200,000-250,000 in total. I have studied literally hundreds of conflicts over the five decades I have examined in my research. But there is a tremendous variation in the level of involvement in each conflict. As a proportion of all combatants across the African conflicts we examined, the percentages ranged from 0% to 53%.

The stereotyped image of the child soldier is the photo that appears on the front of most books of a seven-year-old African boy with a Kalashnikov in his hand. Most child soldiers are not African, most are adolescents and not young children, and most don’t carry guns. Rather, more commonly they work as porters, spies, cooks or sex slaves – and they are both boys and girls. A high proportion are therefore unarmed, so that photo of the seven year old boy is not very accurate. But some do get directly involved in violence. For example, there have been recent reports that child soldiers have been used as suicide bombers against NATO forces in Afghanistan.

What factors put children most at risk?

There is lots of research from non-governmental organisations about the impact poverty and the number of orphans in an area in a conflict have on the number of child soldiers, but my research reveals that the biggest determinant in African conflicts is generally the lack of protection provided for inhabitants of refugee camps.

Over the course of five decades, across multiple wars in Africa, from Angola to the Democratic Republic of Congo and Senegal, we identified over 1,100 attacks on camps. Most are unprotected, some are protected by local government forces and others by multilateral forces. But the camps protected by the host country do not generally provide the same level of effective protection as those administered by the international community. In fact, paradoxically those government troops guarding the camps often turned on those they were supposed to be protecting. The international community provides better protection for refugees than any other source.

What is the best way to ensure refugees are protected?

International forces have to have the right mandate, sufficient numbers and the right resources. For example there are African regional forces operating in Sudan to protect the Darfurese but they’re not well armed, well trained, or there in sufficient numbers. We have long since passed the time when you could put a couple of lightly armed guards in blue hats at a camp gate and assume that they will provide enough of a deterrent. In fact if they’re left in that situation the guards themselves will often run away.

Often refugees will trek across hundreds of miles to get to a camp. They hope to be sheltered, fed, protected and provided with healthcare when they get there. The camp authorities focus on shelter, food and health first and protection is last thing they can address. Most children are forced into becoming soldiers in the early stages of the conflict. By the time protection is provided, most of the damage has been done and the children recruited.

What are the problems faced by child soldiers when conflict ends?

There are significant variations in the length of time they serve in forces. Chris Blattman of Yale University has done some excellent work on child soldier reintegration. Disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration programs face a lot of problems. Children have missed their education. When they’re put back in school they may find themselves sitting next to children many years younger than them and therefore have a pervasive sense of humiliation. There is a high risk of recidivism - either into militant groups or criminal gangs. It sustains a vicious cycle of intergenerational violence.

Andrew Mack of Simon Fraser University correctly says that the biggest cause in the reduction of numbers of child soldiers is the cessation of the conflict, but a lot of these kids exchange one form of violence for another by shifting into criminality. So one of the biggest challenges for post-conflict societies is to reintegrate these boys and girls successfully into the mainstream of society.

What about the current situation in Kenyan camps on the Somali border right now. What’s the situation there?

Based on my prior work, I would have to say that these camps provide potentially fertile conditions for the recruitment of child soldiers. There has been mass displacement and a breakdown in any rule of law. The international community is attempting to address issues about shelter, food and healthcare but, again, have not begun to work on camp security, So it is a massive problem.

The Australian government has been very active in working on these issues, especially Gareth Evans and his focus on the “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine.

The UN’s Office of Children and Armed conflict – works assiduously to locate, highlight and prevent violence against children. Its Special Representative Radhika Coomaraswamy and her office are to be commended for their work, but the problem of course is that there is no priority mechanism in place in order to act early. I hope that there will soon be a new mechanism to provide systematic early protection.

General Romeo Dallaire, head of the UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda, famously said of the conflict there, give me 5,000 well-armed, well-trained troops and I can save hundreds of thousands of people. He wasn’t given them, and genocide ensued. Forces need to be given the authority to do the job they need to do.