Subscription 790/year or 190/quarter

It is possible to protect children from war participation


The recruitment of children and youth from the refugee population in Jordan to the armed conflict in Syria shows some of the special protection needs that are being raised in the immediate vicinity of the war. How can we prevent children from being recruited?
Last March, I interviewed Jordanian and international aid and social workers, UN personnel, representatives of Jordanian authorities and refugees from Syria north of Jordan. As part of a research assignment, we also reviewed existing documentation to get an overview of what one actually knows about the use of children as soldiers and in various "auxiliary functions" for armed forces and groups in Syria since the outbreak of war.

Soldiers and shields. Reports on the use of children and youth in fighting and support roles for armed groups in Syria were published as early as 2011. These reports were primarily related to opposition groups. Government forces and militias linked to Assad's forces have not been released, but the charges against them have to a greater extent been linked to other human rights violations against children – especially murder, mutilation, sexual abuse, torture and the use of children as shields. Free Syrian Army (FSA) was among the first reported to recruit children as soldiers. After a while, others, especially Jabhat al-Nusra, joined the Syrian Islamic Front, Kurdish groups in Syria, and ISIS. It has been shown that boys down to 15 years are used as soldiers, while 14-year-olds are used as bearers in various opposition brigades. After Iraq's border areas became a major area for the war, it has been shown that boys in their 15s have been forcibly recruited by ISIS and used in the front line under attack.

Vulnerability. North of Jordan, it is not striking that is striking. In conversations with refugees and relief workers, it appeared that many Syrian women were struggling to stop sons from returning to Syria. We talked to young boys who were in regular contact with their fathers and brothers during siege in Homs. Many felt that they should help their loved ones.
When armed conflict pulls out, it is often recruited among younger people. About 60 percent of Syrian refugees in Jordan are under the age of 20. Children are often protected in informal social networks when fleeing with family, but when the refugees are spread geographically, such safety nets weather.

UN commitments. Children's participation in war violates a number of international conventions. Among these are the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the ILO Convention on the "Worst Forms of Child Labor" (No. 182), which prohibits the recruitment and use of persons under the age of 18 for armed conflict, also in support roles.
The UN is bound by a two-part mandate: on the one hand, the obligation to provide humanitarian aid and services to people in need, which means providing medical assistance, food and housing. On the other hand, the obligation to provide protection, which in this context means protection against gross violations of human rights – such as torture, murder and ethnic cleansing. With its mandatory protection mandate, the UN differs from voluntary humanitarian organizations.

The recruitment of children to armed groups in Syria shows that the UN is struggling to protect refugees in the surrounding areas.

The use of children in armed conflict is a gross violation of human rights. The recruitment of children to armed groups in Syria shows that the UN is struggling to protect refugees in the surrounding areas. More generally, the implementation of formal mandates for protection is permeated by dilemmas both for the Jordanian authorities and for the UN system.

Restrictions on protection. Following pressure from the United States and Saudi Arabia, Jordan has passed national anti-terrorism laws that make it a criminal offense to join extremist Islamist groups fighting outside Jordan's borders – regardless of the age of those recruited. The Free Syrian Army is not recognized as a terrorist organization, but Jordan has signed international agreements committing to oppose the recruitment of children into armed groups. Jordanian authorities have legal backing to investigate the circumstances surrounding specific cases of young people returning to Syria. But Jordan's border control is limited, and the roads leading back to Syria are open for several reasons.
Refugee camps will not function as convalescent camps for soldiers who then return to combat. Any activity that threatens a camp's status as a neutral humanitarian area is a problem. All recruitment in Jordan to armed groups in Syria is sensitive because it reveals sympathies and alliance patterns woven into major regional political tug-of-war: one sanctions recruitment to some groups, but looks through the fingers of others.

Balancing act. When the UNHCR is to provide services to the refugees, they are dependent on cooperating with the Jordanian authorities and with the police who are responsible for security both inside and outside camps. UNHCR balances between maintaining good cooperation with the police and at the same time complying with its protection mandate. It is not easy to create a positive climate of cooperation if it is accompanied by criticism of the authorities' sins of omission – especially when these involve violations of international conventions. This places clear limits on the ability of UN organizations for protection.

What counts? The protection work of UN organizations has consisted of attitude campaigns inside and outside camps, where armed groups are encouraged not to recruit minors, and where parents are discouraged from sending their children into combat. UNICEF has established so-called "child-friendly zones" with play equipment. Within the Zaatari camp, UNICEF monitors the protection of children using standardized reporting tools. However, surveys are not conducted regularly, and the arenas in which children participate in daily life are not monitored.
The UN has few strong helpers in the work of honoring its protection mandate. Key UN officials we spoke to expressed that strong pressure on efficiency puts the two-part mandate of the UN – protection and assistance – under pressure, and that it is protection that loses. It is easier to document efficiency by telling how many blankets and tents are distributed, than it is to document how many outbursts are prevented.
The er possible to limit the recruitment of children and young people to acts of war from neighboring countries. Here are the steps:
Develop permanent supervisory mechanisms. These should be established in connection with services, both inside and outside camps, more specifically to the educational offerings that have become standard in connection with humanitarian crises. The capacity of school facilities must be increased outside the camps.
Examine the various recruitment patterns (coercion, self-recruitment, financial incentives) so that one can establish adapted relief measures, target efforts and mobilize relevant partners – in the police, border control, school and health system.
Investigate known cases of recruitment and cases where minor refugees disappear.
Systematically organize services aimed at children in a way that counteracts recruitment by strengthening rehabilitation and educational opportunities, and establishing incentive schemes to keep children and young people in school.
Ultimately, it is the authorities in the countries where the refugees reside who have the overall responsibility for protection. But the international community and the individual donor countries can support it by demanding that the funds they provide be linked to protection. Getting the most out of development assistance is a bigger issue than increasing the level of service. Norwegian authorities and other donors should therefore demand that funds for refugees be actually distributed in a way that links aid to protection.

Sommerfelt is a senior researcher at the Fafo Research Foundation.

You may also like