Since 2011 a bloody civil war has raged in Syria, claiming the lives of an estimated 232,000 people and tearing communities apart. This conflict has devastated the country and there seems to be little hope of resolution in the near future. It has created both immediate and long-term hardships for families and children throughout Syria, and a recent report draws attention to an especially concerning trend.
The research, published by Human Rights Watch (HRW), focuses on the experiences of 25 boys who have been involved with the Free Syrian Army. It recognises that it is impossible to accurately estimate the total number of children involved with anti-government forces on the basis of this study. However, a Syrian monitoring group recently found that at least 194 “non-civilian” children had been killed since September 2011, suggesting that these 25 cases are just the tip of the iceberg.
The HRW report finds that there are a range of reasons why children have become incorporated into the Free Syrian Army. In many cases they followed their families or friends who had already taken up arms. In others they had been politically active before the conflict started and the persecution they suffered from the government drove them to join anti-government forces. Most worryingly, in many cases anti-government groups have actually directly targeted children for recruitment.
These groups often provide free lectures and schooling in areas where the conflict has robbed children and young people of educational opportunities. However, this tuition also involves weapons training and classes on military tactics that help to groom children for direct involvement in the conflict. Regardless of whether they have chosen to take up arms or if they have been actively recruited, combat is no place for a child and more must be done to stop it happening.
What can be done?
For a start, the report argues that anti-government groups must make a concerted effort to put an end to this problem by verifying ages and not targeting children for recruitment. Additionally, the external groups who are funding the Free Syrian Army should make their continued support contingent on militant groups ending the use of children. Equally, the report argues that the UN security council must make a strong statement by sending these cases to the International Criminal Court, so that perpetrators can be tried for war crimes.
NGOs will also play an important role. Long-term support will be necessary to help children who have been involved in fighting get their lives back on track after leaving the army. Just as importantly, better educational provision would help limit recruitment opportunities and give children a better chance to fulfil their potential. Whilst war is horrific for all involved, it is particularly important that children are not exposed to the traumas of combat. They represent hope for Syria's future and it is important that this is not completely lost in what is already a devastating conflict.
SOS Children is helping children and families affected by Syria's ongoing civil war. We are providing refuge for those displaced, as well as medical treatment and essential supplies to those in need. Our support especially goes out to new mothers and their babies. Learn more and find out how you can help.