Rehabilitating child soldiers in the Middle East


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Robert Adrian Hillman l shutterstock.comThe issue of child soldiers is a modern blight with a long historical pedigree. Once the norm, documented back to the classical world and prevalent till the 19th century, the phenomenon was thought to be slowly disappearing as the modern nation state came into being. Yet it is now seen in almost every continent and in almost every conflict, though rarely among formal militaries.

Absolute numbers are impossible to come by and even the UN no longer gives precise numbers on the children involved. According to Nick Scarborough, administrative officer of Child Soldiers International, “all numbers we quote are estimates, and even estimates are not available for all situations of conflict…However, the fact that seven national armies and 50 armed groups are listed by the U.N. Secretary General as parties that recruit and use children points to the persistence and severity of the violation.” Boys account for most child soldiers, especially in the Middle East, but around the world it is estimated that some 40% of child recruits are female, who are especially vulnerable to sexual and other forms of violence. 

 The Fourth Geneva Convention states that "conscripting or enlisting children into armed forces or groups constitutes a war crime in any armed conflicts”. In 2000 the Optional Protocol on the Rights of the Child raised the minimum age for recruitment and direct participation in conflict to 18. Since 2002, 123 countries have ratified it. But progress has been slow. UN Security Council Resolution 1612 which set up a monitoring, reporting and compliance mechanism notes that much works remains on this agenda – especially since most egregious violations are by non-state actors.  

In the Middle-East all sides in the ongoing conflicts have been accused of using child soldiers, with the forcefully displaced at special risk. Documented instances range from Shia Militias in Iraq, anti-regime rebel groups like the Free Syrian Army, pro-regime Syrian militias as well as Afghan Shia units recruited under Iranian oversight and even with Lebanon’s Hezbollah . Child soldiers are also a feature of the war in Yemen and are used by the Kurdish PKK in Iraq and YPG in Syria. 

But it is ISIS’ use of child soldiers that has attracted the most attention – not simply because of the notoriety of the group but because of the distinctive role ISIS’ “cubs of the caliphate” play in the group’s internal and external narrative.  

Much attention is devoted in the Western and broader media world to ISIS’ use of children as executioners or suicide bombers – practices used consciously by ISIS to desensitize children and initiate a brutal “new normal”. Yet “the presence and participation of children in the comprehensive corpus of Islamic State propaganda extends beyond ultra-violence. On an almost daily basis, children are featured in multiple contexts, from highly publicized executions and training camps to Qur’an memorization fairs and dawa (proselytizing) caravans”. It is through a process of selection from the larger population of children under their control that ISIS selects its “cubs”. Many are abductees or orphans such as the Yazidis and others, but  “an increasing percentage of children are joining ISIS as a result of a grooming process in which ISIS instills a sense of commitment and camaraderie”. Academic research sees this in stages “from currently available data, (there are) six stages of child socialization to ISIS—Seduction, Schooling, Selection, Subjugation, Specialization, and Stationing”.  Some are children of foreign families that have willingly come into ISIS territory, highlighting another rare phenomenon--child soldiers enlisting with the acquiescence of their families including local families who are supportive or desperate for monetary and other benefits.

For ISIS, children are not mere cannon fodder as child soldiers often are, but comprise a long-term vision and a recognition that the current effort to build a caliphate may fail in the face of overwhelming military pressure. An ISIS fighter sums up this line of thought “For us, we believe that this generation of children is the generation of the Caliphate…the right doctrine has been implanted into these Children. All of them love to fight for the sake of building the Islamic State”.

As the defeat of ISIS in Mosul and Raqqa inches closer, the question of how to reintegrate the broader mass of children under their sway as well as the tougher issue of rehabilitating the “cubs” looms. As Mia Bloom from Georgia State University states this “will require a level of coordination and creativity not seen in any de-radicalization program so far…requiring a multi-pronged approach that addresses the psychological trauma suffered by the children and … re-education so they can unlearn (ISIS’) distortions of the Islamic faith”. Families usually play a critical role in reintegration yet here families may have been the facilitators and children may have to be separated from them, adding to the trauma.

The “cubs” aside, rehabilitation and reintegration will also be needed for the thousands of other child soldiers, whatever their affiliations. Justas the threat from ISIS and other similar groups is global, the response to the challenge of rehabilitation must also be global in mobilizing funds and expertise.  Otherwise, we will only facilitate the gestation of another generation of terror.


Omer Karasapan

Regional Knowledge & Learning Coordinator

Patricio V Marquez
January 26, 2017

Many thanks Omer for this excellent but often ignored topic. If rehabilitation and reintegration of child soldiers, including mental health and psychosocial support, are not recognized as priority areas to be included as key components of humanitarian and development programs in conflict and post conflict settings, the rebuilding of societies will be severely undermined. But I would argue that rehabilitation and reintegration should also focus on and include combatants of all ages since many of them grew up in armies and have spent a large proportion of their lives in environments of conflict and violence. The proliferation of gangs (the so called MARAS) in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala is the direct result of the inattention to the need to rehabilitate and reintegrate over time combatants of all ages after the Central American wars of the 1980s and 1990s. Let's learn from history!

abderrahim Fraiji
January 26, 2017

I fully agree with both Omer and Patricio about the need of DDR programs. Below, I am sharing with you the World Bank’s experience in demobilization and socio-economic reintegration of both adult and child ex-combatants:
Disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) contributes to security and stability by disarming combatants, removing them from military structures, and socially and economically integrating them into their respective communities. DDR programs downsize armed forces, or disband them altogether. They are usually part of broader efforts to demilitarize (e.g. landmine removal, Security Sector Reform, etc.) and consolidate peace (e.g. justice, reconciliation, community-based reconstruction, etc). In the context of socio-economic reintegration, DDR programs can also reduce poverty. Over the past twenty years, there have been DDR programs in more than 30 countries. About two-thirds of these have been in Africa.
The World Bank’s involvement with DDR programs began in 1992 with the Uganda Veterans Assistance Program. The Bank’s role has been primarily on demobilization and reintegration activities as the Bank’s mandate limits its involvement in disarmament. The World Bank has provided financial and technical assistance to more than 25 projects in 16 countries.
Between 2004 and 2009, the World Bank administered the largest DDR program in history, the Multi-Country Demobilization and Reintegration Program (MDRP), to support the demobilization and reintegration of ex-combatants in the Great Lakes Region of Africa. Involving 40 national and international partners, MDRP mobilized US$500 mil in donor and IDA financing and provided assistance to more than 300,000 ex-combatants in Angola, Burundi, Central African Republic (CAR), Democratic Republic of Congo, Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda. At its closure in 2009, a follow-up trust fund program administered by the World Bank, the Transitional Demobilization and Reintegration Program (TDRP), was established to continue providing technical and financial assistance on DDR activities. TDRP (2009-2017) mobilized more than US$40 mil in donor financing to finance demobilization and reintegration activities, and reached more than 250,000 direct project beneficiaries in Burundi, CAR, DRC, South Sudan, Rwanda and Uganda. At the regional level, significant progress was made on institutionalizing the technical and financial DDR capacity within the African Union Peace and Security Department through the joint World Bank – UN capacity support to African Union.
While the majority of reintegration activities financed by the Bank have taken place in Africa; countries in ECA, MENA, LAC, and EAP have also been supported by the Bank. The beneficiaries of Bank-supported reintegration operations are mostly former combatants, both adult males and females who have participated in combat and/or supporting roles.
The MDRP-financed special projects for child soldiers and children affected by conflict created opportunities to support needs of child soldiers and those severely affected amidst ongoing conflict and beyond. MDRP facilitated five specific projects for child soldiers, one in Burundi and four in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), totaling 23.7M USD, alongside activities targeting children through overarching DDR programs in other countries. MDRP supported approximately 53,880 children through customized support for various age groups, socioeconomic conditions and psychological needs. It provided capacity-building support to local institutions, communities, schools, NGOs and leaders in responding to needs of returning child soldiers and establishing connections with host communities.
These projects responded to a variety of push-and-pull factors that predicate child participation in armed conflict. It provided education and technical training, and primary services, alcoholism support and interim care to ease demobilized child soldiers into societies. Instead of being matched into foster family care akin to past cases of reintegration programming, these projects allowed children to return to their families and communities of origin. Doing so guaranteed socio-economic assistance to families and mitigated risks of reenlistment owing to financial hardships. Independent evaluation of project activities revealed that reintegrated ex-child soldiers fared better on average compared to their civilian counterparts. Some of these lessons learnt can be used to determine activities to support child soldiers in Yemen during conflict, as well as following its relapse.
Lessons Learned:
The World Bank has managed to accumulate much knowledge regarding DDR and its wider impact on stabilization and peacebuilding efforts. Core learning can be summarized into five main lessons that are essential to the success of a DDR program:
1. DDR is not a standalone operation and must be coordinated with wider stabilization, recovery and development programmes including a comprehensive Security Sector Reform. As building blocks in transitions from conflict to peace, DDR programmes often occur in phases, throughout the continuum from conflict to ceasefire and the signing of a peace accord, to post-conflict stabilization, transition and recovery, and ultimately, to peace and development. Therefore, feasible DDR goals shall be set and discussed by advisers during peace negotiations. DDR staff should be deployed at an early stage, and links established between the DDR programme and SSR and justice and reconciliation efforts.
2. National ownership is essential for the success and sustainability of DDR programmes. In the past, too many DDR programs were overly controlled by external actors who did not make enough effort to establish sustainable partnerships with national institutions and local authorities. As a result programs created were insufficiently adapted to the dynamics of local conflicts, and unsupportive of the capacities of local institutions and unresponsive to the needs of local populations. It is essential for the government to design a National Strategy for DDR that represents the interests of all stakeholders and is developed with support from technical experts within and outside the country. At this stage, the international community should provide strategic, technical, operational and financial support to DDR. However, ultimately, the government and key actors in the peace process are responsible for implementing peace, security and development of their own communities and nations.
3. The DDR programme should be implemented by a National Commission for DDR with technical support and finance provided by the international community. In previous projects, the National DDR commissions have been strengthened through the provision of technical assistance to improve program preparation and design; enhance beneficiary needs assessment; provide information, counselling and referral services; strengthen monitoring and implementation; and overall management information systems and external communications. Partnership with international institutions not only provides oversight and advice but also allows countries to leverage WB financing and other donor financing.
4. Sufficient finances should be available before the start of a DDR program. It is strongly recommended that adequate budget is allocated for full implementation of the DDR program to avoid time-lags that can contribute to escalation of violence and weaken state legitimacy, thereby, reversing the effects of the whole peace process.
5. The design on the DDR programme needs to be context-specific and should reflect the socio-economic realities on the ground. Reintegrating ex-combatants into their communities is a complex process that is dependent upon buy-in from host communities, support from families, availability of alternative livelihood opportunities etc. Therefore, the project design should collect information regarding ex-combatant’s socio-economic profiles, community perceptions regarding DDR and conduct an economic analysis of the job market to ensure the highest probability of success and lowest rate of recidivism of the DDR programme.
That said, we can build on our experience and start thinking about future DDR in number of MNA countries. The main challenge we do have respond to is how to build resilience to violent extremism amongst returning ISIS fighters, potential recruits, respective families and host communities. High export of radical fighters from the region indicates the both potential reintegration of returning combatants as well as de-radicalization need to be equally addressed. As those who participate with armed groups draw from a wide variety of influences, past approach towards traditional ex-combatants need to be reconsidered. Decades of civil disturbances, role of state-based military in conflict, massive arms trade, proliferation of radical Islamic groups in the region indicate that a localized and renewed concept of DDR and violence prevention needs to be developed.
Therefore, it is time to design a project that can be immediately implemented as pilot project in country like Tunisia and replicated elsewhere in the region. With consideration for the ongoing conflicts in Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Iraq, such an intervention will seek to increase critical knowledge and build a successful model that can be rapidly applied in those contexts after cessation of hostilities.

January 27, 2017

Many thanks for your comments. You are absolutely right, children's rehabilitation and reintegration is only part of the story and the larger adult population of combatants has to be demobilized and started on the process of integration. The Central American lesson is very much one worth keeping in mind since we already see the war economies generating much by way of drug, weapons and people smuggling. Inconclusive ceasefires and agreements without any real reconciliation which keep various warlords and gangs, etc. in power are a ready made recipe for what you warn against. These are key issues to be underlined at every opportunity as we start our planning for recovery and reconstruction.

abderrahim Fraiji
January 27, 2017

Yes Omer and this is exactly what is happening now in Northern Mali, Central African Republic, Somalia, East DRC, just to name few examples....

January 30, 2017

Dear Abderrahim,
Many thanks for your comprehensive comments. Clearly and as well evidenced by your post, we have the institutional memory and operational experience to undertake these much needed engagements. Indeed whether in Tunisia or Iraq and hopefully soon in Syria and Yemen as well as in Libya these types of engagements are going to be a critical part of the toolbox in ensuring that we don't re-create the ground work for the next set of conflicts in the region. In the meantime we are talking about starting a more systematic discussion on this topic with our communication colleagues and the office of the Chief Economist and - of course the broader - community focused on these issues in the Bank. In short, we will be in touch and, once again, many thanks for your thoughtful comments.

Bijan Mishra
February 04, 2017

Excellent thought but same time heartening also. Children with violent/extremist mind-set will be required to re-evolved in to humanity stream with may be under several psychological / medical help. But the rehabilitation will be a challenge in terms engaging them and preventing them from the resurfacing in to earlier life style and practices. It will be like performing surgery on DNA system. It is pathetic that the entire generation is already spoiled but the endeavour to bring them back to main stream shall be challenging too. Wish the blessings of almighty.