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There is So Much More to be Done: Child Soldiers in Iraqi Kurdistan
Kurdistan is a semi-autonomous region in northern Iraq. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), has legislative, executive, and judicial powers that are recognized by the Iraqi constitution. Formally, the KRG also has command over the region’s armed forces, the Peshmerga.
In recent years, northern Iraq, including the region of Kurdistan (i.e. the KRI) has seen a constant armed force presence, as ISIS, various interest groups fighting ISIS, and Kurdish separatist groups have used parts of northern Iraq as a launchpad — training, recruiting, operating, and fighting there.
The prorated conflict has impacted the lives of every civilian in the region, drawing in some of the very youngest in the most tragic way. According to the U.S. government’s 2019 Trafficking in Persons Report, child soldiers are present within the ranks of ISIS, the People’s Mobilization Forces, tribal forces, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, and Iran-backed militias.
A child soldier refers to any person under 18 years of age who is associated with an armed group in any capacity (e.g. cooks, porters, messengers, combatants, trainees). Around the world, children are recruited because their naivety can be easily exploited to proselytize and indoctrinate them. They are especially sought out to pad ranks in long-term conflicts; they are likely to demand lower salaries — if they demand any compensation at all.
After years of persecution at the hands of ISIS, Yazidi and Kurdish children are particularly vulnerable to the heroic allure of joining up to fight for a militia group in the region. However, even when children are not forcibly recruited (i.e. they “volunteer”), human rights law prohibits armed groups from using children. If a child under the age of 15 is enlisted, it is considered a war crime.
Child soldiers in Iraqi Kurdistan become involved for many different reasons, but there is one common theme; armed groups capitalize on their past hardships. Recruiters seek out the orphaned, the impoverished, and the oppressed; children who are desperate for protection, who need their basic needs to be met, or who want to escape the chronic dearth of opportunities at home are much more susceptible to recruitment. Older children can often be compelled to sympathize with the mission of an armed group after witnessing grave injustice towards their communities; a desire for revenge coupled with teenage impulse can make one amenable to extremism. During their invasion of the KRI in 2014, ISIS specifically targeted vulnerable demographics as they were easier to coerce and indoctrinate.
Children in camps for displaced people in Kurdistan are particularly vulnerable to recruitment by the armed wing of the PKK (i.e. the People’s Defense Forces or the HPG) and the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBŞ). These children are exposed to violence, coerced into committing crimes, abused, and exploited. Even when they are not active combatants, child soldiers are still in significant danger as training areas are frequently targeted by airstrikes.
If minors change their mind about their desire to fight for a group, they are usually prevented from leaving — by force or by the fact that returning home is logistically infeasible. Armed groups backed by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) like the Sinjar Resistance Units are known to prevent children from maintaining regular contact with their families.
If these children manage to get home to their families, they are often treated like criminals instead of victims. KRG security forces – the Asayish – frequently arrest and abuse children for suspected affiliation with PKK-linked forces, directly contradicting the international norms on child soldiers set out in the Paris Principles of 1997. The minimum age of criminal responsibility in Kurdistan is 11, so over the past few years, KRG judicial authorities have charged hundreds of children with terrorism for their involvement with groups like ISIS, frequently basing charges on torture-induced concessions.
Beyond just the threat of prosecution, the road to recovery and reintegration is fraught with challenges. ISIS captivity and indoctrination means that children return speaking new languages and harboring new beliefs, including negative perceptions of their ancestral religion. Former child soldiers thus face immense stigma from their communities and struggle to reconnect with family members. Difficulties relating to other children further isolate them. Moreover, while working with an armed group, adolescents miss years of formal education, limiting their ability to pursue further education or job opportunities— and sometimes sentencing them to lifelong poverty.
Most children return to impoverished families — many of whom are also displaced — who lack access to and knowledge about resources to help their children recover and reintegrate. Even attaining critical medical treatment for war-related injuries and malnutrition can be difficult.
Former child soldiers also have deep-rooted trauma from exposure to violence and extremist ideologies at critical developmental stages. While these children need extensive long-term psychological support, in most cases, they do not receive it, which often results in externalizing behaviors like aggression and violent tendencies. According to a study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry in 2018, Yazidi former child soldiers showed a significantly higher prevalence of mental conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (48.3%), depression (45.6%), and anxiety disorders (45.8%) when compared to boys who had not been associated with an armed group.
Helping child soldiers in Iraqi Kurdistan after they return requires a comprehensive approach that addresses their physical and mental health needs while also providing them with social, economic, housing, and education support. Immediate medical and financial aid is often the most critical; basic needs must be met before mental health treatment can be effective or accessible.
While what most former child soldiers in Iraqi Kurdistan receive is still far from justice, recovery and reintegration support has been improving, thanks to both government and NGO initiatives in the region.
More recently, courts have become more lenient, choosing to adhere more closely to the recommendations of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. In the spirit of not charging and prosecuting children for mere association with armed groups, judicial authorities have been acquitting children who only participated in training — and did not actually fight — and ruling that those who are involved when younger than 15 cannot comprehend the results of their actions.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Iraq Child Labor report, KRG authorities funded the rescue of more than 1,600 Yazidi children from ISIS between 2014 and 2019. By 2019, 6,000 had been taken from the regions of northern Iraq, so the government of Kurdistan established a $10 million fund to help facilitate their return.
More broadly, the Iraqi government is collaborating with the UN Security Council’s Country Task Force on Monitoring and Reporting (CTFMR) to develop an action plan to both prevent the recruitment of and support the reintegration of child soldiers.
Nongovernmental organizations have been assisting former child soldiers more directly. The non-profit organization, Yahad-in Unum, interviews survivors about their experiences, using their stories to increase awareness of the need to actively de-radicalize and help survivors heal as a part of reintegration.
The Erbil-based nonprofit SEED provides psychologists to help children overcome aggression, PTSD, and trauma, alongside legal services, and case management. The organization also lobbies local authorities, advocating for political change that protects these victims of exploitation. From 2014 to 2019, SEED helped 43 former child soldiers and their families, providing legal and medical assistance, basic necessities, education resources, and extensive therapy.
UNICEF supports children and their families by administering mental health treatment and helping with community reintegration. UNICEF also connects former child soldiers with educational opportunities to try to make up for lost time.
Beyond extensive efforts to raise awareness about recruitment as a preventative measure, War Child, the international NGO, provides legal assistance to children facing charges and provides safe spaces for learning and play. They reunite children with their families and communities while helping them process trauma and build positive coping skills.
The future is promising, as global disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) programs are adapted for the unique needs of children in the KRI and new mental health treatment models show positive outcomes. However, there is much more that still needs to be done.
Addressing the needs of former child soldiers is really important, not just to help them, but to ensure future stability in all of the KRI. If these victims are not provided with necessary services, they are at a higher risk of harming themselves and others in the future.
Aeden Kamadolli is a writer from Massachusetts with a particular interest in economics, international affairs, and foreign policy. As current high school senior, he hopes to study Political Science or International Relations in college. He is an Editor at Foreign Policy Youth Collaborative.