A new Save the Children report reveals children living in conflict zones in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger are facing an illegal recruitment risk by non-state armed groups.

Children living in conflict zones in the Central Sahel region across Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, are facing the risk of illegal recruitment by non-state armed groups after thousands of schools closed in the past two years due to increasing violence and Covid-19.

During an official visit organized by the French military, children gather around a French Sagay tank positioned overlooking the bridge crossing the river Niger at the entrance of Gao, Northern Mali, January 31, 2013.
During an official visit organized by the French military, children gather around a French Sagay tank positioned overlooking the bridge crossing the river Niger at the entrance of Gao, Northern Mali, January 31, 2013. (AA)

In its latest report, Save the Children said that an increasing number of factors are driving children into conflict in the three countries, including a new deliberate and calculated recruitment strategy deployed by non-state and extremist armed groups.

“Violence, poverty, and insecurity are threatening the safety of millions of children across Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. Children in the region are facing a dire protection crisis and they need access to education. Within the $200 million needed to respond to the education crisis in the Sahel, only 11 percent have been mobilised so far, while more than 4,000 schools are currently closed in the region, due to insecurity, putting over 800,000 girls and boys at an increased risk of recruitment,” said Eric Hazard, Pan Africa Policy Director for Save the Children. 

Children of around 6,000 ethnic Fulanis who have been displaced by attacks, gather in a makeshift camp for the displaced in Youba in Yatenga province in Burkina Faso, April 20, 2020.
Children of around 6,000 ethnic Fulanis who have been displaced by attacks, gather in a makeshift camp for the displaced in Youba in Yatenga province in Burkina Faso, April 20, 2020. (AP)

Some children were forcefully recruited, others joined because of poverty,  while many felt the need to fulfil a religious duty. 

A 22-year-old Nigerian joined an armed group for three years after learning about it through friends.

“Two things encouraged me to join the armed group. The first was for jihad for religion and the second, they said they would pay me. I was promised one day I would become a civil servant”

“Penalties were imposed on children for errors.” He added. “They are punished for treason or if they make the slightest mistake. The penalties are different depending on the nature of the slip. If you haven’t slipped a lot, we deny you food, we lock you in a place where you don’t know where you are. They can even be killed.”

“I realized this is not the life I wanted to lead. It’s true that you make money in the group, but we don’t know what to do with it.”

Kids are seen in Bamako, Mali on April 20, 2021.
Kids are seen in Bamako, Mali on April 20, 2021. (AA)

Some were attracted only by promises of pay, phones, or motorbikes by non-state armed groups.

Some children as young as seven were illegally recruited to gather intelligence on local communities for the non-states armed groups.

21-year-old boy from Burkina Faso joined an armed group while he was still a child:

“I spent more than four years in an armed group. I got to know this group by going to listen to their sermons. The fact that I was not in school or working pushed me and other young people to find an occupation and the only available option was to join an armed group. At the time of recruitment, what was important was to have motivated people, people ready to follow them.”

Balkissa Barro, 10, left, walks to school with friends in the Burkina Faso village of Dori, October 20, 2020.
Balkissa Barro, 10, left, walks to school with friends in the Burkina Faso village of Dori, October 20, 2020. (AP)

The research has found the children recruited had dropped out of school or did not have access to a school system. 

About 4,000 schools are still closed due to the insecurity affecting 700,000 children in the 3 countries. It was also estimated that 2.3 million children need protection in the Sahel Central and that 8 out of 10 children were exposed to various forms of violence, according to the research.

Save the Children warned that closing thousands of schools due to COVID-19 pandemic has put children in jeopardy of being recruited into conflict which is a grave violation of child rights and international humanitarian law.

Balkissa Barro, 10, center, walks to school with friends in the Burkina Faso village of Dori, October 20, 2020.
Balkissa Barro, 10, center, walks to school with friends in the Burkina Faso village of Dori, October 20, 2020. (AP)

Save the Children calls on governments in the Central Sahel region and the international community to commit to funding education in emergencies, and protect children from recruitment. 

Eric Hazard, Pan Africa Policy Director for Save the Children, said:

“Before the COVID-19 pandemic, eight million children were out of school due to violence and insecurity. The longer they are out of school, the risk of forced recruitment will only increase. For a child in conflict, school provides access to a safe space to learn, protection from risks such as recruitment into armed groups, and provides a crucial sense of routine and calm.” 

Children returning to school in Burkina Faso's volatile Sahel region, have to practice safety drills to prepare for potential terrorist attacks that have ravaged the West African nation, killing more than 2,000 people last year. October 20, 2020.
Children returning to school in Burkina Faso's volatile Sahel region, have to practice safety drills to prepare for potential terrorist attacks that have ravaged the West African nation, killing more than 2,000 people last year. October 20, 2020. (AP)

The number of children associated with the armed groups are still unknown, but more and more children are being abducted, killed, maimed and recruited by non-state armed groups. 

In 2020, according to the latest report of the UN Secretary-General on children and armed conflict, 1 in 3 child victims of grave violations has been in West and Central Africa.

In Mali alone, according to official data, in 2019 more than 277 children were maimed or killed as a result of the conflict, this doubled the total in 2018. 

In the three-border region of Niger, "Armed Groups have already killed more than 60 children since the beginning of 2021, according to the latest report.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies