Thousands of former child soldiers may be among the millions of migrants flowing into Europe, posing a major challenge both for the asylum systems and mental health services.
In 2009, the number of child soldiers in Germany was estimated by a Catholic charity to be about 4 per cent of all unaccompanied minors in the country – at that time amounting to between 120 and 200 children. However, over the last seven years the number of unaccompanied children has risen more than ten-fold to 60,000 and the number of former child soldiers is expected to have risen in line, Süeddeutsche Zeitung has reported.
In nearly every theatre of war the migrants are fleeing, children are being recruited as soldiers. In Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State’s habit of indoctrinating children as soldiers is well documented, but examples have also been noted in Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, Eritrea, and elsewhere.
And the numbers of child soldiers in some of these areas are huge: The British organisation Child Soldiers International has estimated that in some provinces of Afghanistan as many as one in ten policemen are underage. Recently the Taliban killed a ten year old boy who had been fighting with government forces.
Almost all of the children will be emotionally scarred by their experiences. According to Christian Manny of charity Kindernothilfe (Help for Distressed Children), the memories of their experiences, and sometimes the shame of having killed others makes it very difficult for the children to return to a normal life.
However, psychologist Jan Kizilhan, who works with refugee Yazidi children from Iraq says it is possible to rehabilitate the children: “It’s not about that they forget what they have experienced. But about that the experience is a part of their past, an important, perhaps, but only a part, which does not have control over their lives,” he said.
But before they can begin to tackle the emotional challenges of recovering from their experiences, they must first face the bureaucratic hurdles of applying for asylum. According to Germany’s Interior Ministry, of the 14,439 applications for asylum lodged by unaccompanied minors last year, just 2922 were approved.
This may be in part because former child soldiers in the asylum system are often not recognised as such. Ralf Willinger of Terre des Hommes says many asylum officers lack sensitivity when dealing with traumatised children; others are simply suspicious. “Even if child soldiers can tell their stories in detail, they are often not believed,” Willinger said.
Furthermore, some children have been prosecuted for belonging to proscribed groups, even though they may have been forced into them. Fear of that possibility leads many simply not to disclose their past to the authorities. Willinger concludes: “The stigma is just too great.”