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Freed Central African child soldiers could end up returning to the battlefield

Central African children released from armed groups could soon have weapons in their hands again, according to a report released by the United Nations children’s agency said on Friday, November 30.

Due to severe underfunding and the inability of humanitarian workers to access active fighting areas, 30 percent of those children are not receiving critical reintegration support and are at high risk for re-recruitment into armed groups, the UNICEF report said.

A spike in violence between 2016 and 2017 led to a 50 percent increase in the recruitment and use of child soldiers by armed groups in CAR. UNICEF has assisted in the release of some 13,000 Central African child soldiers, including around 3,200 girls, since 2014. Once the children are released, reunifying them with their families is a challenging, often dangerous process, the agency says.

Many Central African families were forced to flee their homes because of the civil war that began in 2013. That means that when the children return home, their families are often nowhere to be found. Without any place to go, some children will return to the armed group.

The majority-Christian country descended into violence following the 2013 ousting of President Francois Bozize in 2013 by the Seleka, a coalition of mainly Muslim rebel groups.

Seleka was officially disbanded within months, but many fighters refused to disarm, becoming known as ex-Seleka. Many others joined the mainly Christian anti-Balaka militia to fight the Seleka, leading to a spiral of violence between groups along both religious and ethnic lines.

By the end of 2014, the country was de facto partitioned – anti-Balaka in the southwest and ex-Seleka in the northeast.

Violence by both sides led to thousands of deaths. At least one-quarter of the CAR population is currently displaced, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council. At least 689,000 people have relocated within the Central African Republic, while 558,537 others are refugees who fled the country.

Many Central Africans, including children, are devastated after the long journey home once they are freed from rebel groups, says Hajer Naili, the NRC Communications Adviser located in Central and West Africa.

“In some instances, the homes can be also occupied by former members of armed groups who took ownership of the house – a sort of a war trophy. In the worst case scenario, their home was erased to the ground or sold,” Naili told The Defense Post.

While released children are awaiting family tracing or a new home, they often stay in host communities. Hosts are often impoverished themselves, and their living spaces are overcrowded, accommodating many returnee families and children at once.

Naili describes host spaces as “a temporary solution that quickly becomes unbearable for the hosts as they have very little resources to support returnees. Host families are usually very poor and end up sharing the little food and water they have with the returnees. This is not sustainable, neither for the returnees nor the host families.”

If and when children are reunified with their families, there is still no guarantee they won’t be recruited again. In such an impoverished country, Naili says youth are incentivized to join armed groups by the promise of “getting food, making some money, receiving a form of protection by the group itself and accessing an improved social status.”

Malnutrition in CAR is escalating, according to UNICEF. “It’s worse than anything I’ve ever seen,” says Harriet Dwyer, a UNICEF staff member who’s worked in northeastern Nigeria for 10 months, and recently returned to South Sudan – two other places near famine. With more than 43,000 Central African children expected to suffer from severe acute malnutrition in 2019, armed groups will become a more appealing option for many.

Girls are perhaps most in need of reintegration support. They are often stigmatized and rejected by their families because of the sexual violence they experience while under the control of armed groups. If they are recruited a second time, the chances of them entering a reintegration program drop dramatically.

Reintegration support for released children should encompass both family reunification and these psychosocial contexts, according to UNICEF.

Children on the road in Bamba 2 Village, on the outskirts of Bangui, Central African Republic
Children on the road in Bamba 2 Village, on the outskirts of Bangui, Central African Republic, on September 2, 2018. Image: UNICEF

“Ideally, reintegration support is a years-long process that helps children and young people return to their families, and to civilian life. It should include provision of housing and health care, education and vocational programs, psychosocial counseling, family tracing and more. Because of funding shortages and the need to reach more children released from armed groups, however, most children in CAR with access to this support receive it for only three to six months,” the report says.

Naili emphasized that limited funding will continue to strain aid groups’ abilities to respond to the humanitarian crisis.

The program’s 2018 goal is to reach 3,500 released children across CAR. In 2017, the program was able to reach only 1,980  children despite a 3,500 goal, due in large part to underfunding.

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