Conflict in Colombia knows no borders

On Universal Children’s Day, November 20, Jesuit Refugee Service expresses extreme concern about the continuing widespread, systematic and habitual use, recruitment, and exploitation of children in the Colombian armed conflict.

Although the exact magnitude and geographical extension of child recruitment is unknown, as many as 11,000 Colombian children are deployed either as combatants, or in support roles, in the war. Being forcibly compelled to risk one’s life and/or commit atrocious acts while being exposed to physical illnesses and injuries, sexual violence and torture, can only be described as inhumane. This recruitment and use of children by illegal armed groups is a crime against humanity, according to the JRS Latin America and Caribbean regional office.

(Listen to a radio interview here.)

JRS urges the international community to put pressure on, and assist where necessary, the Colombian government to comply with the human rights and humanitarian obligations necessary to eliminate this horrendous practice. The unchecked use of children by armed groups is emblematic of a culture of impunity that has characterized the 50 years of armed conflict in Colombia.

Approximately one in four combatants in Colombia is less than 18 years of age. In some cases, child soldiers represent as much as 30 percent of the units of some paramilitary and guerrilla groups. According to the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman of Colombia and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the average age of recruitment had decreased from 13.8 years in 2002 to 12.8 years in 2006.

The threat of forcible recruitment of children is one of the major causes of displacement in Colombia. Many of the four million internally displaced Colombians and the half a million more refugees in bordering countries fled their homes for fear their children would be forced to participate in the war.

Unfortunately, the conflict has begun to destabilize political, social and cultural life in the neighboring countries: evidenced by increasing reports of the combatants forcibly recruiting children in the border territories of Venezuela, Ecuador, and Panama and Brazil. Thousands of refugees, and their new neighbors, continue to suffer from the same generalized and targeted violence which forced their initial displacement. Refugee and host-country children now face the similar dangers of exploitation by armed actors.

The perpetuation of this violence hinders the development of these border regions as money is invested in war and security instead of other vital services, such as education and health care. Faced with insecurity, physical and sexual violence, and forced recruitment, many parents avoid sending their children to school. Denied an education, children are forced to grow up in an environment characterised by fear and violence. These conditions sow the seeds for future violence.

JRS asks people of good will to support groups working both with child soldiers and those preventing their recruitment; and to encourage national, regional and world leaders to act on behalf of this vulnerable and voiceless group.

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