Why is child military recruitment still practiced in the UK?

by Yasmin Begum  

In December 2015, the UK Parliament was engulfed in a long-winded debate at the House of Commons on whether to carry out airstrikes in Syria, before MPs eventually voted with 397 against 223 votes to authorise the bombing campaign. The following morning, the Ministry of Defence confirmed that initial bombs had fallen at dawn. Given the sheer number of bomb threats and the aftermath of the Paris attack in November 2015, it was no surprise that Parliament overturned their previous vote not to intervene in Syria.

What did surprise, however, was the way representatives across the UK voted. Over half of Welsh MPs voted against the motion that was so overwhelmingly voted in by the British government. 17 out of Welsh Labour’s 25 MPs as well as three members of the Plaid Cymru vetoed the Syria motion. (All of Wales’ 11 Conservative member backed air strikes on Syria). This pattern was more pronounced in the Scottish attitude towards the war, with 57 of 59 of Scottish MPs opposing the vote.

While there are a number of ideological reasons why Welsh and Scottish MPs voted against airstrikes, the issue of war in Syria isn’t so far removed from the actual population of Scotland and Wales as one may think. The UK is currently the only European member state where child military recruitment is still practiced, and although it has repeatedly received criticism from the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, the military hasn’t ended its recruitment practices.  

In the UK, children can sign up for military training at the age of 15 years and 7 months for commencement of their training at age 16. Following their training, recruits must serve until they are 22 (six years in total) and can be deployed only in battle zones without the option of terminating their commitment. Recruits signing up at the age of 18 and above, however, sign up for four years only, are able to work anywhere within the military structure, and can leave the military at any given point.

Leanne Wood, the head of Welsh party Plaid Cymru, has been one of the major political figures debating this issue, by campaigning for the military to be banned from recruiting in Welsh schools. In 2012, a petition was delivered to the Welsh assembly for an inquiry into the military presence in Wales. Research findings from the Welsh Assembly Petition into the military recruitment of school children stated, “There does seem to be evidence that the armed forces disproportionately visit schools in areas of relatively high deprivation.” These areas of deprivation focussed on deindustrialised former mining communities of South Wales, such as the Rhondda Valley. Furthermore, 100% of all state schools in Cardiff were visited by the army. Current youth unemployment levels in Wales are at 20%, and needless to say a career in the army is often seen as an alternative, more secure source of income.

The report by the Welsh Assembly Petition also revealed that the military is the most prominent recruiter in state schools ⎼ although, interestingly, not in private schools ⎼ and has, within areas of high deprivation, aggressively promoted an unbalanced and exceptionally rosy view of life in the military. Examples of this include military toys designed by the Ministry of Defence for children aged five and the Think Soldier campaign, along with  large-scale advertising campaigns in high population density areas. Ultimately, the report recommended “further research into the disproportionate recruitment in areas of relatively high deprivation”, but noted the difficulties of that, owing to insufficient levels of military transparency on the topic.

Indeed, a strong correlation was made between the young age of military recruits and the risk of serious mental health complications from war. A significant proportion of soldiers returning from the Afghanistan and Iraq war rely on ongoing mental health support for many years to come. Recruitment is also based on low levels of education and, by default, on class. Written evidence from Forceswatch into mental health in the military for the Military Defence found that “PTSD was more than twice as prevalent amongst those without GCSEs as among personnel who had A-levels (8.4% vs 3.3%)”. Younger recruits are also disproportionately more likely to suffer from depression and serious addiction issues and are at a higher risk of killing themselves. Most disturbingly, however, the mortality rate for teenage recruits during war is twice as high as that of any other demographic.

Largely speaking, young people from this demographic make up over a third of new recruits into the infantry annually. Thus any ongoing recruitment in schools flies in the face of the marked risk that these young people from disadvantaged backgrounds face.

Organisations and parties against child recruitment, including Plaid Cymru and the Fellowship of Reconciliation Wales, have demanded that the Ministry of Justice raise the minimum joining age to the military, introduce the right of discharge before the age of 18, and set the minimum length of service to four years, the length adult recruits commit to. Although a nationwide poll conducted in 2014 by Ipsos MORI found that 78% of the British public supported raising the joining age to 18 years old, this has not yet been implemented, owing to the likelihood that the military would likely lose a large chunk of their recruits.

The UK is the only remaining member of the EU, NATO and the UN Security Council to recruit children. Children have no place in the UK military, and raising the military recruitment age is imperative to reassessing the troubling attitudes towards war we have in the country.

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Yasmin Begum is a 20-something graduate from the School of Oriental and African Studies. She enjoys reading and writing.

This article was edited by Media Diversified’s Middle East & North Africa editor, Mend Mariwany. To pitch an article or feature please contact mend@mediadiversified.org.

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1 reply

  1. A very good point. In my day the armed forces via sympathetic teachers ran school Cadet forces that used to march around with guns from age 12. I just looked up the current starting age for Cadets and it hasn’t changed. At my school they shot me through the ear when I was swimming; violence learned at an early age…

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