Washington places Turkey on list of recruiters of child soldiers

The United States government placed Turkey on a list of countries accused of recruiting children as soldiers on Thursday. Turkey’s inclusion in the list also marks the first time a NATO member is cited in the Child Soldier Prevention Act (CSPA) list, according to senior U.S. officials who spoke to reporters on Thursday.

The briefing was part of a launch event for the 644-page report, “Trafficking In Persons”, where the United States evaluated countries around the world. The report encompasses a period between April 1, 2020 through March 31, 2021. 

During the background briefing, one official said the Turkish government’s “tangible support” to the Sultan Murad Division, a non-state armed group in northern Syria which has recruited and used child soldiers, paved the way for the country to be listed alongside with a dozen others. 

The senior official also stated that the U.S. government hoped “to work with Turkey to encourage all groups involved in the Syrian and Libyan conflicts not to use child soldiers, and we hope to work with Turkey to address this issue in the long run.”

Turkey intervened in northern Syria for the first time militarily in 2016 and has since made several more interventions to seize large swaths of Syrian territory. In these areas Turkish government-backed Syrian militant groups are in control.  

The report also noted that the Turkish government “does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking but is making significant efforts to do so”.

Turkey is believed to be hosting over four million refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and other regional countries. The report said that the Turkish government “did not proactively identify internal trafficking victims, forced labor victims, and victims among migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers, raising the possibility of penalizing victims for unlawful acts traffickers compelled them to commit”.

The report, issued by the U.S. State Department, urged the Ankara government to “vigorously investigate, prosecute, and convict traffickers,” and “cease operational, in-kind, and financial support to armed opposition groups in Syria that recruit child soldiers”.

It cited a Colombian government agency as saying that nearly 55 percent of transnational trafficking cases with a Colombia nexus involved Colombian victims exploited in trafficking in Turkey in 2019. Traffickers lured victims with promises of employment opportunities, only to later exploit them in sex trafficking and forced labor, the report found.

The Turkey section concluded by noting that the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a U.S.-designated terrorist organisation, also “recruited and forcibly abducted children for conscription”.

The PKK has been engaged in an armed conflict with the Turkish Armed Forces for some four decades. Since its most recent flare-up in 2015 following a period of ceasefire, the conflict has claimed the lives of more than 5,000 people, including 519 civilians,according to a Crisis Group report in 2020.

Washington’s study noted that “reports from human rights groups and international bodies indicate the government provided operational, equipment, and financial support to a TSO in Syria that recruited child soldiers”.