Salim * is a Nigerian boy who was 16 years old at the time of his arrest. When he was only 4 years old his father died and together with his mother they fled from Nigeria to save themselves from Boko Haram’s attacks. He hoped to find serenity inside the refugee camp of Sayam Forage, in the Diffa region (Niger), however, one evening he is arrested by the Nigerian police while he wanders round the camp with his peers. He is accused of being a Boko Haram infiltrator. His life changes from that moment: he is taken to the civil prison of Niamey and is locked up in the section reserved for minors, where he still resides now. He hasn’t heard from his mother for more than 9 months, until another boy, who came from Nigeria and previously lived in the same refugee camp, helps him to get back in touch with her.
Who are child soldiers?
Children and adolescents used in wars have survived the massacres of their families or even have been kidnapped from their villages. They are used as human shields, spies and for the transport of supplies or to fight. Many girls are involved in this drama, often abused and used as sex slaves. In many cases they are forced to take drugs to make them submissive.
The 12th of February, the International Day against the Use of Child Soldiers, recalls the day on which the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child regarding the involvement of children in armed conflicts entered into force in 2002. They are not only teenagers, but also children of no more than 6 years. The UN calculates about 250,000, but NGOs speak of over 300,000 children, of which 40% are female.
In the Diffa region, COOPI intervenes with a project to prevent and respond to violence against children affected by conflicts in this area. We asked Barbara Pellegrini, in charge of migration and justice projects in Niger, to illustrate the situation regarding the taking charge of children in detention in the juvenile section of Niamey’s prison.
Her story tells us about 72 youngsters involved in the project, among them there is only one girl. When they were arrested they were between 14 and 17 years old, now most of them are adults. “Everyone is suspected of being associated with armed forces or groups (especially with Boko Haram), but there has never been a final sentence on this matter” – explains Barbara – “In our experience, a minority were directly in touch with Boko Haram. A part of them decided to participate after having received a fee (or a fee for the family), while others were kidnapped.”
Life inside the detention center is not easy due to the precarious hygiene and sanitary conditions, the limited space compared to the number of children, the absence of their family and the uncertainty of their future.
COOPI on the inside of the prison’s walls
The youngsters currently living in the jail since July 2015 receive psychosocial support through:
- individual interviews with a psychologist,
- support groups, in which about 10 boys talk, listen and share their experiences, thoughts and talk about the available resources which support them in order to continue,
- various recreational and sporting activities, in order to have a moment of leisure during the day.
“In January 2017, almost two years after their incarceration, the liberation process began. Eleven youngsters have been released and transferred to a transit and orientation center run by UNICEF, where they will spend a period of up to three months before they can be reintegrated into their families. In the meantime” – concludes Barbara Pellegrini – “next week begins the process of accompanying and preparing families for their youngsters’ return, through the support of various psychologists, to ensure that families are ready to welcome their children after these years of attendance and uncertainty, thereby limiting the risk of stigmatization of children by their communities.”