Child Soldiers: Treat them as Victims, Not Just Victimizers

From the testimony of Anwen Hughes, Senior Counsel in the Refugee Protection program of Human Rights First, at a hearing on child soldiers before the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law. Washington, D.C., April 24, 2007.

“…We are currently experiencing a crisis in the U.S. asylum and refugee resettlement system, in which refugees who were victims of serious human rights abuses are being excluded from protection under immigration provisions intended to bar those who victimized them. Child soldiers in need of refugee protection represent a subset of those affected by this insanity…

“The provisions have yielded absurd enough results when applied to adults who took up arms of their own free will, or provided some level of support to groups that included an armed wing….

“But the absurdity has been compounded by the fact that the relevant federal agencies refuse to recognize any legal exceptions or defenses to these bars. Under the interpretations now prevailing at the Departments of Homeland Security, Justice, and State, the terrorism-related bars to asylum and refugee protection know no exceptions. No form of assistance is too immaterial or too small to trigger exclusion from international refugee protection—pocket change, a chicken, even emergency medical care, the government has argued that all of these constitute “material support” to terrorism….

“For child soldiers, this means that neither their youth, nor the involuntariness of their conscription, nor the fact that they acted under circumstances that any reasonable person would consider to be duress, nor any of the other circumstances that might exculpate them, will protect them against the reflexive and categorical application of these bars to protection….

“The failure to recognize defenses to grounds of exclusion from refugee protection is particularly tragic in the case of child soldiers, because it is causing our own legal system to replicate the stigmatization too many of these young people already face in their own communities….Children who are demobilized or escape from service in armed groups and try to return home often face hostility from their communities of origin, which impute to the children the worst acts of the groups of which they were part, and fail to treat them as the children they are or were. This is an understandable reaction in villages traumatized by war. But it should not be the refugee policy of the U.S. government….

“While most reasonable people would assume that providing food, shelter, counseling, and education to demobilized child soldiers could not possibly be considered “material support to terrorists,” the Department of Homeland Security is currently seeking to deport two asylum seekers whose “material support to terrorism” consisted in providing medical care–and under duress–to injured members of terrorist organizations that had abducted them.

“Progress on this issue is urgently needed in order to ensure that our refugee laws do not continue to exclude and stigmatize those they were intended to protect…”


Published on April 24, 2007


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