The UK is one of only nineteen countries worldwide, and the only EU member, that still recruits 16 year olds into its armed forces, (other nations include Iran and North Korea). The vast majority of countries only recruit adults aged 18 and above, but British children, with the consent of their parents, can begin the application process to join the army aged just 15.
The UK's child recruitment policy has been challenged at various times by the Joint Committee on Human Rights, the Defence Committee, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, major child rights organisations, Amnesty, the National Union of Teachers, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child and veterans themselves. Successive governments have ignored all these calls to review the policy.
t is the poorest regions of Britain that supply large numbers of these child recruits. The army has said that it looks to the youngest recruits to make up shortfalls in the infantry, by far the most dangerous part of the military. The infantry's fatality rate in Afghanistan has been seven times that of the rest of the armed forces.
A study by human rights groups ForcesWatch and Child Soldiers International in 2013 found that soldiers who enlisted at 16 and completed training were twice as likely to die in Afghanistan as those who enlisted aged 18 or above, even though younger recruits are, for the most part, not sent to war until they are 18.
The youngest recruits from the poorest backgrounds are often enlisted into front-line combat roles. In fact, the very youngest recruits - aged between 16 and 16 years, 3 months, are only allowed to join combat roles. These non-technical jobs typically involve very limited education and training that becomes virtually worthless to them upon leaving the army.
The Ministry of Defence has stated that its aim in getting young people to join the military is ‘to recruit people before they have made other lifestyle choices’.
Testimony from veterans suggests that armed forces prefer younger recruits because, compared to older soldiers, they are psychologically malleable in training and more willing to accept military culture uncritically. Young recruits are less likely to be aware of the mental health risks of their prospective career, unlikely to be told of them, and unlikely to be able to seriously consider the real-life implications at that age.
Among veterans who left the forces in the last ten years, levels of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), alcohol misuse, common mental disorders, self-harm, and suicide are substantially higher than they are among civilians. Risk varies widely with socio-economic background and is greatest for young people from poor backgrounds, while those enlisting at 16 and 17 are most likely to be worst affected.
The suicide rate for 16-20 year old males in the armed forces has been 82% higher than for civilians of the same age.
- Much of the information here is taken from 'The Last Ambush? Aspects of mental health in the British armed forces' by Forces Watch.
Read more at the Battlfield Casualties website.