On February 7, 2018, a breakthrough in the fight against the use of children serving in armed groups was announced. Three hundred South Sudanese children were released from armed groups through a UN-backed negotiation, and 400 more are set to be released in the near future. Tim Irwin of UNICEF's South Sudan office told DW how this deal came about.
DW: How big is the problem of child soldiers in South Sudan today?
Tim Irwin: It continues to be a significant issue. We estimate that there are about 19,000 children that are still in the forces of armed groups. The release that we saw on February 7 was the first release of any sort that we had had in a year and the largest in nearly three years. So while the release last week was very welcome, there is still much work to do. We would like the release of all of these children, but as you can see from the time frame that it took, these things take months, sometimes years, to achieve.
Apart from the intervention of international organizations, what is the government in South Sudan doing to ensure that children are not recruited into military activity?
Both the government and the main opposition have signed agreements with the UN which say that they will not recruit children into their armed forces and that they will release children that are within their armed forces. So we will continue to work with all sides very closely to ensure that more children are released. In this release which took place last week in Yambio, we were working very closely with the national disarmament and demobilization committee, which is part of the government. So we work closely with them and we try to work with opposition groups as well. The children which were released last year were with a group that had been in opposition to the government and the release came as a result of a ceasefire between them and the national army, the SPLA. So when you are working towards the freeing of children, you need to be able to work with both sides and communities on the ground so that everyone understands what you are trying to do - that a trust is built and a dialogue has begun and that you are able to reach out into these groups which are often living in remote areas.
Your office has noted that some of these children do join military groups willingly because they don't see any better options. What measures are being put in place to see that the released children don't go back.
Obviously the children's release is a momentous occasion, but it's by no means the end of the process. Because what we need to do is to make sure these children don't go back. We need to provide psychological support and skills training so that these young men and women are able to earn a living and contribute to their families. Certainly every child that I spoke to last week – and this is true for all the children that have been released in South Sudan – they all say they want to continue with their education or begin their education if they've never gone to school. I think every child, not just these children associated with these armed groups, sees the value of education. So you need to make sure that they can see a brighter future for themselves that doesn't involve going back into an armed group.
Tim Irwin is the chief of communication of UNICEF, South Sudan.
The interview was conducted by Jane Ayeko-Kümmeth.