International humanitarian law and policy on

Protected persons: Children

Under international humanitarian law, children affected by armed conflict are entitled to special respect and protection. 

Children play with a ball in Beledweyne, Rasmi camp.

Children under international humanitarian law

Children are especially vulnerable in armed conflicts. Despite the protection provided by law, they continue to be recruited by armed forces and armed groups. They are often separated from their families, driven from their homes, killed, maimed, sexually abused or exploited in other ways.

Armed conflict and other situations of violence impose immense suffering on children and they may be particularly vulnerable to physical and psychological violence, including sexual violence. Despite the protection afforded to them by international law, children continue to face many risks.

Children can become separated from, and lose contact with, their families or caregivers, in situations of armed conflict and other situations of violence and are more likely to be at risk of abuse, exploitation, violence and, in some countries, recruitment by armed forces or a groups.

All too often, children are drawn into the hostilities. Both boys and girls are recruited as fighters by armed forces or armed groups, but they can also be recruited for other roles, such as to carry supplies, gather intelligence, cook, act as messengers, or for sexual purposes, which also puts them in great danger.

Children who are associated with armed forces or armed groups are at heightened risk of being detained, wounded, injured or killed. They also may face difficulties when they return home, due to trauma and stigmatization, and face barriers to reintegration into their families and communities. Boys and girls experience armed conflict and violence in different ways, and it may be difficult for their families and communities to accept them upon their return.

Children often end up in detention, for instance because of their actual or perceived association with an armed group, or because they were unable to access appropriate forms of child justice such as alternatives to prosecution and detention.

Detained women or girls may give birth in detention or be accompanied by their own children. More generally, the lives of millions of children are significantly affected by detention, for instance if a parent, guardian or other close relative is detained, especially when that person is their main or sole caregiver.

Armed conflict and other situations of violence take their toll on education. Schools may be deliberately targeted or incidentally damaged, used for military purposes, taken over as shelters by internally displaced people, or used as places for unlawful recruitment. Children in detention are often denied schooling. The interruption of education has severe consequences for both the children’s future and the country’s capacity to recover, especially when crises are protracted.

The ICRC’s work

In the field, our activities focus on particularly vulnerable groups of children, including unaccompanied children or those otherwise separated from their families, children associated with armed forces or armed groups, and detained children.

Migrant children (including refugee children) are also a group of concern, especially when they are separated from their families, held in immigration detention or at risk of being returned to dangerous conditions. In addition, we support children who may have one or more missing family members, and we provide essential goods and services such as food and health care where needed.

We seek to prevent families from being split up in the first place. If family members do become separated because of armed conflict and other violence, or in the context of migration, the ICRC and National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies put them back in touch; wherever possible, children are reunited with their families. Children who are unaccompanied, separated from their families or otherwise vulnerable are registered to make sure that their cases are followed up on and their needs are met.

We also talk to armed forces and armed groups and work with at-risk communities in order to prevent children being recruited to fight. In countries where child recruitment is a major issue, such as in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, we work with children formerly associated with armed groups and their families to help them rejoin society.

In places of detention, we work to ensure that the authorities protect children by taking measures that respond to their specific needs. Children should not be detained solely on the basis of their immigration status. Our focus is also on protecting and supporting children when their parents are detained. All activities involving children are driven by what is in the children’s best interest.

We support families and communities affected by armed conflict and other violence to retain or regain access to education. This especially applies when children are in detention, internally displaced or living in particularly dangerous areas.

Working closely with National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, we strengthen the safety and security of school facilities and support awareness-raising on safe behaviour among students and teaching staff in areas where armed conflict and other violence frequently disrupt classes.

Finally, we also work closely with governments to advise them on the domestic implementation of their obligations under international law, including by adopting legislation and other measures to protect children during armed conflict.

Paris Principles

Paris Principles on Children Associated with Armed Forces and Armed Groups

Frequently asked questions

  • The Convention on the Rights of the Child defines “child” as every human being below the age of 18 years, and accordingly the ICRC considers everyone below the age of 18 to be a child. Everyone under the age of 18 enjoys specific protections both under IHL and international human rights law. It’s true that in some places, childhood is understood to end well before age 18. One might be considered an adult with the first signs of puberty, such as when they grow their first chin hair. However, for the purposes of the our work, a child is anyone below 18.

  • Our strategy on children promotes a multidisciplinary approach towards assessing, analysing and responding to children’s needs, in a context-sensitive manner. The strategy focuses on four main priority issues, which inform our work in favour of children, their families and communities: children in detention, child recruitment, the impact of conflict and violence on children’s access to education, and family separation.

    One of our priority areas is children in detention. For example, children may be detained under criminal law for actions they have allegedly committed. This includes first-time offenders charged with minor offences, such as theft, or children detained owing to their association with an armed group. Children might accompany their parents in detention (some being born to a detained mother), and there are also many children in immigration detention. Our aim is to ensure that the conditions in which children are detained respect their specific needs and meet internationally recognized juvenile justice standards. When needed, we will offer to re-establish contact between a detained child and their family.

    Another priority area is child recruitment. In several places where we work, we see how children continue to be recruited and used by armed forces or armed groups. This is an issue that we raise in our confidential dialogue with parties to the conflict, reminding them of their obligation not to recruit children. In some places, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, we help children formerly associated with armed groups to return home and rebuild their lives.

    The impact of armed conflict or other violence on children’s access to education is a further priority. Students or teachers may be attacked in school or on their way to school, while schools themselves may be used for unlawful recruitment or may be targeted or incidentally damaged during an attack; quite often, they are used for military purposes. The resulting interruption of education has severe consequences for children’s future. We engage with authorities and weapon bearers on protecting education, support particularly exposed schools and advocate for vulnerable children, such as detained children and internally displaced children, to have access to education. 

    A final area of priority when it comes to protecting children is family separation. In armed conflicts and other violence, people must often flee at a moment’s notice. Frequently, this leads to children getting separated from their loved ones. The ICRC has a mandate under IHL to restore links among separated family members. Together with our partners from the National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, we register unaccompanied children and do our best to locate their parents – for example, going to a child’s last known address, working with displaced communities’ leaders, or using means such as posters, online tracing or radio messages. Across the world, we facilitate tens of thousands of phone calls among family members separated by war or by migration, as in South Sudan or Angola. 

    And after children have been reunited with their families, we check up on them and assess their needs and well-being as they reintegrate into their family and community. In 2018, our efforts led to 840 children being reunited with their families. 

    We also run a dedicated website where those looking for a missing family member can find information on possible search alternatives and do online tracing by browsing through the names and pictures of persons missing in relation to specific emergencies. 

    Those are the specific priorities – not necessarily listed by order of importance – in our work on behalf of children. At the same time, there are numerous other conflict-related issues that affect children and that we raise with parties to armed conflict. 

    Owing to their age, size and relative immaturity, children are often highly vulnerable to physical and psychological violence. Sexual violence does not spare children: they can be directly affected or might be born out of rape, leaving them vulnerable and stigmatized.

    And as part of our work to protect vulnerable migrants, we come across children who might face some of the issues mentioned above, such as loss of contact with their relatives or detention. They might find themselves in situations that could expose them to exploitation, abuse or trafficking, and might face challenges in accessing essential services such as health care and education.

  • It does indeed happen. In cases of internal displacement, for instance, children’s preferences may be different from their parents’. Parents and other adult family members might want to return to their place of origin, while children born in displacement or having spent many years displaced in an urban environment might wish to stay and integrate where they are, as they have no knowledge of, or attachment to, their place of origin, and they can only imagine a future where they currently live.

    In such circumstances, we seek to ensure that everybody’s voice within the community is considered, including children’s, in the process of devising durable solutions. However, we do not try to change the local culture or social values that might typically give the elderly the power to decide for the family or the entire community. It is not up us to change existing societal norms or power structures, but we always favour options which do not contradict the principle of the “best interests of the child”.