Putting Protection First: Countering Forced Recruitment at the Colombian-Venezuelan Border

05 May 2021   ·   Katherine Carrillo, Juliana Poveda

A complex web of intersecting vulnerabilities in the Colombian-Venezuelan border region leaves children at risk of forced recruitment and exploitation by non-state armed groups. Germany should support community groups that engage with young girls, ensure the protection of teachers and exercise diplomatic pressure on Colombia to fully implement its existing peace agreement.

Since the signing of a historic peace accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC-EP) in 2016, Colombia has seen a new rise in armed violence in the Colombian-Venezuelan border region. The conflict dynamics resemble the armed conflict that has ravaged the region for decades in many ways: non-state armed groups fight over territory and illicit economies. However, the economic, political and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela and the massive movement of refugees to Colombia have brought further tensions and vulnerabilities. In this context, both Colombian children living in the area (some of which have previously been internally displaced) and Venezuelan refugee children are at imminent risk of suffering forced recruitment and sexual violence by non-state armed actors.

The 2016 peace agreement is an important step towards addressing many of the root causes of the Colombian armed conflict. While the agreement was celebrated internationally, within Colombia the opinions on efficacy and legitimacy of the agreement are highly divided. The agreement faces strong opposition, even within the government. However, the full implementation of the peace agreement is a necessary step and a unique opportunity to end the violence and forced recruitment at the Colombian-Venezuelan border. Germany’s stakes in the implementation of the peace agreement are high, as it heavily advised and invested in the peace process. What is more, the 2016 peace agreement is a reality test for various concepts that Germany’s Federal Foreign Office has declared to be at the very heart of German crisis engagement: transitional justice, strengthening civil society and rule of law, security sector reform (SSR), and tackling weak statehood and transnational crime.

Non-State Armed Groups at the Colombian-Venezuelan Border Exploit and Recruit Children

Since 2016, new criminal armed groups have emerged and tried to take over territories previously controlled by the FARC-EP because of their geostrategic importance for illegal markets. In border areas such as the departments of Catatumbo, Arauca, and Vichada-Guainía, guerilla groups, different FARC-Dissidents and “post-paramilitary” groups have clashed with each other and the Colombian military. These confrontations have increased violations to International Humanitarian Law (IHL), and the ICRC, the UNHCR, and HRW have traced the increase of forced displacement in the border region.

In this context children are particularly vulnerable. The numbers of cases of both sexual exploitation and forced recruitment have tripled since 2016. The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated this trend. It has left many children out of school and even more at risk of (forced) recruitment. Besides armed actors’ coercion, youths tend to be lured into armed groups by the prospect of earning money. Children are oftentimes first turned into extortion collectors or coca-leaf-pickers and later into combatants. If family support is weak, children are more prone to consider the armed actors as their social environment. For girls it is common that male senior members of the armed group offer protection, affection, and later on develop relationships with them. This is part of the recruitment strategy and is oftentimes followed by sexual exploitation. 

The main causes of children’s vulnerability must be attended by improving the cooperation of international agencies with the state. In doing so, Colombian authorities with the support of international actors need to meet the following five challenges.

1. International Actors Should Advocate for Better Protection for Children and Teachers to Enable Education

Forced recruitment prevention policies should center on strengthening educational institutions as protective environments. The education system in remote areas lacks the reach, quality, and funding to keep children in school. Exacerbated by the Covid-19 lockdown restrictions (enforced by the government and non-state armed groups), school closures and drop-outs, poverty, and a general lack of opportunities have represented a fertile breeding ground for forced recruitment. Systemic barriers remain for migrant and refugee children to participate in school, the main obstacle being their lack of legal documentation. The Colombian government has recently implemented programs aimed to address this problem.

As most of the initiatives to enhance the local education system come from the church, civil society, and international partners, more funding is urgently needed. Furthermore, increasing threats against teachers have seriously impacted the consolidation of recruitment prevention strategies: between 2013 and 2017, non-state armed groups killed at least 16 teachers. Community organizations are key players to strengthen measures geared towards preventing the recruitment of children into armed groups, and to develop protection strategies for children and teachers, but they cannot do it alone. International actors in the border region can support communities and teachers by advocating for their participation in jointly designing better protection and prevention strategies with the Colombian state.

2. Germany Should Encourage Colombia to Put the Protection of Forcefully Recruited Children First

The Colombian Defense Minister recently referred to forcefully recruited children as ‘War Machines’ after several of them were killed in an airstrike by the Colombian security forces. There is a need to change this approach to forced recruitment by putting the protection of children and the application of international human rights standards at the center of attention. Germany should encourage the Colombian government to stick to its commitment to protect children who are exploited and recruited by armed groups. The formulation of policies oriented to address the protection of children - regardless of nationality and legal immigration status - could help to raise awareness and strengthen the prevention of recruitment with special consideration to different risks and necessities of both Colombian and Venezuelan children.

3. More Support for Local Organizations That Support Girls and Young Women at Risk Is Needed

Official institutions have not been able to provide enough protection to girls, young women at risk, and their families. As the Colombian state institutions are lacking a civil presence in remote areas in the border region, access to sexual reproductive health and psychosocial support is not guaranteed. This position has been filled by several national and international civil society organizations. Strengthening women’s leadership roles and agency in their own life and their communities is essential to protect them from exploitation by armed groups. Germany should support local initiatives and other organizations that work for the creation of a protective environment for girls and young women, taking into account their special needs and vulnerabilities.

4. Germany and the EU Should Continue and Increase Their Support for Venezuelan Refugees Who Are Particularly Vulnerable

As one out of six Venezuelans has sought refuge abroad or migrated, the Venezuelan refugee emergency is the largest in Latin America and second in the world only to that of Syria. Despite its massive dimension, the response to the humanitarian crisis is severely underfunded. In 2020, the total funding per refugee amounted to $3,150 per Syrian, $1,390 per South Sudanese, and just $265 per Venezuelan. Especially under the region’s Covid-19 related hardships, undocumented Venezuelan refugees have often suffered disproportionately. Given that the needs of Venezuelan refugees, as well as migrants or Colombian Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) are oftentimes exploited by non-state armed groups, this leads to a process of revictimization. Therefore, unconditional and reinforced protection is required. Germany, in cooperation with other EU countries, should continue and possibly even increase its role as a major partner country to UNHCR efforts in that context.

5. A Stronger Commitment of the International Community Is Needed to Make the 2016 Peace Agreement a Reality

While Germany has invested considerable resources into the 2016 peace agreement and its implementation, a stronger commitment of the international community could generate public confidence within Colombia and advance the agreement’s implementation. Germany should spare no efforts to advocate for this, within the United Nations Security Council, as well as the European Union. As a recent study by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation suggests, Germany could encourage the EU to designate a special representative for Venezuela and Colombia to increase diplomatic attention to the region's crises. This new mandate could include the task of exercising diplomatic pressure towards a full implementation of the 2016 peace agreement - which is absolutely essential to stop human rights violations and forced recruitment in the border region.

South America Protection Peacebuilding

Katherine Carrillo

Katherine Carrillo holds a degree in political sciences from National University of Colombia and a M.A. in Peace and Conflict Studies from the Otto von Guericke University in Germany. She works with the communities in Colombia’s most remote and vulnerable areas on peacebuilding and transitional justice. @KatheCarrilloM

Juliana Poveda

Juliana Poveda is a lawyer specialized in human rights and international humanitarian law from the National University of Colombia. She is currently pursuing her master’s degree at the International Institute of Social Studies at Erasmus University Rotterdam. Prior to that she worked as a consultant on IDPs, refugee protection and transitional justice in Colombia.