The proportion of 16-year-olds recruited to fight in the British Army is the highest it has been for five years, prompting demands this weekend for the armed forces to raise the minimum recruitment age to 18.
New figures from the Ministry of Defence reveal that 1,400 16-year-olds were recruited into the Army last year, accounting for 17.4 per cent of all new recruits – an increase from 12.7 per cent the previous year.
And despite MoD guidelines saying under-18s should not be sent to battle zones, this newspaper has established that three were deployed to Afghanistan and two to Iraq between April 2007 and April 2010. Thirty-six teenage soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The admission that under-18s have been sent into combat since 2007 is contained in a recent letter from Andrew Robathan, minister for defence personnel, welfare and veterans, to Dr Hywel Francis MP, chairman of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights.
It states: "Two were within two days of their 18th birthday, and two were identified on their arrival in theatre and returned to UK; they redeployed after their 18th birthday. The fifth individual was not identified until after turning 18."
The admission comes four years after a former defence minister, Adam Ingram, admitted in 2007 that 15 teenagers, all aged 17, were deployed to Iraq between June 2003 and July 2005, and gave assurances that new procedures had been introduced to ensure under-18s would not be sent to war zones.
"Most people would be shocked to learn that the UK still recruits 16-year-olds into the Army," said Rachel Taylor, from the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers. "Not only are these deployments a serious breach of MoD regulations, they are also a serious violation of international law. The fact that this keeps happening shows that the MoD's so-called safeguards don't work and the only way to stop British kids from going to the front line is to raise the recruitment age to 18."