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2.6. Persons fearing forced or child recruitment by Kurdish forces

Last update: September 2020

This profile refers to the topic of recruitment under the ’Duty of Self-Defence’ and the topic of child recruitment by Kurdish forces.

COI summary

a. ‘Duty of Self-Defence’ and forced recruitment

[Main COI reference: Targeting, 3.3, 4.1, 4.2]

Compulsory recruitment was first introduced by the Kurdish Administration on 14 July 2014 on the basis of the Law on Mandatory Self-Defence Duty. All amendments and previous versions of the Law became null and void after the General Council (Majlis al-‘Am) agreed on 35 Articles regarding the ‘Duty of Self-Defence’ in June 2019. Geographically, the law is confined to the areas of northern and eastern Syria under the control of the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration.

‘Conscription’ is mandatory for all male residents, both Syrian nationals and stateless Kurds, living in the territories under the Autonomous Administration, after reaching 18 years. Syrians from other parts of the country who have resided in the area longer than five years are obliged to join as well. One source indicated that men who served in the SAA also had to complete the service under the ‘Duty of Self-Defence’ in the Kurdish areas. Men serve in the YPG, while women can join the YPJ on a voluntary basis.

According to one report, while under the Kurdish Administration law, members of ethnic and religious minorities are obliged to serve, the law was not enforced, and they rather joined on a voluntary basis. In 2017, there were reports that recruitment policies in Arab areas, such as Manbij and Taqba, were halted after the intervention of tribal leaders.

The ‘Duty of Self-Defence’ has to be completed by the age of 40 years and it usually lasts six months. However, during May 2018 to May 2019, it lasted 12 months. In the case of conscientious objection to join the Kurdish forces or arrest because of refusal to join, the ‘Duty of Self-Defence’ would be 15 months as a punitive measure. Late enlisters are obliged to serve for an additional month. 

Deferrals can be granted by the Self-Defence Duty Department for: students, recent returnees to Syria, and persons with siblings younger than 18 years and a passed away or handicapped father. Exceptions to the ‘Duty of Self-Defence’ include medical reasons, disabilities, family members of martyrs holding a proving certificate thereof, or only sons. There is conflicting information as to whether the payment of a fee can exempt an individual from the ‘Duty of Self-Defence’, however according to Article 10 (2019) the payment of guaranty (kafāla) does not exempt from the mandatory service. Lists of people wanted for service in the YPG were issued in 2015.

SDF and YPG use forced recruitment in addition to the ‘conscription’ system, in order to supplement their numbers. There were documented cases of arbitrary arrest for recruitment despite applicable postponements for education or medical reasons. Arrests of men of 18 years old and above, who attempted to avoid forced recruitment, were reported. The individuals recruited received basic training and were subsequently sent to the frontlines.

There were also reports that the SDF was asking returning families to volunteer one man per family to join YPG, which deterred some families from returning to their homes. Some families chose to move from the areas under SDF in order to avoid reprisals, including arrest, for not accepting recruitment. IDPs in Mabrouka camp alleged that SDF forces were targeting certain families for forced recruitment and that families without sons were reportedly made to pay USD 300 to SDF soldiers. Different sources stated that members of the Arab communities in areas under SDF control were also subjected to forced recruitment by the SDF. Arab fighters that refused to join SDF claimed that they have been subjected to harassment, arbitrary arrests, and confiscations of weapons and cars.

b. Child recruitment

[Main COI reference: Targeting, 4.3]

The recruitment and use of child soldiers by the YPG had been documented since 2014. In the period from January to December 2018, the UN verified the recruitment and use of 313 children, both boys and girls, by SDF forces.

IDP camps were a source for recruiting children, in some occasions without the permission of their families. Parents usually had no contact with their children once they were recruited and only found out from authorities that their children were in training. In July 2018, SDF declared an end to using child soldiers and released 56 underage boys to their families in December 2018. This was followed by the adoption by the SDF of an UN action plan to end the recruitment and use of children in conflict in June 2019. However, during the course of 2019, conscription of children was still documented.

Risk analysis

SDF/YPG are non-State armed forces, therefore, non-voluntary recruitment by SDF/YPG, even if imposed under the ‘Duty of Self-Defence’, is considered as forced recruitment. Forced recruitment and child recruitment are of such severe nature that they would amount to persecution.

Not all individuals from Kurdish-controlled areas would face the level of risk required to establish well-founded fear of persecution. The individual assessment of whether or not there is a reasonable degree of likelihood for the applicant to face persecution should take into account risk-impacting circumstances, such as: gender, falling within an exception ground, ethno-religious background, age, being in an IDP situation, etc.

Nexus to a reason for persecution

While the risk of forced recruitment as such may not generally imply a nexus to a reason for persecution, the consequences of refusal, could, depending on individual circumstances, substantiate such a nexus, among other reasons, to (imputed) political opinion. In the case of child recruitment, the individual circumstances of the applicant need to be taken into account to determine whether a nexus to a reason for persecution can be substantiated.