Female junior soldiers on parade at the Graduation Parade For Intake 23 Of Junior Soldiers At The Army Foundation College Harrogate Yorkshire. Image Credit: Shutterstock

The British armed forces should stop recruiting children and raise the age at which people can join to 18, health experts have said.

The UK is the only permanent member of the UN security council to allow 16-year-olds into the army and is alone in the practice among European countries.

Writing in the journal BMJ Paediatrics Open , a paediatrician and a public health advocate have launched a scathing attack on the practice, adding to a growing body of calls that the age at which individuals can join the armed forces be increased.

Reem Abu Hayyeh, co-author of the editorial from the public health charity Medact, said: "Recruiting 16-year-olds does put them at harm and, for us, it is an irresponsible government policy.

"Government policy should look to prioritising the health of the British public and in particular that of children, and we believe that this policy and this practice does go against that," she added. "The UK does stand out as one of the very few countries across the world who continues this practice of recruiting 16-year-olds."

At present, individuals are permitted to apply to the UK army, navy and airforce from shortly before their 16th birthday , although anyone who applies before the age of 18 needs parental consent.

Last year, a survey commissioned by campaigners against child soldiers found that 68% of more than 2,000 people quizzed said they thought army recruits should be aged 18 or over.

Among their criticisms, Abu Hayyeh and Dr Guddi Singh, a paediatric registrar, wrote that recruiting 16-year-olds goes against children's rights by putting them at risk of harm and that such recruits cannot give "voluntary and informed consent" to joining up because the publicity material fails to show the realities of life in the armed forces.

Indeed, Abu Hayyeh pointed out that earlier this year army magazines were sent out with PlayStation magazines . "It is clearly targeting young people[and] it doesn't show two sides of the story," she said, adding that adolescents are more susceptible to emotive appeals.

Recent reports have also found the army particularly targets young people who are vulnerable, including those who have received poor GCSE results and those from low socioeconomic backgrounds .

Army recruits can begin training from 16 but can be sent to the front line only from the age of 18. However, Medact has previously released research showing that those recruited into the army as children are more likely to encounter trauma and have a greater likelihood of injury and death than those who signed up when they were adults - not least because young recruits are more likely to be sent to the frontline when they are old enough.

Abu-Hayyeh and Singh also pointed out that war-zone conditions could increase the risk of mental health problems, particularly for young and vulnerable recruits. "The army isn't a good place for those who have faced childhood adversity," added Abu-Hayyeh.

While proponents claimed it was necessary to recruit under-18s to bolster numbers, Abu-Hayyeh said the harm done to young people did not justify the practice. "That isn't a good enough answer," she said, adding that about a quarter of child recruits leave the armed forces before they have completed four years of service.

An Army spokesperson said: "We strongly dispute many of the assertions in this article, which are based on the assumption that under 18s are deployed in front line combat roles. This is not the case as 16-18 year old trainee soldiers are not deployed on combat operations and are able to leave employment at any point before their 18th birthday. It is also untrue to suggest we predominantly recruit from disadvantaged backgrounds."