The men have sent a letter before action to Aegis saying their experiences in Iraq compounded the psychological harm they had already suffered in childhood. This is the first step in launching a civil claim for damages.
“They are quite haunted young men who were children under the age of 13 when they were fighting [in Sierra Leone],” Read told the Guardian, adding that their exposure to more violence during their time working as security guards in Iraq had further traumatised them.
She added: “We thought they reflected a good example of the injustices that probably most of the men who were former child soldiers in Iraq have suffered from.”
The two men allege that the company failed to monitor their mental health, provide counselling or take other steps that might have mitigated this.
Graham Binns, Aegis’s former CEO and GardaWorld’s senior managing director, told the Guardian it would be inappropriate to comment on an ongoing case.
In April a Danish documentary alleged that former child soldiers were among the 2,500 personnel recruited from Sierra Leone to work in Iraq by Aegis and other security companies for as little as $16 (£13) a day.
A former senior director at Aegis defended the practice of hiring personnel from Sierra Leone, saying the company had a “duty” to recruit there because they were cheaper than Europeans. It would have been “quite wrong” to check if they had been child soldiers as this would penalise people for doing jobs they had been forced to do, former brigadier James Ellery told the Guardian, pointing out that under UN rules child soldiers cannot be tried for war crimes.
However, Chi Onwurah, a Labour MP and chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Africa, said: “There’s an inherent racism in paying security guards less depending on the country they are coming from when they are facing the same risks as a guard from the UK.”
Read denied that asking whether a potential recruit had ever been a child soldier would be a form of discrimination.
“We think they should have been asking. We say they obviously knew anyway – and if they didn’t, they should have been asking because they have a duty to provide mitigating support such as counselling and time off,” she said. This “wouldn’t have been a huge burden on Aegis”, she told the Guardian, London.
Approached by the Guardian in April to ask about the allegations raised in the documentary, Binns said: “We worked very closely with our audited, vetted and authorised agents to recruit, vet and screen our professionals. Our agents were authorised [as was the employment of individuals] by the relevant national government of the countries from which we recruited.
“Aegis takes issues pertinent to our industry, such as post-traumatic stress very seriously, and has worked closely with experts in the field to develop and implement procedures for the management of trauma risk.”