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Situation of Syrian Refugee Children

Syrian refugee children attend a class at a makeshift school set up in a tent at an informal tented settlement near the Syrian border on the outskirts of Mafraq, Jordan, 10 March 2016. Photo Muhammed Muheisen

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, an estimated 11 million Syrians have left their homes since the start of the Syrian civil war in March 2011. Among the UNHCR’s 4,810,710 registered Syrian refugees (as of 30 November 2016), most live in only five neighboring countries. About 2.1 million Syrians are registered in Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq, while 2.7 million are hosted by Turkey. Out of the 4.8 million registered refugees, the U.N. suggests that more than half of them — roughly 2.5 million — are under the age of 18, with a majority that has not attended school in months or even years. A report issued by UNICEF in March 2016 estimates that 3.7 million Syrian children has been born since the conflict broke out in 2011. That represents 1 in 3 of all Syrian children. The report documents more than 811,000 children born in countries neighbouring Syria, out of which 306,000 children born with the registered refugee status. Additionally, UNICEF estimates that over 80 per cent – around 8.4 million children of Syria’s child population have had their lives shaped by violence, by fear and displacement, and have been affected by the conflict.

According to a report of the United Nations Security General (UNSG) for Children and Armed conflicts from February 2014, more than 10,000 children were killed in Syria between the years 2011 and 2013. There is no other source of information on the number of children killed since then.

There is no safe place for children in Syria today. With violence reaching record-levels, destruction has hit homes, playgrounds, schools, parks and places of worship indiscriminately. Since the break of the war in 2011, UNICEF has managed to document over 1,500 grave violations against Syrian children’s rights; these violations include killing and maiming (mainly due to explosive weapons), child-soldier recruitment by parties of the conflict, abduction, arrest, rape, trafficking, and the denial of humanitarian access – mainly by the Syrian regime. These are the gravest among a myriad of others. Moreover, the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) published a report in 2014 accusing the Syrian regime of imprisoning at least 9,500 children since the start of the uprising in 2011. These arrests were not conducted on any legal basis, but were carried out by regime troops kidnapping children that had participated in the peaceful demonstrations that took place in the first six months of the Syrian uprising.

Marwan Abdulsalam, a former detainee of the Syrian military intelligence branch, told ‘the New Arab’ newspaper in 2014, after the release of the SNHR’s report, that during his detention, he saw “more than 30 children” detained with him. He added that some were younger than 10 years old. Marwan said that, at times, interrogators beat the children with a silicon rod in order to extract information about their families and relatives who might be involved in anti-regime protests.

One trend among the violations against the children, which is directly related to the denigration of the respect for international humanitarian and human rights laws by the parties of the conflict, is the increase in the recruitment of the children to fight in the conflict. Given the harsh economic reality that governs Syria nowadays, partisan groups to the conflict actively encourage children to join the war, offering various rewards including salaries that can amount to US $400 per month. In the first couple of years of the conflict, the majority of children recruited were boys between the ages of 15 and 17, who were deemed useful for supporting roles away from the frontlines – usually on checkpoints and for guard shifts, in regime-held areas mostly. Since 2014, the parties attributed for child recruitment are the Islamic State (IS), the Free Syrian Army and its affiliated groups, Liwa’ al-Tawhid, popular committees in different parts of the country, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), Ahrar al-Sham, the Nusra Front, and the Army of Islam.

With the war intensifying, especially in some specific camps where the regime and IS are fighting, recruitment has targeted children as young as seven years old. It often happens without parental consent, but some parents also accept their children’s recruitment for the financial benefits offered by the recruiters. A UNICEF report from 2015 documented a hike in recruits under the age of 15 compared with 2014. Nowadays, children are formally receiving military training and participating in combat, in addition to assuming a more life-threatening role upfront on battle lines, including evacuation and treatment of the wounded. Girls are being recruited too.

One of the most significant challenges to children’s rights created by the conflict has been child education. The UNICEF report estimates that more than 2.1 million children inside Syria and more than 700,000 in neighboring countries are out-of-school. School attendance rates inside Syria was hitting rock-bottom in 2016, the 5th year of the conflict, as gross enrolment ratio in basic education was down to the 74 per cent mark. Two decades of investment in education have been thrown down the drain, with over 6,000 schools in Syria that are no longer functioning, either due to abandonment or due to bombardment. The net enrolment in primary education has fallen to the 70 per cent mark in 2013, a number as low as in the 1980s when Syria hugely suffered economically, in addition to the military crackdown on the Syrian city of Hama. In Aleppo, the school attendance rate was already extremely low in 2013, at 6%.

Out of the 14 governorates Syria is divided into, the five governorates with the most intense fighting among anti-government and government groups amount to half of the children at school. These governorates are Damascus, rural Damascus, Aleppo, Idlib and Homs. By 2016, and according to the UNICEF report titled ‘Education under Fire,’ classrooms were systematically emptied either because teachers and students were killed, or because more than 52,000 teachers left their posts due to various reasons. One of the reasons was the regime’s mass firing of teachers had showed sympathy or participated in anti-regime activity, mainly protests.

Yet, finding spaces in classrooms is not deemed the main problem. Many children lack the right or official documents to enroll. This is a situation most of the refugee children in neighboring countries are facing, especially in Lebanon, a country where refugees are scattered among rural and urban areas with no official refugee camps hosting them (apart from camps set up, and already inhabited by, Palestinian refugees). Additionally, children outside of Syria face the difficulty of accommodating to the new curricula and unfamiliar languages of English and French. Children who have missed school for years now face the psychological difficulty of sharing classes with much younger students. In Lebanon and Iraq, families prefer not to send their daughters to school, fearing long walks through insecure streets might expose them to operations of kidnapping or rape.

Malala Yousafzai, a global icon and education activist, says that a sum of US $1.4 billion a year is needed to educate the children of Syria. According to her, this number is affordable in comparison to the cost of losing a generation to war and violence, just when the world will need the next generation of doctors, teachers and engineers to rebuild Syria. In 2012, the total economic loss of human capital formation due to dropout from schools in Syria amounted to US $10.7 billion, according to a UNICEF study. This constitutes 17 percent, or one-fifth, of the 2010 Syrian GDP.

Developmental gains achieved since the late 1980s in Syria have been wiped out. In the last six years, Syria has regressed 23 places on the Human Development Index and its development has been pushed four decades back. Nearly seven million children living in Syria are under the poverty line, and children as young as three years old are being forced to work. Girls are also being forced into marriages at a younger age, simply because families cannot afford to take care of all their children anymore. A study on early marriages in refugee camps in Jordan, conducted by UNICEF, concluded that one-third of all Syrian marriages in camp settings are involving girls under the age of 18 – double the rate of 2011. Girls as young as 12 years old are getting pregnant, causing a majority to show signs of profound psychological and emotional distress among them and their newborns.