As Conflict Enters Sixth Year, UNICEF Offers Critical Steps to Protect Syrian Children

In Aleppo, Syria, four-year-old Esraa and her brother Waleed, three, sit on the ground near a shelter for internally displaced persons. Photo: UNICEF/UN013175/Al-Issa

GENEVA–(ENEWSPF)–14 March 2016 – Unless the needs and rights of the more than eight million Syrian children are addressed, an entire generation will be lost, along with decades of development progress, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) warns in a new report that calls on the international community to protect the youngest civilians amidst “a children’s crisis.”

According to the report, “No Place for Children,” some 8.4 million children – more than 80 per cent of Syria’s child population – are now affected by the conflict, either inside the country or as refugees in neighbouring countries.

“What are we to say to them and to all the children of Syria? That we don’t care if they become a lost generation, because of losses in learning and good health that will affect them for years to come?” UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake asks in the first pages of the report.

“We cannot restore the precious years of childhood snatched away by this brutal war, but we can and must prevent their futures from also being stolen,” he added. “For their futures are the future of Syria.”

The report notes the various ways that children are impacted by the conflict, and offers five critical steps for protecting them.

Thirteen-year-old Mohammed, who is a refugee in Turkey, told UNICEF he does not know how to view his future.

“I am kind of in between hopeful and hopeless. Maybe in time I will be able to answer this question,” he said. “I just wish there was such a power on earth that could bring back the things I have lost.”

Violence has become ‘commonplace’

Released on the fifth anniversary of the start of the Syrian conflict, the report notes that some 3.7 million Syrian children are five years of age or older. With a conflict that is now “the most deadly and complex” of our time, it is also the only way of life that these youngsters have ever known.

War is part of everyday life for Syrian children, some 7 million of whom live in poverty, said Peter Salama, UNICEF’s Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa.

“Violence has become commonplace, reaching homes, schools, hospitals, clinics, parks, playgrounds and places of worship,” said Mr. Salama.

As a result, there are few safe places for children, leading UNICEF to say in the report that “more than ever, it is a children’s crisis.”

UNICEF verified nearly 1,500 grave violations against children in 2015, according to the report. More than 60 per cent of these violations were instances of killing and maiming as a result of explosive weapons used in populated areas, often as the child was heading to or from school.

Growing up too fast

With all aspects of life disrupted, many children are forced to become their family’s sole breadwinners or take up arms, according to report.

Two Syrian refugees, a brother and sister, in Jordan. Photo: UNICEF/Lucy Lyon

“As the war continues, children are fighting an adult war, they are continuing to drop out of school, and many are forced into labour, while girls are marrying early,” Mr. Salama said.

The average age for recruitment has also decreased. UNICEF reported that before 2014, most of the armed forces and groups recruited boys between the ages of 15 and 17, and primarily for support roles.

That number has fallen, with children as young as seven joining, often without parental consent. The report notes that parties to the conflict are now using children “to kill, including as executioners or snipers,” while others man checkpoints, carry weapons, and even treat or evacuate the wounded.

As a result, school attendance rates, even in cases where schooling is available, has “hit rock bottom,” according to UNICEF. The agency estimates that more than 2.1 million children inside Syria, and 700,000 in neighbouring countries, are out-of-school.

In response, UNICEF and partners launched the “No Lost Generation Initiative,” which is committed to restoring learning and providing opportunities to young people.

Steps for protection

Investing in learning is one of the five recommendations that UNICEF laid out in today’s report. In addition, it is seeking $1.4 billion this year to support around 4 million children and young people inside Syria and in neighbouring countries access formal and non-formal education.

The agency also called for an end to violations of children’s rights, and urged respect for obligations under international humanitarian law and human rights law, such as immediately ending attacks on education, health and water facilities, and preventing sexual violence and recruitment of children.

In addition, UNICEF called for all parties to the conflict to enable immediate, unhindered and sustained access to besieged and hard to reach areas; for restoring dignity to Syrian children and protecting their rights; and urged donors to fulfil a $1.1 billion appeal to continue providing assistance to children inside Syria and in neighbouring countries.