The Syrian civil war is creating a generation of traumatized, isolated and under-educated children who are vulnerable to exploitation and recruitment by armed groups, the United Nations said in a report.
About 1.1 million of 2.2 million refugees registered with the UN’s refugee agency are children, and among those who are school-aged fewer than half are in school, according to the report released today the UN High Commissioner for Refugees based on its July-October 2013 survey of refugee children and their families in Lebanon and Jordan.
Several of the 57 boys interviewed for the report expressed a desire to return to Syria to fight and the UN has heard of boys being trained to fight in preparation for return to Syria, the report said.
More than 100,000 Syrians have died since a civil war broke out on the heels of peaceful demonstrations which started in March 2011. The UN has struggled to deliver aid inside Syria, where an increasing number of opposition reports cite the use of starvation and siege tactics by government forces. The Security Council hasn’t been able to agree on a binding resolution that would require Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government and about 1,200 armed opposition groups to provide humanitarian-aid corridors.
“Looking back over the last 20 years, the Syria refugee crisis for us is unparalleled since the Rwanda crisis,” Volker Turk, the refugee agency’s director of international protection, told reporters in Geneva, referring to the 1994 genocide in the African country. About 800,000 men, women and children of ethnic Tutsis died in a weeks-long rampage by the Hutus, the ethnic majority.
“It is important that this human face of the refugee crisis is not forgotten,” Turk said. “And if you look at what children face, they illustrate very strongly what this crisis is all about.”
In Jordan, fewer than half of the 291,238 children are in school, according to the report. About 200,000 of the 385,007 refugee children in Lebanon could remain out of school by year’s end, the report said.
Instead of going to classes, children work menial jobs on farms or in shops or are selling guns on the street. The children, some as young as seven, are helping support parents injured by the war, who don’t earn enough to support the family, or are unable to work “owing to physical, legal or cultural barriers,” according to the report.
In Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp, the biggest UN-supported camp for fleeing Syrians, most of the 680 small shops employ children, according to the UN survey. Nearly half of refugee households in 11 of Jordan’s 12 governorates rely partly or entirely on a child’s earnings, the report found.
Kilian Kleinschmidt, a German who runs the Zaatari camp for UNHCR, said that his main concern is that “boys could slip into the world of smuggling, where they can be used as decoys, distracting the police, for example, while adults smuggle goods out of the camp.”
The boys are “premature adult men who have dreams about fighting, especially now with the war so present in their lives,” Kleinschmidt said in the report.
Aside from the refugees, half of the 6.5 million people internally displaced in Syria are children, he said.
More than 70,000 Syrian refugee families live without fathers and more than 3,700 refugee children are either unaccompanied by or separated from both parents, according to the report.
The UN’s humanitarian chief Valerie Amos will brief the Security Council on Dec. 3 on the situation in Syria, to follow up on her two previous briefings in October and earlier this month. She has repeatedly expressed alarm at the continued lack of access for humanitarian aid and the need for stronger council measures to pressure the Syrian government to do more.
“There is blood up to people’s knees in Syria,” Hala, a 17-year-old refugee, was quoted as saying in the report.