The number of children maimed, killed or recruited to fight in the Syria conflict has increased dramatically over the past year, with children as young as seven forced to act as frontline fighters, prison guards, suicide bombers and executioners.
Grave violations against Syrian children are at the highest level since the war began in 2011, according to a Unicef report, with at least 652 children killed in 2016 – a 20% increase on the year before – and 850 children recruited to fight in the conflict, nearly three times the 331 enlisted in 2015.
Since Unicef has only included verified reports of injury, death and recruitment, the actual figures are likely to be far higher.
“The situation for Syrian children has hit rock bottom,” said Juliette Touma, Unicef’s regional spokesperson. “The past year has been the worst since the crisis began, with children pushed right to the brink – being recruited at an ever younger age, being used to man checkpoints, being trained to use weapons, serving as prison guards. We also have reports of sexual abuse of girls by underage children, so it’s very grim.”
Coping mechanisms for Syrian children and their families are also deteriorating rapidly, warned the report, whether they are in Syria or beyond its borders. Families are increasingly taking extreme measures just to survive, often pushing children into early marriage and child labour in order to attain financial security.
Children in more than two-thirds of households are working to support their families, some in extremely harsh conditions unfit even for adults, said Unicef.
“I don’t know how to read or write – I only know how to draw the sky, the sea and the sun,” said four-year-old Fares, a Syrian refugee living in Lebanon
, who is quoted in the report.
“I’ve waited tables, I’ve served beans, corn, hummus, hookah pipe, potatoes and seeds. I’ve cleaned the shop and and served ice cream to children. I don’t know how to fill the cone but I help [the others] do it. I want to leave my house. It’s like a prison.”
The conflict has taken a devastating toll on the mental health of Syria’s children. More than 70% of Syrian children interviewed by Save the Children showed symptoms of “toxic stress” or post-traumatic stress disorder, with symptoms including bedwetting, loss of speech, aggression and substance abuse. The same report said that 59% of adults knew children and adolescents who had been recruited into the conflict. Nearly half knew children working at checkpoints or barracks.
Nearly 6 million Syrian children are now dependent on humanitarian assistance – a twelvefold increase on 2012, said the report – with the most vulnerable the 2.8 million children in hard-to-reach areas. Almost 300,000 children are living under siege and are largely cut off from humanitarian aid, according to Unicef. More than 2.3 million child refugees are in Turkey
, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt
With their parents largely unable to work, Syrian children at home and abroad are forced to become the breadwinners, said the report. Children are working in more than 75% of Syrian households, nearly half of them as joint or sole breadwinners, serving as cleaners, garbage collectors, mechanics, carpenters, hairdressers and hotel bell boys. Meanwhile, refugee children in Lebanon can work up to 10-hour days selling gum and flowers, or simply begging, a report last year found.
Nearly 2 million children in Syria are out of school, with roughly one-third of all schools unusable due to destruction, damage, or use for shelter or military purposes, according to Unicef.
An additional half a million Syrian children are out of school in neighbouring countries, said Touma. “These are the children most at risk, because they are prone to early marriage, child labour and all sorts of abuse, and that makes them especially vulnerable to becoming a lost generation.”
Syrian children are nonetheless united in their thirst for education, according to Touma, who pointed to the hundreds who study Arabic, maths and English in an underground cave in Idlib province.
“We know that more than 12,000 children crossed active conflict lines and checkpoints [last year] just to go and sit their exams,” Touma said. “And that’s exactly what we need to invest in – that determination, that persistence – by providing more cash assistance to families so they are able to send their children to school, to prevent their girls from being married early, to prevent the child labour.”
Safaa El-Kogali, education practice manager for the Middle East
and north Africa
at the World Bank, said: “The impact of the Syrian civil war on the education sector cannot be understated. School infrastructure has been devastated, teacher-flight is widespread, and students are at risk of being targeted on their way to school.
“These insecurities have resulted in a significant drop in enrolment. The short- and long-term effects of these lost years of education will play a significant role not only in constraining the future of the Syrian economy and society, but on the peace and stability of the region.”
Darsy, 12, now a refugee in Turkey, told Unicef: “I want to be a surgeon to help the sick and injured people of Syria. I dream of a Syria without a war so we can go home. I dream of a world without any wars.”
Unicef has called for a political solution to the conflict in Syria and an immediate end to all grave violations against children, with those committing such violations to be held accountable.
“The children are very aware of this situation and all they wish is for the war to end so they can go back home and be children again,” said Touma. “That’s exactly what we need to invest in – providing assistance to Syrian children wherever they are, in Syria or in neighbouring countries or Europe
or wherever, so that they can eventually go back home and build their lives again.”