International

Syrian war is making casualties of ‘a generation of innocents,’ warns UN

Child refugees are going without school and are forced to provide a living for surviving family members, finds UNHCR

Syrian children in the Za'atari refugee camp in February 2013 in Za'atari, Jordan.
Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

School-age refugees who have fled Syria’s civil war to neighboring countries are cut off from education and are increasingly becoming primary providers for families who lack resources for basic survival, the United Nations said Friday.

A report published by the U.N.’s refugee agency (UNHCR) says children represent 52 percent of the total Syrian refugee population, which now exceeds 2.2 million. Seventy-five percent of those children are under the age of 12.

“If we do not act quickly, a generation of innocents will become lasting casualties of an appalling war,” Antonio Guterres, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said in launching the report.

The UNHCR report found a majority of the refugee children live in Syria’s neighboring countries, with Jordan and Lebanon combined hosting more than 60 percent. As of the end of October, 291,238 Syrian refugee children were living in Jordan and 385,007 in Lebanon.

“This is the moment for the international community to fully understand that the support provided to the countries of the region needs to be strongly enhanced, needs to be really massive, because there is a risk for the asylum space if that doesn’t happen,” Guterres added.

The turmoil in Syria has torn families apart, with more than 3,700 children in Jordan and Lebanon living without one or both of their parents or with no adult caregivers at all.

As of of September 2013, the UNHCR had registered 2,440 unaccompanied or separated children in Lebanon and 1,320 in Jordan. In some cases, the parents have died, been detained or sent their children into exile alone out of fear for their safety.

“Some of them are literally speechless because they have seen horrors that affected them so much ... They can’t get it out of their mind, and they are highly traumatized,” UNHCR spokeswoman Roberta Russo told Al Jazeera.

Born stateless

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Another disturbing symptom of the crisis is the vast number of babies born in exile who do not have birth certificates.

A recent UNHCR survey on birth registration in Lebanon revealed that 77 percent of 781 refugee infants sampled did not have an official birth certificate. From January to mid-October, only 68 certificates were issued to babies born in Jordan’s sprawling Za'atari camp.

A grave consequence of the conflict is that a generation is growing up without a formal education.

More than half of all school-age Syrian children in Jordan and Lebanon are not in school.

It is estimated that in Lebanon, up to 200,000 school-age Syrian refugees could remain out of school at the end of the year.

In Jordan’s Za'atari camp, most of the 680 small shops employ children, the report said. A UNHCR assessment of refugee children living outside the camp found that in 11 of the country’s 12 provinces, nearly half the refugee households surveyed relied partly or entirely on income generated by a child.

In Lebanon hundreds of refugee children — many of them girls ages 7 to 12 — are picked up daily at dozens of informal refugee settlements dotting the Bekaa Valley and border areas in the north, loaded onto trucks and taken to the fields, where they work for six to eight hours and earn up to 6,000 Lebanese pounds (about $4) per day.

Many Syrian refugee children in Lebanon fall into the hands of criminal gangs specializing in exploiting the most vulnerable victims of the conflict. They are seen begging on the streets of Beirut or, more frequently, selling flowers or gum for their often abusive patrons.

“It’s another tragic consequence of the crisis. Young Syrian refugee children who should be in school are instead out working in the fields from early morning until late afternoon for a pittance,” Sonia Zambakides, Save the Children’s director for Lebanon, told The Associated Press. The British-based charity is giving the most vulnerable families cash donations through the winter as part of program that provides parents with an alternative to sending their children to work.

The charity also supports thousands of children in various learning programs and back-to-school campaigns in Lebanon so that thousands of children — many of whom have been out of school for more than two years — will be able to continue their education.

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press

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