Life for Syrian refugee children brings psychological pain, says UN report

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Syrian girl on streets in Aleppo
A young girl on the streets of Aleppo, Syria walks past mounds of debris left from months of armed conflict as she carries jugs of drinking water back to her family in January 2013. Image: Romenzi/UNICEF

(WNN) United Nations, Geneva, SWITZERLAND, WESTERN EUROPE: Suffering from what experts call ‘psychological distress’ many children who have been displaced during the days of conflict in Syria may now dropping through the cracks, says a new in-depth survey by UNHCR – the United Nations Refugee Agency.

Displacement of families is causing children to face serious conditions, often without their parents, outlines the report “The Future of Syria – Refugee Children in Crisis.”

“Our lives are destroyed. We are not being educated, and without education there is nothing. We’re heading towards destruction,” said the testimony of Nadia, a newly arrived Syrian refugee child who is now located in Jordan.

As children become separated from their families some do end up in refugee camps in Jordan or Lebanon. This alone, along with images and memories of what they witnessed under conflict, can cause children to suffer from ongoing psychological stress.

“Children as young as four or five have drawn graphic images of rockets, guns, blood and houses that have been destroyed,” outlines eye-witness statements in the new report made by two UNHCR registration assistants, Tatiana Nassar and Therese Sarkis, who asked child refugees to draw during their registration interviews for the refugee camp southeast of the city of Tyre, Lebanon.

War related injuries are not uncommon among children who are also facing unstable situations in the camps.

Many of these children become the primary breadwinners when older male members of their families are dead, injured, missing or have left to become involved in the Syrian conflict. Experiencing a breakup in their family due to the conflict, over 70,000 Syrian refugee families live without fathers and over 3,700 refugee children are either unaccompanied by or separated from both parents, says the UNHCR.

One in two refugee families living in camps now depend on children to bring needed money to the family. In the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan medical teams examined and treated 1,379 children for conflict-related injuries during the year from October 5, 2012 to October 25, 2013. Their injuries included broken bones, burns and bullet wounds. But these are not the only injuries children receive during armed conflict.

Extreme stress, worry, fear, grief, sadness and depression are all part of what can come along with displacement during war.

Labor trafficking of children or illegal use of children to work as well as the training of children to become soldiers involved with the Syrian conflict have also become part of the challenges facing Syrian refugee children. Other situations for Syrian girls include fear of assault, where families feel desperate to many times restrict their daughters from leaving their home compound.

With a desire to protect their families, refugee boys are particularly susceptible to being encouraged to return as young child fighters in Syria. Other children try to find work, most often extremely underpaid, in whatever way they can.

“If we do not act quickly, a generation of innocents will become lasting casualties of an appalling war,” said António Guterres the High Commissioner for Refugees during a recent news release.

Since the conflict began in March 2011 there are now an estimated 1.1 million Syrian refugee children. The majority of these children are living in border countries as the conflict is making its impact on children “leaving physical and emotional scars” says UNHCR.

“In Lebanon, the first six months of 2013 saw 741 Syrian refugee children being referred to hospitals for treatment of injuries. In Jordan, more than 1,000 children at the Za’atri refugee camp have been treated for war-related injuries over the past year.,” continued the UN Refugee Agency.

As access to to organized school activities or education children in both Jordan and Lebanon can face dangerous conditions that can turn into child exploitation, the report warns. More than one half of all Syrian child refugees in Jordan are now not attending school.

“In Lebanon, it is estimated that some 200,000 school-aged Syrian refugee children could remain out of school at the end of the year,” continued the UNHCR.

“The world must act to save a generation of traumatized, isolated and suffering Syrian children from catastrophe,” says Hollywood actress and UNHCR Special Envoy for the region Angelina Jolie.

Advocates like Jolie and Guterres are asking that regions beyond the borders of Syria also step up to help those refugees who are now facing danger under relocation out of Syria, including children who have been seriously wounded.

Currently in the Za’atri refugee camp in Jordan 680 small shops are using children as external workers as refugee households rely on the small amount of money they generate. Often the work is not easy, or work that can be easily done by children. Researchers for the new UN Refugee Agency report have discovered that children as young as 7 are currently working extended hours “for little pay, sometimes in dangerous or exploitative conditions.”

Statelessness is also an integral part of the hard bargain for children as 77 percent of 781 refugee families surveyed inside Lebanon have had infants born without any legal birth certificates given at birth. This can cause problems in identifying a child’s, or later an adult’s, nationality so they can receive full rights inside the country where they live.

Concern for those who are facing these and other growing problems is now rising as children, and their families, become greater victims to the conflict with impacts that may last a lifetime. Outlining the desperate situation is one that is primary to the UNHCR, say advocates.


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