The world must act to save a generation of traumatised, isolated and suffering Syrian children from catastrophe. If we do not move quickly, this generation of innocents will become lasting casualties of an appalling war.
Research conducted over four months in Lebanon and Jordan found that Syrian refugee children face a startling degree of isolation and insecurity. If they aren’t working as breadwinners—often doing menial labour on farms or in shops—they are confined to their homes.
Perhaps the statistic we should pay the most attention to is: 29 per cent of children interviewed said that they leave their home once a week or less. Home is often a crammed apartment, a makeshift shelter or a tent.
It should be no surprise that the needs of these children are vast. Too many have been wounded physically, psychologically or both. Some children have been drawn into the war—their innocence ruthlessly exploited.
A grave consequence of the conflict is that a generation is growing up without a formal education. More than half of all school-aged Syrian children in Jordan and Lebanon are not in 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.
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 per cent of 781 refugee infants sampled did not have an official birth certificate. Between January and mid-October 2013, only 68 certificates were issued to babies born in Za’atari camp, Jordan.
Over 1.1 million Syrian children are refugees. This shameful milestone of conflict must deliver more than headlines.
Humanitarian organizations and governments are desperately trying to address the needs of the vulnerable children—but much more needs to be done if we are to avert a catastrophe. We must all work to:
For all the problems identified in this report, children have access to protection because countries like Lebanon and Jordan have welcomed them. No effort should be spared in supporting Syria’s neighbours to keep their borders open. Further afield, in the past few months, many adults and children have lost their lives attempting to reach Europe. States must do more to ensure the safety of people attempting to cross water and land borders.
The unwavering commitment of neighbouring countries to tackle the monumental task of supporting hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugee children must be matched by international solidarity. Overstrained school systems must be built up, health services expanded and local communities reassured that support is available for them too.
Children should never be drawn into conflict. All parties should make every effort to end this practice.
Countries beyond Syria’s borders should also offer a home to Syrian refugees. These programmes are important lifelines for the most vulnerable, including people who continue to be in danger and families with seriously wounded children. Unaccompanied and separated children are only considered for these programmes after a careful examination of their best interests.
We urge individuals and businesses to help fund UNHCR’s financial assistance scheme that targets vulnerable refugee families and call on governments to explore alternative livelihoods opportunities for Syrian refugees.
Lack of a birth certificate or related documentation can increase the risk of statelessness and expose children to trafficking and exploitation. Return home may be impossible for children without the necessary documentation. Progress is already being made in neighbouring countries, but it is vital that host countries continue to improve access to birth registration.
Over 1.1 million Syrian children have registered as refugees with UNHCR worldwide. Of this number, some 75 per cent are under the age of 12. Children represent 52 per cent of the total Syrian refugee population, which now exceeds 2.2 million. The majority live in Syria’s neighbouring countries, with Jordan and Lebanon combined hosting more than 60 per cent of all Syrian refugee children. As of 31 October 2013, 291,238 Syrian refugee children were living in Jordan, and 385,007 in Lebanon.
The turmoil in Syria has torn families apart, with over 3,700 children in Jordan and Lebanon living without one or both of their parents, or with no adult caregivers at all. By the end of September 2013, 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. UN agencies and partners help to find safe living arrangements for unaccompanied and separated children, reuniting them with their families or finding another family to look after them. Despite living in already crowded conditions, Syrian refugee families continue to open up their homes to relatives or even strangers.
The conflict in Syria has caused Syrian girls and boys of all ages to suffer immensely, both physically and psychologically. Children have been wounded or killed by sniper fire, rockets, missiles and falling debris. They have experienced first-hand conflict, destruction and violence. The psychological effects of such horrific experiences can be far-reaching, affecting their well-being, sleep, speech and social skills. Living in crowded homes with family members who are also distressed, some children find little respite. In 2013, UN agencies and partners have already reached out to over 250,000 children across Jordan and Lebanon with various forms of psychosocial support.
The unrelenting exodus of Syrian refugees to Jordan and Lebanon is having a dramatic impact on these small countries. Lebanon, with a population of a little more than 4 million, has received more than 800,000 Syrian refugees in two years. The economy, essential services and stability of the country are all suffering. Jordan, one of the most ‘water poor’ nations in the world, with a population of a little over 6 million, is now home to more than 550,000 Syrian refugees. It is also buckling under the pressure on its services, infrastructure and resources. While many Jordanians and Lebanese display kindness and generosity towards Syrian refugees, tensions between the communities—and even within refugee communities—have put refugee children at risk.
The pressures of displacement and dramatic changes in lifestyle lead many Syrian refugee children to feel isolated and insecure, both within and outside their homes. Children, particularly girls, are often kept at home for their safety. However, the stressful and uneasy environment in which many refugee families live can also trigger tension and violence in the home. Case managers and social workers offer vital support and counselling and work with families to ensure that children are living in safe and appropriate conditions. Local and international organizations also offer a wide range of recreational activities to children and adolescents, to brighten up their day-to-day lives.
In both Jordan and Lebanon, children as young as seven years old are working long hours for little pay, sometimes in dangerous or exploitative conditions. While some girls are employed, notably in agriculture and domestic work, the majority of working children are boys. Sheer financial necessity is at the core of almost all cases of child labour. In some families, parents simply cannot find a job, do not earn enough to support the family, or are unable to work owing to physical, legal or cultural barriers. An enormous burden falls on working children’s shoulders. Some are mistreated in the workplace, are exposed to illicit activities, or come into conflict with the law.
Case managers and social workers from UNHCR and partner organizations work with refugee children and their families to help them enrol in school or take part in other educational programmes, and where possible remove them from the workforce, or at least minimize the negative effects of working. UNHCR’s financial assistance programme also helps to deter Syrian refugee families from resorting to negative coping strategies, such as taking their children out of school to work.
Despite the generosity of donor and host governments and the efforts of UN agencies and partners, school is out of reach for many Syrian refugee children. As of September 2013, over 100,000 Syrian schoolaged children in Jordan were not enrolled in formal education. Twice this number could be out of school in Lebanon by the end of 2013. The number of Syrian school-aged children is soon likely to exceed the number of Lebanese children who were enrolled in the public system last year.
The low enrolment rate is linked to a range of factors including school capacity, cost, transportation and distance, curriculum and language, bullying and violence, and competing priorities such as the need for children to work. Educational opportunities for children with disabilities are particularly limited. If the situation does not improve dramatically, Syria risks ending up with a generation disengaged from education and learning.
Most Syrian refugee children are eager to go to school, and many parents also place high value on their children’s education. UN agencies and partners in Jordan and Lebanon are working with the respective Ministries of Education to improve levels of enrolment and the quality of education—including by training teachers on how to work with refugee children, boosting the capacity of schools to accommodate more students, covering the costs associated with going to school, and providing school materials such as uniforms, books, bags and stationery.
Local and international organizations also offer creative solutions to transport children to school safely, or to bring educational activities directly to refugee communities. Given the numerous barriers to education in both countries, the non-formal education programmes offered by UN agencies and partners are essential.
Birth registration provides evidence of a child’s age and legal identity, which is critical for ensuring that they can access their rights. It can also help to prevent statelessness. Families who have fled Syria with unregistered babies, or who have given birth in Jordan and Lebanon, face barriers to registering their children’s births. These are primarily linked to their lack of understanding of the importance of birth registration and how to go about it, and an inability to produce the required documents.
Consequently, levels of birth registration in both countries are low. A recent UNHCR survey in Lebanon revealed that 77 per cent of 781 Syrian refugee newborns did not have an official birth certificate. Between January and mid-October 2013, only 68 certificates were issued to babies born in Za’atari camp, Jordan, though birth certificates are now being issued on a weekly basis. The Governments of Jordan and Lebanon, UNHCR and partner organizations have been working together to ease the requirements for birth registration, and to raise awareness among refugees about this critical procedure.
Despite the difficult conditions in which children live, refugee girls, boys, women and men are demonstrating incredible strength and resilience, finding creative solutions to the issues they face and providing support to their families, friends and even strangers. Many girls and boys refuse to let go of their hopes and dreams; their eyes light up when they announce that one day, when all this is over, they will become doctors, lawyers and teachers.
While such an overwhelming number of refugees is placing an enormous strain on national systems, economies and even stability, the Governments of both Jordan and Lebanon continue to welcome Syrian refugees into their countries and facilitate their access to essential services, such as health and education. Many Lebanese and Jordanians are also reaching out to their Syrian neighbours in solidarity.
UN organizations, and local and international NGOs, are providing crucial support to governments, working to protect and assist Syrian children, and restore a sense of normalcy in their lives.
Over half of all Syrian refugees are children. As the leading refugee organization in the region, UNHCR undertook a research project on what life is like for Syrian girls and boys in the two countries hosting the highest number of Syrian refugees—Jordan and Lebanon. The objective was to produce an evidence-based report with a human face, targeting a wide audience to increase awareness about children’s protection challenges, give a sense of how UN agencies and partners are responding, and highlight some of the gaps that require the urgent attention of the international community.
Research was conducted in Jordan and Lebanon between July and October 2013. This entailed a desk review of existing reports and assessments, data collection, and field research in urban, rural, and camp settings. Information was gathered through focus group discussions and interviews with refugee children and their families, refugees working with children in their communities, and staff from UNHCR and other organizations working with refugee children. In individual interviews, a life cycle approach was taken, asking refugees about their lives in Syria, their journey to the country of asylum, their lives as refugees, and their hopes for the future.
Interviews and focus group discussions with refugee children provided quantitative information on a variety of issues, including how often children leave the home, how many children go to school, and how many children are working. They also provided qualitative information on the lives of refugee children. Due to the focus and methodology of this report, sexual and gender-based violence, including early marriage, was not addressed. This area requires more time and cultural sensitivity than the scope of this project allowed and will therefore be addressed in a separate project.
Overall, 81 refugee children (52 boys and 29 girls) and 26 parents were interviewed in Jordan and Lebanon. Furthermore, 121 children (57 boys and 64 girls) and 54 mothers participated in focus group discussions. In total, 106 individuals were spoken to in Jordan and 176 in Lebanon. The research team held 27 structured interviews in Lebanon and 33 in Jordan with staff from UN agencies and national and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs), as well as refugees working with children in their communities. In addition, a number of informal interviews were conducted with UNHCR and partner staff during the course of field research and data collection.
The names of the refugee children referred to in this report have been changed for their protection, except for those who appear in videos and photos and gave their express permission.
“There can be no keener revelation of a society's soul than the way in which it treats its children.”
~ Nelson Mandela ~
It's all of our responsibility to protect the children of Syria, to tell their stories, and raise awareness about their plight, until they can go home. Please consider donating (or supporting), connecting, and sharing.
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Syrian Refugee Children
Every day, the conflict in Syria is forcing thousands of Syrian children to flee their country.
Every day, the conflict in Syria is forcing thousands of Syrian children to flee their country.