‘Nearly 7 million children live in poverty … more than 2.1 million out of school’ – says UNICEF report on Syria

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AN estimated 3.7 million Syrian children – 1 in 3 of all Syrian children – have been born since the conflict began five years ago, their lives shaped by violence, fear and displacement, according to a UNICEF report published on Monday.

This figure includes 306,000 children born as refugees since 2011. In total, UNICEF estimates that some 8.4 million children – more than 80 per cent of Syria’s child population – are now affected by the conflict, either inside the country or as refugees in neighbouring countries.

‘In Syria, violence has become commonplace, reaching homes, schools, hospitals, clinics, parks, playgrounds and places of worship,’ said Dr. Peter Salama, UNICEF’s Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa. Nearly 7 million children live in poverty, making their childhood one of loss and deprivation.’

According to ‘No Place for Children’, UNICEF verified nearly 1,500 grave violations against children in 2015. More than 60 per cent of these violations were instances of killing and maiming as a result of explosive weapons used in populated areas. More than one-third of these children were killed while in school or on their way to or from school.

In Syria’s neighbouring countries, the number of refugees is nearly ten times higher today than in 2012. Half of all refugees are children. More than 15,000 unaccompanied and separated children have crossed Syria’s borders. ‘Five years into the war, millions of children have grown up too fast and way ahead of their time,’ Salama said.

‘As the war continues, children are fighting an adult war, they are continuing to drop out of school, and many are forced into labour, while girls are marrying early.’ In the earlier years of the conflict, most of the children recruited by armed forces and groups were boys between 15 and 17 years old, and they were used primarily in support roles away from the front lines.

However, since 2014, all parties to the conflict have recruited children at much younger ages – as young as seven – and often without parental consent. More than half of the UNICEF-verified cases of children recruited in 2015 were under 15 years old, compared with less than 20 per cent in 2014. One of the most significant challenges to the conflict has been providing children with learning. School attendance rates inside Syria have hit rock bottom.

UNICEF estimates that more than 2.1 million children inside Syria, and 700,000 in neighbouring countries, are out-of-school. In response, UNICEF and partners launched the ‘No Lost Generation Initiative’, which is committed to restoring learning and providing opportunities to young people.

‘It’s not too late for Syria’s children. They continue to have hope for a life of dignity and possibility. They still cherish dreams of peace and have the chance to fulfill them,’ Salama said.

The report calls on the global community to undertake five critical steps to protect a vital generation of children.

• End violations of children’s rights;

• Lift sieges and improve humanitarian access inside Syria;

• Secure US$1.4 billion in 2016 to provide children with learning opportunities;

• Restore children’s dignity and strengthen their psychological wellbeing; and

• Turn funding pledges into commitments. UNICEF has received only 6 per cent of the funding required in 2016 to support Syrian children both inside the country and those living as refugees in neighbouring countries.

‘Addressing the needs and rights of all children affected by this conflict is essential if we are to avoid the loss of an entire generation, and decades of development progress,’ the report by the UN children’s agency said.

In a statement, Chair of the UN-supported Humanitarian Taskforce on Access in Syria, Jan Egeland said: ‘The consequences of the colossal abuse of children’s rights in Syria could outlast the war itself by decades.

‘How can we expect Syrian children to grow up respecting international law, and upholding it, if the rule of law failed them at their greatest moment of need?’ According to a report published in February by the Syrian Centre for Policy Research, the conflict has claimed the lives of over 470,000 people, injured 1.9 million others, and displaced nearly half of the country’s pre-war population of about 23 million within or beyond its borders.

In a statement on March 1st following his visit to Syria, UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake said: ‘I complete this visit to Syria, together with Dr. Peter Salama, Unicef Regional Director, on the eve of the fifth anniversary of this war.

‘My previous trip came on the eve of the third anniversary, two years of suffering ago. Now, the cessation of hostilities offers the Syrian people the possibility of peace. Everywhere I have visited – in Damascus, Homs, Hama and Al-Salameya – people spoke of hope.

‘Hope that there will be peace, hope that peace can be found in more than a diplomatic piece of paper, hope that peace will return in their daily lives. The children I met in their class rooms spoke of their hopes for their futures – as doctors, engineers, teachers.

‘As I crossed the lines into the encircled neighbourhood of Al Waer, I saw things that I had not seen two years ago – shops open for business, people walking freely, children learning in classrooms above ground instead of huddling in basements for fear of snipers.

‘Even in the shattered old city of Homs, people displaced by the fighting are returning. And importantly, senior government officials in Damascus have agreed that together with WHO and our partners including the Ministry of Health, we can go ahead and immediately plan and seek to implement a nationwide immunisation programme against childhood diseases.

‘This will require sustained access in all besieged and hard-to-reach areas, and that both government and armed opposition groups facilitate access to all Syrian children. But with that hope there were still signs of havoc and harsh evidence of the toll the war has taken on children.’

l The Syrian Health Ministry launched a new polio vaccination campaign for all children under five across the country on Sunday. The Ministry said that the campaign will be carried out in cooperation with the authorities concerned, civil associations, World Health Organisation (WHO), the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

The Ministry had already distributed 3,300,000 doses of vaccines for the campaign, in which 4399 health workers, 1133 qualified volunteers, 965 vehicles and 3788 mobile teams have been employed with the aim of reaching 2.8 million children nationwide.

The campaign targets 298,000 children in Damascus, 327,000 in Damascus Countryside, 308,000 in Hama, 16,000 in Deir Ezzor, 200,000 in Homs, 52,000 in Sweida, 52,000 in Quneitra, 164,000 in Lattakia, 126,000 in Tartous, 230,000 in Hasaka, 145,000 in Daraa and 300,000 children in Aleppo.

In a statement, Health Minister Nizar Yazigi asserted that the Ministry has taken all required procedures to ensure the success of the campaign, which will be carried out at the health centres and makeshift residential centres and through mobile teams with the aim to reach all targeted children regardless of their previous vaccines.

The vaccines, Yazigi added, are given free of charge and are of high quality matching the World Health Organisation (WHO) standards. Ministry of Health conducted 17 vaccination campaigns since 2013 with the aim of having Syria freed of polio, where no new cases of polio have been detected in Syria since January 21 of 2014.

Meanwhile, a convoy of 26 trucks carrying humanitarian aid arrived in Efrin and Azaz areas in the northern countryside of Aleppo on Sunday. The aid was delivered by the International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC), in cooperation with Aleppo Governorate and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC).

Some 10,000 families in the areas of Efrin and Azazi and the surrounding villages are expected to benefit from the supplies, an official at Aleppo Governorate said in a statement. The official noted that the aid includes food supplies and children’s requirements. On the 9th of February, Aleppo Governorate sent 20 trucks to Nubbul and al-Zahraa towns in the northern countryside, carrying food and medical supplies.