By Fr. Benedict Mayaki, SJ
The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reports that ten years of humanitarian crisis and hostilities in Syria have had a profound effect on the situation of most of the children in the country.
A recent statement from UNICEF notes that about 90 percent of children are in need of humanitarian assistance – a figure that represents a 20 percent increase in the past year alone. The children have been impacted by violence, displacement, severed family ties and lack of access to vital services caused by the massive physical devastation of the country.
The situation in northern Syria is particularly alarming, UNICEF notes. Millions of children are displaced, with many families having fled violence several times. Families are also forced to pay the price for a worsening economy and rising food insecurity. All these challenges are further exacerbated by the ongoing Covid-19 health emergency.
Effects of conflict on Syrian children
As the hostilities enter into its tenth year, “the Syrian crisis remains first and foremost a protection crisis. Grave violations of children’s rights – recruitment, abductions, killing and maiming continue unabated,” UNICEF notes. The reported numbers of children exhibiting symptoms of physical stress doubled in 2020 due to continued exposure to violence, shock and trauma which have had a significant impact on children’s mental health, with short- and long-term consequences.
Between 2011 and 2020 “about 12,000 children were killed or injured; more than 5,700 children – some as young as 7 – were recruited in the fighting; more than 1,300 health and education facilities and related staff were attacked,” UNICEF said.
Education in the country is also underfunded, overstretched and fragmented. UNICEF highlights that as of early 2021, one in three schools inside Syria could no longer be used because they had either been damaged or had been repurposed for military usage. The resulting effect is that nearly 2.45 million children are out of school in Syria; while those who are able to attend classes do so in overcrowded spaces with insufficient water, heating, and sanitation facilities.
Furthermore, hyperinflation is having a negative impact as food prices increased by 230%. Families are devising negative coping mechanisms, with parents “eating less so that they can feed their children, sending them to work instead of to school, and girls and boys face the risk of early or forced marriage.” Currently, over half a million children under five in Syria suffer from developmental delays due to chronic malnutrition.
“This cannot be just another sad anniversary, overshadowed by the international community, as children and families in Syria continue to struggle,” said UNICEF Director-General Henrietta Fore. “Humanitarian needs cannot wait. The international community should make every effort to bring peace to Syria and solicit support for the children. ”
Over the past years, UNICEF has expanded its crisis response operation in Syria to respond to the immediate and long-term needs. This includes improving access to education and psychosocial support services to help the children and their caregivers to recover from trauma, and delivering much-needed humanitarian assistance in hard-to-reach areas.
In 2020 the international organization screened 2.6 million children and women for acute malnutrition, improved water supply to an estimated 3.2 million people, vaccinated about 2.6 million children under age five through polio campaigns, and supported 2.2 million children with education services in formal settings.
Humanitarian Appeal for Syria
UNICEF has also launched a humanitarian action appeal for Syria, urging support as it provides critical services like access to water, nutrition, education and healthcare to conflict and disaster-affected children. The organization says it needs $330.8 million (USD) to reach the children in Syria with humanitarian assistance in 2021.
Currently, UNICEF highlights that over 11 million people, of which 4.8 million are children, require assistance in Syria, while 6.1 million people are internally displaced, including 2.5 million children.
Reiterating its commitment to responding to the needs of Syrian children, UNICEF calls for an end to the violence and for the warring parties to lower their weapons. It also urges the parties to avoid attacks on civilians, especially children; and on civilian infrastructure, including schools, hospitals, and water supply points.