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, according to the new report The Future of Syria – Refugee Children in Crisis. These are its findings:
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.