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Child recruitment, child labour, discrimination and loneliness – the crisis of Syria's refugee children

Press Releases, 29 November 2013

A UNHCR survey of Syrian refugee children in Lebanon and Jordan has found widespread psychological distress, many children living alone or separated from their parents, most receiving no education, and extensive involvement of children in illegal labour.

The report, The Future of Syria Refugee Children in Crisis, released today, is the first in-depth survey conducted by UNHCR of Syrian refugee children since the conflict began in March 2011. Among its findings are that many Syrian refugee children are growing up in fractured families, and that children are often the

household's primary breadwinners. Over 70,000 Syrian refugee families live without fathers and over 3,700 refugee children are either unaccompanied by or separated from both parent s.

"If we do not act quickly, a generation of innocents will become lasting casualties of an appalling war," said UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres.

UNHCR Special Envoy Angelina Jolie said, "The world must act to save a generation of traumatized, isolated and suffering Syrian children from catastrophe."

The 32-month conflict is leaving physical and emotional scars. 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 camp have been treated for war-related injuries over the past year.

Anger and other emotional responses were also common: During focus group discussions with refugee boys, several expressed a desire to return to Syria to fight. The researchers also heard a report of boys being trained to fight in preparation for return to Syria.

In many cases, refugee families lacking financial re! sources send their children to work to ensure survival. In both Jordan and Lebanon, the researchers found children as young as seven years working long hours for little pay, sometimes in dangerous or exploitative conditions. In Za'atri refugee camp, Jordan, most of the 680 small shops employ children. An assessment in 11 of Jordan's 12 governorates found nearly one-in-two refugee households surveyed relied partly or entirely on income generated by a child.

The UNHCR research details a painful life of isolation, exclusion and insecurity for many refugee children. Of those interviewed, 29 per cent said that they leave their home once a week or less. Home is often a crammed apartment, a makeshift shelter or a tent.

The study includes multiple testimonies from children. Nadia, a newly arrived refugee in Jordan said, "our lives are destroyed. We are not being educated, and without education there is nothing. We're heading towards destruction."

The report shows that more Syrian child refugees are out of school than in. More than half of those in Jordan 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 without birth certificates an essential document in the battle against statelessness. A recent UNHCR survey on birth registration in Lebanon revealed that 77 per cent of 781 refugee infants sampled had no official birth certificate. Between January and mid-October 2013, only 68 certificates were issued to babies born in Za'atri camp.

The report details the massive effort mounted by the UN, NGOs, host governments and refugees themselves to address the suffering of refugee children. Financial assistance to refugee families is offered by UNHCR to help destitute and struggling families. The report profiles the creative effort! s of UNH CR, UNICEF, Save the Children and other NGOs to give children a chance to resume their education. Generosity and kindness of host communities is a recurrent theme.

There are over 1.1 million Syrian refugee children, most living in neighbouring countries. Demanding that "this shameful milestone of conflict must deliver more than headlines", Mr Guterres and Ms Jolie called for support for Syria's neighbours to keep their borders open, improve their services and support the host communities. They also appealed for countries beyond Syria's borders to offer resettlement and humanitarian admission to people who continue to feel unsafe in exile, and families with seriously wounded children.

After nearly a thousand days of conflict, the report's aim is to refocus attention on the plight of Syrian refugee children. The findings are being presented via a multimedia microsite http://unhcr.org/FutureOfSyria also subject to the 0500 GMT 29 Nov 2013 embargo] that features photographs, videos and easily tweetable quotes and statistics. Some of the videos were shot with GoPro cameras that followed children in Za'atari camp. The site appeals directly to individuals to share the children's stories, consider donating and write a message of solidarity that will be sha red with Syrian refugee children.

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION FOR JOURNALISTS

The full report, copies of this press release in Spanish, French, and Arabic, and a package of accompanying multimedia materials are available under strict embargo of not for use before 0500 GMT, 29 November 2013 at http://www.unhcr.org/media-futureofsyria

  • Lebanon: Melissa Fleming (+41 79 557 9122), Roberta Russo (+961 71 910 320)
  • Jordan: Kilian Kleinschmidt (+962 79 949 0361), Peter Kessler (+962-79-631-7901)

  • London: Andrej Mahecic (+44 788 023 0985 or +44 207 759 8091), Laura Padoan +44 777 556 6127 or +44 207 759 8092), Adrian Edwards (+41 79 557 9120)
  • Geneva [English]: Sybella Wilkes (+41 79 557 9138), Dan McNorton (+41 79 217 3011), Babar Baloch (+41 557 9106)
  • Geneva [French/English]: Fatoumata Lejeune-Kaba (+41 79 249 3483)
  • Geneva [Urdu/Pashto/English] +92 300 5017939 / +41 22 739 8250
  • Geneva [Portuguese/Spanish/English]: Luiz Fernando Gomez +41 76 378 6297
  • Washington: Brian Hansford (+1 202 999 8253)

WEBLINKS

Related photos, video b-roll, the report etc are available at: http://www.unhcr.org/media-futureofsyria

Help Syria's refugees by visiting: http://donate.unhcr.org/syria

Need a UNHCR press contact in your own country? http://www.unhcr.org/4a09806215.html

Microsite: http://unhcr.org/FutureOfSyria

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Haunted by a sinking ship

Thamer and Thayer are two brothers from Syria who risked their lives in the hope of reaching Europe. The sea voyage was fraught with danger. But home had become a war zone.

Before the conflict, they led a simple life in a small, tight-knit community they describe as "serene". Syria offered them hope and a future. Then conflict broke out and they were among the millions forced to flee, eventually finding their way to Libya and making a desperate decision.

At a cost of US$ 2,000 each, they boarded a boat with over 200 others and set sail for Italy. They knew that capsizing was a very real possibility. But they hadn't expected bullets, fired by militiamen and puncturing their boat off the coast of Lampedusa.

As water licked their ankles, the brothers clung to one another in the chaos. "I saw my life flash before my eyes," recalls Thayer. "I saw my childhood. I saw people from when I was young. Things I thought I no longer remembered."

After ten terrifying hours, the boat capsized in the Mediterranean Sea, throwing occupants overboard. Rescue, when it finally came, was too late for many.

Theirs was the second of two deadly shipwrecks off the coast of Lampedusa last October. Claiming hundreds of lives, the disasters sparked a debate on asylum policy in Europe, leading Italian authorities to launch the Mare Nostrum search and rescue operation. To date, it has saved more than 80,000 people in distress at sea.

Eight months on, having applied for asylum in a sleepy coastal town in western Sicily, Thamer and Thayer are waiting to restart their lives.

"We want to make our own lives and move on," they explain.

Haunted by a sinking ship

A Teenager in Exile

Like fathers and sons everywhere, Fewaz and Malak sometimes struggle to coexist. A new haircut and a sly cigarette are all it takes to raise tensions in the cramped apartment they currently call home. But, despite this, a powerful bond holds them together: refugees from Syria, they have been stranded for almost a year in an impoverished neighbourhood of Athens.

They fled their home with the rest of the family in the summer of 2012, after war threw their previously peaceful life into turmoil. From Turkey, they made several perilous attempts to enter Greece.

Thirteen-year-old Malak was the first to make it through the Evros border crossing. But Fewaz, his wife and their two other children were not so lucky at sea, spending their life savings on treacherous voyages on the Mediterranean only to be turned back by the Greek coastguard.

Finally, on their sixth attempt, the rest of the family crossed over at Evros. While his wife and two children travelled on to Germany, Fewaz headed to Athens to be reunited with Malak.

"When I finally saw my dad in Athens, I was so happy that words can't describe," says Malak. However, the teenager is haunted by the possibility of losing his father again. "I am afraid that if my dad is taken, what will I do without him?"

Until the family can be reunited, Malak and his father are determined to stick together. The boy is learning to get by in Greek. And Fewaz is starting to get used to his son's haircut.

A Teenager in Exile

Jihan's Story

Like millions, 34-year-old Jihan was willing to risk everything in order to escape war-torn Syria and find safety for her family. Unlike most, she is blind.

Nine months ago, she fled Damascus with her husband, Ashraf, 35, who is also losing his sight. Together with their two sons, they made their way to Turkey, boarding a boat with 40 others and setting out on the Mediterranean Sea. They hoped the journey would take eight hours. There was no guarantee they would make it alive.

After a treacherous voyage that lasted 45 hours, the family finally arrived at a Greek island in the Aegean Sea, called Milos - miles off course. Without support or assistance, they had to find their own way to Athens.

The police detained them for four days upon their arrival. They were cautioned to stay out of Athens, as well as three other Greek cities, leaving them stranded.

By now destitute and exhausted, the family were forced to split up - with Ashraf continuing the journey northwards in search of asylum and Jihan taking their two sons to Lavrion, an informal settlement about an hour's drive from the Greek capital.

Today, Jihan can only wait to be reunited with her husband, who has since been granted asylum in Denmark. The single room she shares with her two sons, Ahmed, 5, and Mohammad, 7, is tiny, and she worries about their education. Without an urgent, highly complex corneal transplant, her left eye will close forever.

"We came here for a better life and to find people who might better understand our situation," she says, sadly. "I am so upset when I see how little they do [understand]."

Jihan's Story

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