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As the Syrian government increasingly resorts to using heavy armaments and long-distance aircraft — and possibly chemical weapons — to attack the opposition movement and other enemies, the risk of children being killed or maimed in the fighting has risen sharply, says the United Nations Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict.
More than three million children in Syria suffer from consequences of the conflict, which entered its third year in March, with no let-up or sustained cease-fire. Many children lack access to food or education, and thousands have been killed or injured in their homes and schools or as they tried to reach shelter.
“From our latest investigations on the ground in the region, I would say the rising toll of killing and maiming of children in the crisis is the most pressing issue,” Alec Wargo, a program officer for Asia and the Middle East in the UN office on children and armed conflict, said in an interview.
Wargo added that the Syrian Army was using heavy artillery, Scud missiles, cluster munitions and mechanized armaments that can shoot targets that are several miles away. The widespread impact of these weapons affects large numbers of people, damage that often includes civilians and children.
“Syria is expanding its relentless use of cluster munitions, a banned weapon, and civilians are paying the price with their lives and limbs,” Steve Goose, the director of the arms division at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “The initial toll is only the beginning, because cluster munitions often leave unexploded bomblets that kill and maim long afterward.”
The UN Office of Children and Armed Conflict, which is based in New York, also has evidence that Syrian government forces are using children as human shields in the combat, and that the Free Syrian Army, the main rebel group, is recruiting children for support roles such as acting as porters and carrying munitions.
Besides facing the horrors of war and struggling with malnutrition, children are being detained and tortured by Syrian government forces, Wargo said. Human-rights reports by UN investigators have provided detailed information on such grave abuses in the last two years.
“Most of the witnesses say they flee the country because they’re afraid to die or because their children have been tortured or detained,” Wargo said of people who have been interviewed for the reports. “We’ve taken quite a few affidavits from children. Torture and sexual abuse has gone down, though, because the government doesn’t have access to as many people.”
In Syria, an estimated 2,500 educational facilities have been destroyed and 2,000 more schools are being used to shelter internally displaced persons. Close to 60 percent of health facilities are damaged or inaccessible and 40 percent of hospitals are inoperative, meaning injured and sick children often have nowhere to turn for medical attention.
“Children and their families are in most urgent need of medicines, vaccinations, food, safe water, psychosocial support, access to basic sanitation and hygiene kits to help prevent disease outbreak,” said Malene Jensen of the Unicef Middle East and Northern Africa Regional Office.
Carolyn Miles, chief executive of Save the Children, a large international nonprofit group based in Washington, said in an e-mail interview that “mothers and newborns have been especially hard hit — lack of facilities often means giving birth without medical attention and with increased complications.”
Miles said Save the Children has worked to set up more educational opportunities for children in refugee camps outside Syria, but that there are many obstacles to providing support inside the country.
“Part of the challenge lies in reliable transport and internal partnerships, as NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] and other organizations are bringing goods to the border and hoping that who they are handing them over to will take them to the expected destination/communities,” Miles said. “Our partners in Syria face grave risks — hospitals and doctors have been targeted, for example.”
Although the total number of children still inside Syria is unknown, it is estimated to be much higher than the 1.2 million registered refugees who have left the country. About 700,000 of the refugees are children, Unicef says.
At refugee camps in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, children are safer than in Syria and have access to food, water and educational services, Wargo said. A March 2013 report released by Unicef found that 39,036 children are receiving psychosocial counseling services in the camps and 87,033 are enrolled in educational programs.
Yet they suffer, too. A reporton conditions in a camp in southeast Turkey, published recently, reveals that though basic needs are met — refugees live in tents with their families and receive three meals a day — children attend school sporadically, if at all; and 74 percent had experienced the death of a family member or someone whom they “really cared about,” the survey found.
The report, “Bahcesehir Study of Syrian Refugee Children in Turkey,” was done primarily by researchers from Bahcesehir University, in Istanbul. It studied life at the camp, called Islahiye, in November 2012. At the time, the camp, situated in an old factory site, housed at least 8,000 people. The study said that 60 percent of the children interviewed showed signs of depression, while 45 percent showed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. These numbers, it noted, are not unusual for people living in camps during conflicts.
A majority of the girls and boys interviewed also had “strong close relationships they trusted” for help and support. Nonetheless, the study concluded that this is a “generation that has been robbed of their lives by a monster of war that most governments in the world — including the Syrian — have promised them the right to be protected against.”
At the UN, the lives of children inside Syria and at the camps have been described explicitly to the UN Security Council, whose members are mandated to protect civilians. Leila Zerrougi, the UN special representative for children in armed conflict, traveled to Syria in December 2012. She recently urged the council’s 15 members to use their leverage to help end the war. But Zerrougi is not expecting the council to act, Wargo said.
“It doesn’t look very good. The council is divided, so we’re not expecting any major push for a resolution,” Wargo said. “That’s very disappointing, because every day that goes by, hundreds of kids are killed or maimed or have to face more horrors.”
Council members may visit Jordan and refugee camps there, at the request of the government. Prince Zeid Al-Hussein, the permanent representative of Jordan to the UN, spoke to the council to follow up on a letter asking it to consider such a trip. The government, he said, feels a “crushing weight” from the heavy flow of refugees to Jordan — up to 2,000 a day — and cannot support the situation economically. It is asking for $1 billion to help it manage the crisis through the end of the year.
Although many of the members have endorsed a trip, Russia and China want to “see the purpose of the visit,” an African diplomat on the council said. The council may send a “mini mission” instead and travel to Lebanon and Turkey as well, but the logistics may push it into June. Despite the burden on Jordan, Al-Hussein said it was keeping its borders open.