Unicef: 2016 was deadliest year for children in Syria

More children died in 2016 than in any other of the previous five years of civil war

The Guardian – The number of children maimed, killed or recruited to fight in the Syria conflict has increased dramatically over the past year, with children as young as seven forced to act as frontline fighters, prison guards, suicide bombers and executioners.

Grave violations against Syrian children are at the highest level since the war began in 2011, according to a Unicef report, with at least 652 children killed in 2016 – a 20% increase on the year before – and 850 children recruited to fight in the conflict, nearly three times the 331 enlisted in 2015.

Since Unicef has only included verified reports of injury, death and recruitment, the actual figures are likely to be far higher.

“The situation for Syrian children has hit rock bottom,” said Juliette Touma, Unicef’s regional spokesperson. “The past year has been the worst since the crisis began, with children pushed right to the brink – being recruited at an ever younger age, being used to man checkpoints, being trained to use weapons, serving as prison guards. We also have reports of sexual abuse of girls by underage children, so it’s very grim.”

Coping mechanisms for Syrian children and their families are also deteriorating rapidly, warned the report, whether they are in Syria or beyond its borders. Families are increasingly taking extreme measures just to survive, often pushing children into early marriage and child labour in order to attain financial security.

Children in more than two-thirds of households are working to support their families, some in extremely harsh conditions unfit even for adults, said Unicef.

The conflict has taken a devastating toll on the mental health of Syria’s children. More than 70% of Syrian children interviewed by Save the Children showed symptoms of “toxic stress” or post-traumatic stress disorder, with symptoms including bedwetting, loss of speech, aggression and substance abuse. The same report said that 59% of adults knew children and adolescents who had been recruited into the conflict. Nearly half knew children working at checkpoints or barracks.

Nearly 6 million Syrian children are now dependent on humanitarian assistance – a twelvefold increase on 2012, said the report – with the most vulnerable the 2.8 million children in hard-to-reach areas. Almost 300,000 children are living under siege and are largely cut off from humanitarian aid, according to Unicef. More than 2.3 million child refugees are in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq.

With their parents largely unable to work, Syrian children at home and abroad are forced to become the breadwinners, said the report. Children are working in more than 75% of Syrian households, nearly half of them as joint or sole breadwinners, serving as cleaners, garbage collectors, mechanics, carpenters, hairdressers and hotel bell boys. Meanwhile, refugee children in Lebanon can work up to 10-hour days selling gum and flowers, or simply begging, a report last year found.

Nearly 2 million children in Syria are out of school, with roughly one-third of all schools unusable due to destruction, damage, or use for shelter or military purposes, according to Unicef.

An additional half a million Syrian children are out of school in neighbouring countries, said Touma. “These are the children most at risk, because they are prone to early marriage, child labour and all sorts of abuse, and that makes them especially vulnerable to becoming a lost generation.”

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