What Toll Does Ongoing Siege Take on Children in Syria?

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

The political situation in Syria has implications for the stability of the international environment and surrounding regions, not to mention the destruction the conflict has wrought on the nation as a whole. Unicef released a report Tuesday that highlights the effects that three years of conflict have had on specifically the children of Syria, who have grown up in a nation that is under constant internal siege. The report adds wider generational concerns to the already substantial body of evidence of human rights violations.

Denunciation of the conflict and child abuse issues were covered in the UN’s February release, which discussed the high prevalence of child recruitment for militant militias, and the victimization, both through sexual and physical abuse, that many captured children saw at the hands of both sides. It listed 100,000 deaths in Syria since March 2011, and 10,000 of which were children — not to mention the list of injuries from shelling, air strikes, bombing, crossfire, and shooting of children at anti-government protests. Chemical weapons have brought about their own horrifying set of damage on youths, leading to many casualties and injuries.

Now, Unicef’s release reports that “more than twice as many children are now affected compared to 12 months ago” by the Syrian conflict — over 5.5 million children are looking at a war-torn future, and up to 1 million children located in regions that Unicef and other humanitarian programs are unable to reach or cannot access often enough to fill needs. Another 1.2 million have been forced to flee Syria and become refugees, a number that the report reminds readers is increasing daily, with 37,498 Syrian children having been born as refugees.

What the report highlights most is the potential loss of an entire, much needed, generation of Syrian citizens who are unable to receive a consistent education, or often any schooling at all. The report gives anecdotes of girls married very young in attempts to ensure their safety and children who work in refugee camps in order to make money for their families. It states that at least 8,000 children have reached the borders of Syria without parents, and that one in ten are “thought to be working  — whether as cheap labour on farms, in cafes and car repair shops or as beggars on city streets.”

Those children still remaining within Syria, living in regions such as Zahra, Darayya, Moadamiyet Elsham, Yarmouk, and Eastern Ghouta outside of Damascus, as well as others, have “been under siege for many months, prevented from receiving even food and medical supplies. The suffering of the families in these areas is largely unseen,” according to the report. It describes children living in rubble where their old homes used to stand, without electricity, food, aid, and with “few children have[ing] any access to learning.” The scarce resources lead to “malnutrition and dangerous vitamin and mineral deficiencies — so-called ‘hidden hunger’” which “have been slowly undermining children’s ability to develop and thrive over the last three years.”

“We get flashbacks,” said one mother of six, Kinana, to Unicef. “My children see weapons and can label them. They know the names of each weapon, because they’ve seen so many.”

Disease, sewage treatment, and contaminated water are also major issues, and the medical treatment infrastructure puts children with any health issues at serious risk. Polio’s re-emergence into the youth population of Syria highlighted the need for greater immunization. However the report notes that for 323,000 children who are more difficult to reach, immunizations are a luxury they may not receive.

One health care aid spoke to Unicef on the overwhelming situation that those working in the field face. Dr. David Nott said he has treated both pregnant women and children who have been aimed at by snipers. “They would start to arrive at eight in the morning. Children as young as two, with gunshot wounds to the head, neck and torso. Some of the pregnant women had been shot in the abdomen. I was told [by local medical staff] this was not unusual,” he said.

This war has to end so that children can return to their homes to rebuild their lives in safety with their family and friends. This third devastating year for Syrian children must be the last,” Unicef Executive Director Anthony Lake said in a statement.

Thursday saw the UN and Arab League Joint Special Representative, Lakhdar Brahimi, requesting aid from the Security Council to push for another set of peace negotiations between Syrian Government and opposition forces. “We would very much like to continue this Geneva process, but we would like the help of the Council and of all those who can help to make sure that if, and when, we have the third round, it will be a bit more productive than the second round,” said Brahimi.

Earlier talks in January and February had proved difficult, with little headway made and aid to Homs interrupted by a violated cease-fire agreement. Because of the importance of both Russia and the United States in the process, the conflict over Ukraine and the Crimean region has created further complications to potential negotiations.

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