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Syria’s Children, Forced to Be the Family Breadwinners

Today, the United Nations released its new report on the crisis facing Syria’s refugee children, the first such in-depth report it has conducted since the start of the conflict.

Written by Karen Leigh Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes

Among its findings: young Syrians 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 parents.”

More than 1.1. million Syrian children are registered as refugees with UNHCR, 75 percent of them under 12 years old. One in 10 are currently working. 

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C. Peter Kessler, UNHCR’s senior regional spokesman, weighs in on the stories behind the numbers. 

Syria Deeply: What kind of work are these kids doing?

C. Peter Kessler: Refugee children are doing anything they can find, working in fields in the Bekaa Valley harvesting vegetables, running wheelbarrows back and forth around camps carrying people’s rations or other humanitarian aid. They are working in towns in restaurants, sorting through garbage bins looking for aluminum cans, virtually anything. You see young children doing this trying to earn money for their families. Sometimes it’s backbreaking: very dirty, dangerous work, involving things like handling knives or sorting through garbage bins.

SD: Who’s allowing them to work?

PK: In Zaatari alone, 43 percent of the households are headed by women. A great many children are not in a house headed by their father. Often the females who head homes are not venturing far from their homes, so the kids are running around unsupported and on their own. I met kids in the refugee camps who get a wheelbarrow and run food to people’s tents.

SD: Will the problem keep growing?

PK: There’s huge potential that it will get worse. We are now looking at funding for 2014, and international donors are still beset by economic difficulties in their own countries. And then Syria is competing with other crises around the world, and there’s growing exhaustion with regard to the conflict in Syria, which means less money coming in and more pressure on children to earn money for their families. There are large numbers of kids living outside official camps, unregistered [for benefits provided by the U.N. and other organizations]. If those families don’t opt to get registered, they may need to send their children out to work.

And now you see rising incidents of violence and frustration within families, often taken out on children.

SD: Can you talk about recent cases of children being abandoned by their families?

PK: There are cases of kids who’ve been semi-abandoned when their parents decide to leave them with a relative, a lot of cases where the father or the mother opt to go back to Syria.

In Iraq last week, we had a case of a family of eight kids. In March, the parents went back to Deir Ezzor with four of the kids to check on their property and left the other four in a camp with their grandparents. It’s deeply traumatic for these kids (they’re three to nine years old) to be without their parents. They’re having difficulty interacting with other people and they miss their parents dreadfully.

For many months, the Iraqis were allowing Syrians to go back and forth, and in March, that abruptly ended. So a lot of people got stuck in Syria, unable to get back to Iraq, including people who were back in Syria after leaving the [Iraqi] al-Qayam area. So these parents and four of their children got stuck across the border. The grandparents told me they’d give anything for the daughter-in-law and the other four kids to be able to come back and maybe force the son, the father, to stay behind in Syria [to watch the property].

Occasionally the parents arrange to meet their kids at the border crossing, but the Iraqis of course won’t let them back into Iraq. So it’s a tear-jerking scene where even the Iraqi guards at the border have tears in their eyes.

SD: Are they often left to cross as refugees alone?

PK: Right now, we have a case of a couple children sent across the border by their mother and given a pup tent to sleep in with other refugees they knew from their home area. They’re in Jordan and we try to visit them once a week.

SD: What’s the biggest challenge in 2014 for you and other international donors?

PK: Funding. People don’t realize we’re talking about 2.2 million registered refugees, and others who are as yet unregistered. There’s an enormous burden on the schools and healthcare and sanitation systems of these neighboring countries. Zaatari has grown into a community of 100,000 people. We have a lot of catching up to do in education, in vocational training, in making a future for people.

For students who were almost finished with high school or university, it’s been deeply traumatizing to become a refugee but not have the money to finish those last couple of courses, get access to a high school. In some of the new camps in Iraq, they don’t have access to any kind of school at all.

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