Children of the Arab world ‘under fire’
Raging war and political turmoil across the Middle East and North Africa have affected about 27 million children, preventing more than 13 million of them from going to school. According to a recent UNICEF report, children have been mainly affected by conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Libya, Iraq, Sudan and the Palestinian territories.
Subsequently, children in the region are battling with deluge of conditions ranging from trauma and diseases linked to missing vaccinations through to being forced into early marriages in a region where the young have proved to be the main victims of wars, political ambitions and regional interests.
“The destructive impact of conflict is being felt by children right across the region,” said Peter Salama, regional director for UNICEF in the Middle East and North Africa in a statement. “It’s not just the physical damage being done to schools but the despair felt by a generation of schoolchildren who see their hopes and futures shattered.”
A UNICEF report, Education Under Fire, focuses on the effects of violence on schoolchildren and education systems in nine countries that have been directly or indirectly impacted by violence.
It tallies with a more recent study just published by Save the Children, which claims that 700,000 children in neighbouring countries to Syria are not in school and that one-in-four children are at risk for mental health disorders.
An obvious area of concern is also vaccinations as, according to UNICEF, the United Nations’ Children’s Fund, polio hit Iraq and Syria. The disease returned to Syria after 14 years with the first case confirmed in October 2013. There have been 36 cases reported to date. In Iraq, polio also returned after 13 years with two cases reported, both in the Baghdad area. Cholera has infected more than 2,200 people across Iraq since September.
Child labour is also growing since the war in Syria intensified. Inside Syria, children are contributing to the family income in more than three-quarters of surveyed households.
“In Jordan, close to half of all Syrian refugee children are now the joint or sole family breadwinners in surveyed households, while in some parts of Lebanon, children as young as 6 years old are reportedly working,” a UNICEF spokeswoman said.
According to a Save the Children study, “Millions of families cannot access adequate life-saving assistance such as food, shelter and healthcare.
“Child labour and early marriage, the lack of nutrition and medical care and acute tension and anxiety within their family units due to prolonged periods of displacement and untreated psychological issues can have further, profound impacts on children’s development.”
“Early marriage” is another issue having serious effects. The rate of early marriage in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan has more than doubled since the influx of refugees began. UNICEF says one in every five registered marriages of Syrian refugee women in Jordan is a girl under the age of 18.
It’s a similar story in Lebanon. “Parents try to get their children married early for security reasons as living outside of their communities is not safe and secure,” explains Sandy Maroun of Save the Children in Lebanon.
“Refugee children have huge needs in education, psycho-social support and child protection as well as shelter,” she adds, stressing that bitter weather in Lebanon often takes lives each year.
“But education is a priority,” she explains. “There are around 300,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon with no education and Save the Children is doing all it can to fill this gap.”
Attacks on schools and education infrastructure — sometimes even deliberate — account for many children not attending classes in the region. In Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya, nearly 9,000 schools are not being used as originally intended because they are now shelters for displaced civilians or have been taken over by parties to the conflict or destroyed during battles.
Another factor is the fear that drives thousands of teachers to flee or keeps parents from sending children to school because of the dangers at school or along the route.
More often than not though, it’s about numbers. In Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, more than 700,000 Syrian refugee children are unable to attend school because the overburdened national education infrastructure cannot cope with the extra student load.
Armed conflict in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Sudan and the Palestinian territories also claimed the lives of thousands of children. According to UN data, the number of children killed in Yemen since March 2015 is 637. In Syria, the latest figure the United Nations has is 10,000. In Iraq, violence claimed the lives of 1,256 (from 2011-15). While in Gaza, UNICEF was able to document more than 520 killings among children during the 2014 conflict with Israel.
“From Syria to Sudan, from Libya to Iraq, from the state of Palestine to Yemen, children find themselves under attack. In no other part of the world have children’s rights been violated on such a scale,” Salama of UNICEF said.