The impact of the brutal Syrian war on children

Syrian children in the doorway of a house. Syrian children in the doorway of a house. © UNICEF

The present article is a brief presentation of the new UN report on the state of children’s rights during the period  of the Syrian war, between September 2011 and October 2019

In January 2020, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria published a new report entitled “They have erased the dreams of my children”. The three-person Commission was appointed by the UN Human Rights Council to investigate numerous rights violations children have been subjected to during the Syrian conflict, which began in 2011. The report outlines “how boys and girls have been robbed of their childhood over the course of the brutal eight and a half-year war” and how they continue to remain victimized on multiple grounds.

This report is based on 5,000 interviews with children, survivors, relatives of survivors, eyewitnesses, medical professionals and members of armed groups.

The study has examined the impact of the war on Syrian children and on the enjoyment of their basic human rights, in particular the right to education. Since the beginning of the conflict, many schools have been destroyed or used for military purposes. The Commission has further documented that the government forces have deliberately attacked schools, and therefore committed war crimes targeting civilian objects. As a consequence of those attacks, many children have been removed from schools: the report estimates that 2.1 million boys and girls have not been attending classes regularly. Therefore, the Commissioner Karen AbuZayd said that the Syrian government must support “as many children possible to return to education […] Armed groups holding territory also need to act with haste to facilitate access to education”. The devastating situation of education in Syria is an area of concern for the three-person Commission which has underlined the importance of education in order to prevent children from abuses and exploitation. Education is also an important tool for the realization of those rights: it has a positive impact on the ability of Syrian children to contribute to the future of their communities and society overall.

The long-term conflict has also had a severe impact on the physical and mental health of children. The report expresses concern over the devastating psychological consequences of the repeated exposure to violence and insecurity. According to the study, over 5 million children have been displaced by the conflict. Moreover, children are often unaccompanied and deprived of an adequate access to schooling or medical care. Approximately 2.6 million of them live as refugees in large camp settings, where the access to basic services is limited. There, adolescent girls fall victims of sexual and gender-based violence while the lack of access to medical services exposes them to precarious conditions. As the ongoing conflict continues to undermine the possibility of repatriation of refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs), the situation of Syrian children remains difficult.

The report aims to summarize the violations of children’s rights: killing and inflicting violence; recruitment and use of children in hostilities; attacks on educational institutions; sexual violence. Countless children have been killed or maimed by cluster munitions, improvised munitions and chemical weapons, which have often been used against civilian objects such as schools and hospitals.  The report also documents the use of landmines, which were laid as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) retreated from the formerly controlled areas. The Commission has also repeatedly expressed concerns over the impact that airstrikes by the United States-led international coalition have had on civilians. During the conflict, there were several cases of vandalization of educational establishments and use of educational facilities as depots, sniper posts or launching sites. Hence, children have faced many difficulties in continuing their studies. Additionally, the conditions of public schools were difficult: several reports indicated that the government authorities refused certificates provided to students by armed groups schools and it has forced students to repeat classes in order to enroll. Combined with the collapse of the education system and the conscription of children, a large number of children were faced “with meagre prospects for their future”. In addition, the report describes how ISIL has used education as a tool for indoctrination: boys have been forced to follow the group’s ideology, to watch propaganda videos (including beheadings and executions) while a dress code for female students was imposed. Children who disobeyed the rules were banned from attending schools. The study also denounces cases of child recruitment in hostilities. Children, most frequently boys, have been recruited and used in hostilities and in unarmed roles (cooks, spies, informants, porters, etc..), in violation of international humanitarian law (IHL). In particular, armed groups and terrorist organizations took advantage of the economic instability or grief, creating financial incentives for boys to join the group. The disappearance of male parental figures left families and children in acute need. “Owing to pre-established gender norms, boys have been expected to take on the role of a breadwinner” and so teenage boys would decide to enlist. Furthermore, ISIL established camps where the children have been forcibly transferred and trained for suicide missions and combat roles. Furthermore, the Commission also reports that the government forces used children as informants to locate members of armed groups. Interviewees testified that, in Aleppo, children were used as spies or messengers by pro-government Popular Committees. At the time of writing, the Commission has continued to receive information about young boys at checkpoints staffed with government militia.

According to the study, the conflict has exacerbated gender inequalities: boys have been targeted by armed groups for recruitment to participate in hostilities and girls have been forced to marry due to safety concerns. The lack of access to education and economic hardship have contributed to exposing children to several forms of violence and exploitation.

A section of the report is dedicated to sexual violence against children. Women and girls have been especially targeted, and disproportionally affected by sexual violence, on the basis of gender since the beginning of the conflict. In late 2012, a graffiti stating “your men in our prisons, your women in our laps”appeared in Dar’a governorate. Many girls have been subjected to rape and other forms of sexual violence to acquire information or force the surrender of family members. For example, in 2013 in Dar’a, a young student was raped at a checkpoint only because her brother was an opposition fighter. Sexual violence has been, and is, used as a tool to humiliate, punish or to incite fear. Survivors and relatives of victims have testified that cases of rape were committed in detention facilities administered by the Damascus government and that sexual violence was inflicted on boys in detention in Damascus, Homs and Aleppo. The Commission has also outlined the negative effects of the long periods of detention and the experience of sexual abuses on the mental health of boys and girls. The survivors suffer guilt and shame and, in some cases, become suicidal due to the fact that they are rarely able to seek psychological support.  According to the report, both governmental forces and non-state armed groups have committed sexual abuses against children.

The findings of the report show the several violations of IHL and international law of human rights and how the actors involved in the conflict have neglected to protect children. On this basis, the three-person Commission recommended the UN Human Rights Council to investigate crimes involving children and document children’s rights violations. On the other hand, it urges the government to put in place mechanisms to support mental health of children and youth; and to ensure that boys and girls are not recruited or used in armed conflicts. In relation to displaced children situations, all parties are to allow unaccompanied children to return to their areas of origin; identify children and reunify them with their families; not intern internally displaced children in camps unless it is absolutely necessary. Additionally, the authors of the research expect that the parties to the conflict will ensure appropriate health treatment, including psychological support, for children and prosecute those responsible for the abuse and torture of children in detention. Ultimately, the report recommends that the United Nations agencies and international non-governmental organizations are granted access  to the aforementioned facilities.


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Author: Silvia Luminati; Editor: Aleksandra Krol

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