U.N.: 1.1 million Syrian refugee children face serious psychological distress, risk becoming “lost generation”

More than 1.1 million Syrian refugee children face serious psychological distress due to war trauma, poverty, isolation, and lack of education, according to a report released last week by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The UNHCR report – “The Future of Syria: Refugee Children in Crisis” – warned that these refugee children are at risk of becoming a “lost generation” unless they get the education and psychosocial support they need. 

“The psychological effects of effects of such horrific experiences can be far-reaching, affecting their well-being, sleep, speech, and social skills,” the report stated. “The world must act to save a generation of traumatized, isolated, and suffering Syrian children from catastrophe. If we do not move quickly, this generation of innocents will become lasting casualties of an appalling war.”

According to UNHCR, children account for roughly half of the 2.2 million Syrian refugees who have fled to neighboring countries, including Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, and Egypt. 75% of the 1.1 million Syrian refugee children are under the age of 12. Lebanon and Jordan host half of the Syrian refugee children population.

While the report documented many serious obstacles confronting the refugee children, it highlighted two disturbing findings that will have long-lasting adverse consequences for Syria’s next generation: the prevalence of child labor and the children’s lack of access to schools.

“Our main objective is to make sure that this is not a lost generation. And for that we need to bring them to school. Only one-third is now having the opportunity to go to school. Many of them have been dramatically traumatized by violence. They need psychosocial support and we are not able to provide it at the level it would be required,” said António Guterres, UNHCR Commissioner.

In many cases, Syrian refugee children have become the main breadwinner for their families in Jordan and Lebanon because their parents or caregivers couldn’t work because of old age, disabilities or injuries sustained in the war. UNHCR reported that nearly half of the refugee households in Jordan has “relied partly or entirely on the income generated by a child.”

Boys account for most of the child labor force, working in carpentry, rock quarries, car shops, electrical shops, restaurants, retail, construction and agriculture. While it is less common for girls to work, when they do, they tend to be employed for agriculture or domestic work.

“Child labor is directly linked to the basic survival of refugee families,” the report underscored. “Some families do receive financial assistance from UNHCR, but still their resources are severely stretched. Assistance only reaches the most vulnerable, and is not always sufficient to cover all their needs. Many families in Jordan and Lebanon have no alternative but to send their children to seek work.”

Not only do these children (as young as 10 years old) assume the adults’ financial burdens, they miss out on school because of work, some for more than 3 years.

About two out of every three children interviewed by UNCHR said they do not go to school. The agency reported that 80% of Syrian children in Lebanon and 56% in Jordan don’t attend school.

The low rate of formal education among Syrian refugee children in Lebanon and Jordan is attributable to several factors: child labor; school overcrowding; tuition and transportation costs are out-of-reach for many refugee families; and language barriers, particularly in Lebanon where classes are taught in English and French in addition to Arabic.

“If the situation does not improve dramatically, Syria risks ending up with an under-educated generation,” the report warned.

Total Syrian refugee children as of October 2013: 1,111,457*

  • Lebanon: 385,007
  • Turkey: 294,304 
  • Jordan: 291,238 
  • Iraq: 77,125
  • Egypt: 56,154
  • North Africa: 7,629

* 75% of the children are under the age of 12

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