No end in sight to seven years of war in Syria: children with disabilities at risk of exclusion

BEIRUT/AMMAN/DAMASCUS, 12 March 2018 – With no end in sight to the war in Syria, children with disabilities risk being excluded and forgotten. 

The conflict in Syria continued unabated through 2017, killing the highest ever number of children – 50 per cent more than in 2016. In the first two months of 2018 alone, 1,000 children were reportedly killed or injured in intensifying violence. Conflict is now the leading cause of death among adolescents in the country.

Sami (14), originally from Dera’a in southern Syria is now a refugee in Jordan. He says “I went outside to play in the snow with my cousins. A bomb hit. I saw my cousin’s hands flying in front of me. I lost both my legs. Two of my cousins died and one also lost his legs.”

“In conflict, children with disabilities are among the most vulnerable,” said Geert Cappelaere, UNICEF Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa. “They often require specialized treatment and services. As children, their needs differ from those of adults. Without access to services, schools and assistive products like wheelchairs, many children with disabilities face a very real risk of exclusion, neglect and stigmatization as the unrelenting conflict continues.”  

The use of explosive weapons and indiscriminate attacks in densely populated areas have killed a growing number of children who now account for one quarter of civilian deaths. Over 360 children were injured in 2017, leaving many with disabilities. These are only the numbers that the United Nations was able to verify, and actual numbers are likely to be much higher.

  • An estimated 3.3 million children inside Syria are exposed to explosive hazards including landmines, unexploded ordinance and improvised explosive devices. 
  • Over 1.5 million people are now living with permanent, war-related impairments, including 86,000 people who have lost limbs.
  • Among Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan, 80 per cent of injuries are a direct consequence of the war.
  • Lack of access to proper medical and psychological care has prolonged or worsened injuries and disabling conditions among children.
  • Children with disabilities are exposed to higher risks of violence and face difficulties accessing basic services including health and education.
  • The risk of violence, exploitation, abuse and neglect for children with disabilities is heightened by the death of or separation from caregivers. 
  • Families of children with disabilities in a conflict or crisis often lack the means or ability to provide their children with the assistive equipment they need. 
  • Neighbouring countries, fragile themselves due to instability and economic stagnation, are hosting over 90 per cent of all refugees from Syria. The refugee flow has added a huge strain on service provision, challenging Syrian and host communities’ access to basic services. For families who have children with disabilities, the challenge is double.
  • For the millions of children who have had to flee their homes within Syria and in neighbouring countries, displacement has put those with existing disabilities closer to risks like road traffic, rivers and unexploded remnants of war.

Widespread destruction and attacks on medical and education facilities have decimated the country’s health and education systems. In 2017, the United Nations verified 175 attacks on education and medical facilities and personnel. This has hit children with disabilities the hardest, leaving many without access to specialized care and accessible education facilities they need to turn their ambitions into reality. 

“As surgeries progress for children who have been disabled or disfigured by war, you can see that they become more confident, like they have finally become fully part of this world,” said Dr. Ghassan Abu Sitti, Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeon, American University of Beirut Medical Centre.

But the devastating damage of seven years of war has not defeated the determination of the children of Syria. 

“Despite injuries and displacement, the ambition of the children of Syria knows no boundaries,” said Cappelaere. “When children with disabilities and their families are provided with the support and services that they need, they have overcome the challenges they face and accomplished extraordinary feats to reclaim their childhoods, dignity and dreams.” 

The crisis in Syria is unprecedented in its complexity, brutality and length and cannot continue to be addressed as it has to date. On behalf of children with disabilities and all children affected by the conflict in Syria, UNICEF is asking warring parties, those who have influence over them and the international community for the following actions for children inside Syria and refugee-host countries:

  • Invest in providing lifesaving support and long-term rehabilitation services, including psychosocial support and mental health care for children; 
  • Improve access to inclusive basic services including health and nutrition, education, child protection and water; 
  • Design programmes for and with the participation of children with disabilities. Dedicate resources to make public services effectively inclusive.  
  • Increase financial assistance to families with children with disabilities to help provide access to assistive products like wheelchairs, canes and prosthetics;
  • Work with communities to include children with disabilities to address stigma; 
  • Provide flexible, unrestricted, multi-year funding to meet the needs of children, including those with disabilities and their families to increase their access to specialized services. To support children affected by the war inside Syria and neighbouring countries, UNICEF requires US$ 1.3 billion for its programmes in 2018;
  • Support reconstruction and recovery efforts by prioritising the needs of children, including children with disabilities. Beyond bricks and stones, recovery and long standing peace is about re-stitching the torn social fabric and bringing back a culture of tolerance and diversity to hold communities together.
  • Put an end to grave violations against children including killing, maiming, recruitment, and attacks on schools and hospitals; 
  • End the war through a political solution and end all restrictions on the delivery of humanitarian aid.

Drained and exhausted from seven years of war, family resources inside Syria and neighbouring countries are running dangerously low, pushing families to extreme measures just to survive. Early marriage, child recruitment and child labour are on the rise across the board. In 2017, three times more children were recruited into the fighting than in 2015.

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