UNICEF has released its latest report that examines violations by both sides of the Syrian conflict of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, a human-rights treaty ratified by the U.N. General Assembly in 1990 and adopted by the Syrian government in 1993.
“Families have described how children are seized by armed forces from homes, schools, hospitals and checkpoints,” the report says. “Children as young as 11 are being detained with adults. In some cases, they are being subjected to torture and sexual abuse to humiliate them, force confessions or pressure relatives to surrender.” All of this, it says, violates the treaty.
Juliette Touma, UNICEF’s communications specialist for the Syria crisis, details the rights of Syrian children and the areas of the country where violations are at their most egregious.
Syria Deeply: What is the report’s focus?
Touma: If we go one step backwards, the idea was to do a report that would become a reference for people who are seeking information on the state of Syria’s children three years after the start. We thought it should have three different sections.
The first is focusing on child’s rights, the second on daily lives and the third is focused on the psychiatric impact of the war on these children. We saw that the war has besieged the childhood of more than 5.5 million children, completely besieged them physically and emotionally. But now it’s also their rights that are under siege.
SD: Specifically, what are the rights that have been violated?
Touma: It’s the right to education, to health that have been violated. There are two aspects: the right to education and the fact that there are almost 3 million children not going to school on a regular basis. The second is the right to health. We’ve been unable to vaccinate as many children as we normally did before the war, and now we have polio and measles returning to Syria.
Physically and psychologically, their well-being has been violated. You just have to look at the number killed. We mention at least 10,000 killed and that could be much higher. There are children injured and displaced, forced to be displaced internally or displaced to neighboring countries. They are also dealing with the trauma of becoming a refugee, sometimes overnight. The everyday lives of these kids have been completely violated.
SD: What has been aid organizations’ reaction to the violation?
Touma: From our perspective – because UNICEF is the custodian of the Convention of the Rights of the Child – as a result of these rights being violated we have ended up with a huge humanitarian catastrophe where we have to upgrade our emergency operations in the organization. We now have a Level three emergency, a top-level emergency. Then we started funding for the humanitarian needs of children. We increased our response last year when things started to become really serious. The response needs to be wider and more rapid [because] we have a spike in the number of refugees.
SD: Are things more difficult for children inside Syria or on its border?
Touma: It is difficult to qualify and I don’t think we should judge. More than 70 percent still live in urban settings. The situation in other countries, from a security perspective, is better. There’s no bombs and no shelling, no ongoing fighting – but the trauma of a child crossing the border, sometimes alone, is by itself is a huge experience for a child. And to be living in a country that’s not his own is very traumatic – to find new food and new friends and adjust to new languages like in Iraqi Kurdistan or in Turkey.
Then you have children still living in the conflict zone where you have bombs and displacement and insecurity. You have areas where fighting is ongoing or a siege is being imposed.
SD: At this moment, which areas present the most egregious violation of children’s rights?
Touma: We have identified a figure: there are up to 1 million Syrian children in areas that are under siege or hard to reach, like the old city of Homs, parts of rural Damascus and some towns in Aleppo. They’re hard to reach, so these are areas that are top priority for us to access. But we haven’t been able to on a regular basis, not as much as we should.
The most important part of the report is the second section, where it talks about the daily lives. It’s important that their voices are heard. We collected 14 stories from 14 children, those inside Syria and refugees. The children, and their parents and teachers, are looking to go on – to survive but also to go to school.
I met a child who said, “School is good and I am lucky to have school, but I want to learn English,” which wasn’t offered. I met a teacher in Homs who had lost her brother in the war two days before, and she [continued to attend] class to teach children. It shows how resilient the people are, and how adamant they are to continue to live as normal a life as possible, to stand in a classroom and teach.