Syrian child conscription and deaths on rise, says Unicef

The Guardian, January 26, 2016

By Patrick Wintour, Diplomatic editor

Syrian children are increasingly being conscripted into combat roles and being killed on the battlefield, according to the regional director of Unicef in the Middle East.

Peter Salama said several hundred children were conscripted last year, and as many as 400 had been killed, some in combat.

Speaking before a conference on the Syrian humanitarian crisis to be held in London in early February, he said Unicef had been able to identify 47 specific attacks on schools last year, and more than 4,000 assaults of some kind on school property since the Syrian crisis started nearly five years ago.

“We are seeing children killed and maimed in schools and playgrounds by all parties to the conflict,” he said on Tuesday, and suggested the findings were probably just the tip of the iceberg.

“In the past, children over 16 have been involved in the military in non-combat roles, but we are seeing a very different pattern today,” Salama said. “It is one of the most insidious trends in Syria.

“The majority of those children are now under the age of 15, which is a very different pattern to previously. The majority are now in combat roles being used on the frontlines, and the majority are forced to join, often abducted. They are being used as uninformed, armed checkpoints, and sometimes as forced labour.”

Salama also said water was being used as a weapon of war. The supply to the 2.1 million people of Aleppo had been cut 40 times last summer, mostly deliberately, and the practice had just started again, he said.

“We now have 2.8 million children out of school in Syria and surrounding countries. For many children, they have never been in school in the past five years and so for many primary schoolchildren, they have never seen the inside of a schoolroom.

“This is a country that had more than 90% attendance rates before the start of the civil war. Nearly a fifth of children going to school have to cross a frontline to get to school to do their exams. Nearly 50,000 teachers have gone missing, and a full quarter of schools – more than 6,000 – are out of action for education, either because they have been destroyed, damaged irreparably, used by the military or used for internally displaced people.”

The crisis was affecting a whole generation, he said, adding that nearly a third of refugees now reaching Europe were children.

Unicef has 700 staff working on the Syrian crisis, including 200 inside the country. It is pressing the London conference to call for the lifting of all sieges and a sustained drive to get 3 million children into school. 

The UN agency is seeking £806m to fund humanitarian aid in Syria and the surrounding regions. A fifth of the population has now fled, and nearly 4.5 million children are in hard to reach or besieged areas such as Madaya, Fua and Kefraya.