A boy stands next to a pile of debris on a street in Aleppo, capital of the north-western Aleppo Governorate A boy stands next to a pile of debris on a street in Aleppo, capital of the north-western Aleppo Governorate Photo credit: UNICEF/NYHQ2012-1299/Romenzi
Syria: a child protection crisis Key findings from a 2013 interagency assessment of child protection trends inside Syria
by Child Protection Working Group November 2013

The humanitarian situation in Syria has dramatically deteriorated since the onset of the conflict in March 2011. Fighting across large parts of the country has led to massive and repeated internal displacement and mounting refugee outflows. Over 100,000 people have been killed since the conflict began. An estimated 6.8 million people in Syria, or almost one-third of the entire population, now require humanitarian assistance, including 4.25m internally displaced people. About 3.1m, or some 50% of those who require assistance, are children. Restricted humanitarian access inside Syria means that limited information is available to humanitarian decision-makers on the child protection needs and capacities of affected communities. This makes it difficult to establish the necessary evidence base to support targeted and appropriate child protection interventions.

cpwg-box-1At the request of the international humanitarian organisations working in the child protection sector, the global-level Child Protection Working Group (CPWG) initiated an assessment to determine the scale and scope of child protection issues in Syria. The assessment covers the period February–May 2013, and serves as a snapshot of child protection issues in an evolving situation. The assessment aimed to gather information to inform planning, programming, advocacy and fundraising. This article outlines the methodology for conducting the assessment and its key findings.

Overview of the assessment methodology

Given the access constraints inside Syria, a remote assessment methodology was used, comprising three components:+Detailed information on the assessment methodology, as well as the key findings and recommendations, is contained in the Syria Child Protection Assessment report, produced by the CPWG. For a copy of the report, see http://cpwg.net/assessment-topics/syria.

  1. A desk review of literature covering agreed thematic areas, including a combination of pre-conflict and conflict information.
  2. Interviews with refugees from Syria newly arrived in neighbouring countries, using an Arabic-language questionnaire field-tested in Jordan prior to the assessment.
  3. Interviews with Syrian and international aid workers working or having worked inside Syria.

Structured interview questionnaires were designed, derived from the global child protection rapid assessment tool, with a focus on the following key thematic areas: psychosocial wellbeing, physical violence, children associated with armed forces and armed groups, child marriage, sexual violence, child labour, separation from caregivers and access to basic services and information.

The assessment applied purposive sampling criteria – interviewing refugees who had crossed the border over the preceding month. The core data set comprises data gathered through a total of 648 interviews with refugees carried out in Jordan (234), Lebanon (232) and Iraq (182), in camp and host communities. Interviewees were asked to speak about the situation of children in their home community or area of departure in the two months prior to displacement. Using a quota sampling methodology, a sufficient number of interviews were conducted to adequately cover the governorates of Aleppo, Al-Hassakeh, Damascus, Daar’a, Homs, Idleb and Rural Damascus.

The assessment methodology aimed to limit potential bias by careful design of the sampling strategy and the structure of the questionnaire; training of surveyors on interviewing techniques; and use of the desk review and humanitarian worker interviews to triangulate data.

Summary of findings

Key findings from the assessment are summarised below according to the thematic areas of inquiry pursued in interviews.

Physical violence

Respondents identified civil/political/armed violence, explosive remnants of war and torture in detention as the main threats to children’s physical safety. Throughout the conflict, children have been among the reported victims of massacres and executions, and at risk of being killed or maimed by sniper fire. As of the end of April 2013, according to the UN, more than 6,500 children had been killed in the conflict. The risk of death or injury to children from explosive remnants of war is high and will persist long after the conflict ends.

From the risks they identified, half of all respondents believed that children were specifically targeted in the conflict. When asked why, most respondents stated that violence against children was used to pressure and threaten others, including parents.

Respondents were also asked to identify the places where children were most likely to be killed or injured. The results indicate the places where many children spend most of their time: homes and schools. Both of these locations were also named as the places where recruitment and sexual violence were most likely to take place.

Children associated with armed forces and groups

Most respondents (71%) believed that the recruitment and use of children by armed forces and armed groups was increasing, with a sizable number (40%) stating that they personally knew children who had been recruited. Most (77%) of respondents believed that recruitment mostly affects teenage boys.

Sexual violence

Most respondents (74%) indicated an increase in sexual violence; 56% of respondents indicated that children would seek help from those around them in the event of sexual violence, but 80% said that they did not know where survivors of sexual violence could get professional support.

Child labour

More than two-thirds of respondents believed that there had been an increase in children working outside of the household since the onset of the crisis, with indications that some of these children are involved in the worst forms of child labour, e.g. children working with armed forces and armed groups. Many children working outside of the home are believed to be doing so to pay off family debts.

Separated and unaccompanied children

Some 74% of respondents reported that children were being separated from their usual caregivers, and 40% reported that they were aware of unaccompanied children as a result of the conflict. Separation was usually due to the death of parents and during movements to safer areas. Respondents also described deliberate separation, with families sending children out to work or to stay with relatives outside Syria, for reasons of safety, economic hardship or to avoid their children being used by armed forces and armed groups.

Access to basic services and information

Three-quarters (74%) of respondents said that they believed there were no basic services designed specifically for children. Where services were available respondents identified health and education services. Access to services was impeded by a range of factors including disability, age, sex and displacement.

Psychosocial wellbeing

Deterioration in the psychosocial wellbeing of children was reported by 98% of respondents. Respondents indicated that children were prone to unusual crying/screaming, disruption in sleep patterns, sadness, bedwetting and reluctance to go to school. Caregivers tend to limit children’s mobility outside of the home and are not always able to provide attention to children’s needs. Respondents reported the main sources of stress for caregivers as security/conflict, meeting basic needs (food, electricity, water and livelihoods), children’s safety and access to healthcare. Almost 80% of respondents reported lack of access to education and recreational services for children. This disruption of children’s routines may be a major cause of stress.

Recommendations

The following recommendations constitute an initial response to the assessment findings from humanitarian organisations working in the child protection sector, and are to be considered in conjunction with the inter-agency Minimum Standards for Child Protection in Humanitarian Action (CPMS), which provide detailed guidance on standards, key actions and indicators for those working on child protection in humanitarian settings.+The Minimum Standards for Child Protection in Humanitarian Action, a SPHERE companion document, are available at http://cpwg.net/minimum-standards.

Advocate for the immediate cessation of violations against children perpetrated by armed forces and groups

All parties to the conflict must commit to upholding the legal protections for children outlined in national and international law, and take immediate measures to fulfill these commitments. In particular, parties must ensure the immediate cessation of violence against children, including killing and maiming of children; the recruitment and use of children; sexual violence against children; and the detention and torture of children. Parties must ensure the immediate and unconditional release of all children who are illegally detained or who are associated with armed forces or groups (including those who have joined voluntarily).

Integrate child protection considerations into all sectors of the response in Syria

Engage child protection staff in humanitarian programmes to maximise child protection outcomes in other sectors. This includes working with education colleagues to ensure that routes to school are safe, removing barriers to retaining girls in school to delay marriage, training teachers to provide basic psychosocial support and rolling out education packages on physical safety in hostile environments and mine-risk education.

Expand specialist child protection programming inside Syria

Wherever possible build on and strengthen existing child protection systems, such as addressing causes of stress for children through activities that seek to restore normality (e.g. access to school and community-based psychosocial activities) and training personnel to detect and support children experiencing psychosocial distress.

Ensure effective coordination of child protection responses inside Syria

This will help generate, share and use learning in relation to the specific challenges of the context; facilitate the most efficient collective response possible; and allow for common advocacy on urgent child protection issues and for a coherent interface with other sectors of the response. Strong inter-sectoral coordination should also be ensured.

Monitor and further investigate child protection issues inside Syria

This includes deepening understanding of critical issues in the assessment by analysing root causes and dynamics, and establishing a simple system to monitor the nature, volume and patterns of child protection issues, drawing on existing sources of data where possible. This information should be used to inform all aspects of the humanitarian response, including advocacy.

Conclusion

Through this process, the CPWG has learned that a wellstructured assessment can identify hard-to-measure child protection needs and provide a sense of their scale, in order to target responses more effectively. Child protection actors are reaching children across Syria with psychosocial support and community-based child protection services, but more is needed to mitigate and respond to the full range of child protection issues facing girls and boys inside Syria today.

Further details on the methodology, findings and recommendations from the Syria Child Protection Assessment are contained in the full report at http://cpwg.net/assessment-topics/syria.

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