The grim ten-year anniversary of the war in Syria has left 90 percent of the country’s children in need of help, as a triple crisis of violence, economic misery and the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed families to the brink of despair, UNICEF reported on Friday.
“The triple crisis of 2020, and still this year, has somehow further exacerbated the situation for Syria’s children”, said UNICEF’s Representative in Syria, Bo Viktor Nylund, briefing journalists in Geneva. “So what does it mean in practical terms? It means for instance that two out of three families report that they cannot meet their basic needs.”
The Covid-19 pandemic has put a massive additional burden on children and their families, according to UNICEF.
Social fabric torn apart
“Of course, COVID-19 impacts on the economy but also on the social fabric of the society. Those factors combined increase significantly the risks for boys and girls and seeing them resort to negative coping mechanisms”, Mr. Nylund said. “So, for instance, we have seen an increase in child marriage and also more children are having to go to work, some as young as seven years old.”
The price of the average food basket increased by more than 230 percent in the last year, and more than half a million children under five in Syria suffer from stunting as a result of chronic malnutrition, according to the UN agency’s statistics.
“Nearly five million children were born inside Syria over the past 10 years, with an additional one million children being born outside as refugees in Syria’s neighboring country, and these are millions of children who know nothing but death and displacement and destruction,” said the senior UNICEF official.
The number of children reported to be displaying symptoms of psycho-social distress, doubled in 2020, as they continued to be exposed to violence, shock and trauma.
Death toll, underestimated
“Since 2011, nearly 12,000 children were verified as killed or injured in Syria, that’s one child every eight hours over the past ten years. As we all know, these are children that the UN was able to verify as having been killed or injured, and the actual numbers are likely to be much higher”, Mr. Nylund said.
According to verified data, between 2011 and 2020, more than 5,700 children – some as young as seven years old – were recruited into the fighting. In the same period (2011-2020) more than 1,300 education and medical facilities have come under attack, including the people working there.
“Education now is facing one of the largest crises in recent history,” Nylund said. “ We are seeing some 3.5 million children out of school, including 40 per cent of those are girls, and we cannot overstate what this means for these children now, what it means to their communities but also for the country as a whole in the years to come,” he added.
The situation in Syria’s northwest, where millions of children remain displaced, is particularly alarming, with many families having fled violence multiple times, some as many as seven times, in search of safety. They are living in tents, shelters and destroyed or unfinished buildings.
The UNICEF representative reminded reporters that children associated with armed groups, especially those in northeast Syria, must be reintegrated in local communities. Children of foreign nationals must also be repatriated safely to their countries of origin.
The agency is also reminding the warring parties that humanitarian organizations urgently need funding to deliver assistance to Syria’s children. To this end, UNICEF is appealing for USD 1.4 billion for its response inside Syria and the neighbouring countries for 2021.
Migrants left stranded and without assistance by COVID-19 lockdowns
Travel restrictions during the COVID pandemic have been particularly hard on refugees and migrants who move out of necessity, stranding millions from home, the UN migration agency, IOM, said on Thursday.
According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the first year of the pandemic saw more than 111,000 travel restrictions and border closures around the world at their peak in December.
These measures “have thwarted many people’s ability to pursue migration as a tool to escape conflict, economic collapse, environmental disaster and other crises”, IOM maintained.
In mid-July, nearly three million people were stranded, sometimes without access to consular assistance, nor the means to meet their basic needs.
In Panama, the UN agency said that thousands were cut off in the jungle while attempting to travel north to the United States; in Lebanon, migrant workers were affected significantly by the August 2020 explosion in Beirut and the subsequent surge of COVID-19 cases.
Business as usual
Border closures also prevented displaced people from seeking refuge, IOM maintained, but not business travellers, who “have continued to move fairly freely”, including through agreed ‘green lanes’, such as the one between Singapore and Malaysia.
By contrast, those who moved out of necessity – such as migrant workers and refugees – have had to absorb expensive quarantine and self-isolation costs, IOM said, noting that in the first half of 2020, asylum applications fell by one-third, compared to the same period a year earlier.
As the COVID crisis continues, this distinction between those who can move and those who cannot, will likely become even more pronounced, IOM said, “between those with the resources and opportunities to move freely, and those whose movement is severely restricted by COVID-19-related or pre-existing travel and visa restrictions and limited resources”.
This inequality is even more likely if travel is allowed for anyone who has been vaccinated or tested negative for COVID-19, or for those with access to digital health records – an impossibility for many migrants.
Frontier lockdowns also reduced options for those living in overcrowded camps with high coronavirus infection rates in Bangladesh and Greece, IOM’s report indicated.
In South America, meanwhile, many displaced Venezuelans in Colombia, Peru, Chile, Ecuador and Brazil, lost their livelihoods and some have sought to return home – including by enlisting the services of smugglers.
Clashes in Myanmar displace thousands
Clashes between the Myanmar security forces and regional armed groups, which have involved military airstrikes, have reportedly claimed the lives of at least 17 civilians in several parts of the country, the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said on Wednesday.
In a humanitarian update, issued on Tuesday, the Office also noted unconfirmed reports of several thousand people fleeing the hostilities in recent days in the Kayin and Bago regions, in central Myanmar, near Yangon. A medical clinic is also reported to have been damaged in gunfire in a township in Mon state, also in the central part of the country.
An estimated 7,100 civilians are now internally displaced in the two regions due to indiscriminative attacks by the Myanmar Armed Forces (MAF), and the Karen National Union (KNU), as well as growing insecurity since December 2020, according to the update.
“UNHCR [the UN refugee agency] is engaging with partners on the ground to explore possibilities to deliver critical humanitarian assistance and support to the displaced. A further 3,848 people in Kayin State have crossed the border to Thailand since 27 March, due to fears of further hostilities in the area”, OCHA said.
The majority are believed to have returned to Myanmar with Thai authorities saying that 1,167 remain in Thailand as of 1 April, the Office added.
‘Deep concern’ over continued impact of the crisis
Meanwhile, the wider political crisis across Myanmar continues to hit life hard across the southeast Asian nation.
The UN human rights office (OHCHR) has received credible reports of at least 568 women, children and men, have been killed since the military coup on 1 February, though there are fears that total is likely much higher.
Concerns have also been raised over the impact on Myanmar’s health and education systems, as well as the long-term effects of the violence on children.
The longer the current situation of widespread violence continuous, the more it will contribute to a continuous state of distress and toxic stress for children, which can have a lifelong impact on their mental and physical health, senior UN officials warned last week.
Since 1 February, there have been at least 28 attacks against hospitals and health personnel and seven attacks against schools and school personnel, UN spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric told reporters at a press briefing at the UN Headquarters, in New York, on Tuesday.
“Attacks against health volunteers and against ambulances are preventing life-saving help from reaching civilians wounded by security forces,” he added.
UN agencies have also reported reported sharp increases in food and fuel prices in many parts of Myanmar, on the back of supply chain and market disruptions. Humanitarians worry that if the price trends continue, they will “severely undermine” the ability of the poorest and most vulnerable to put enough food on the family table.
Guterres: Use COVID-19 recovery to make inclusion ‘a reality’
Building a more inclusive and accessible world that recognizes the contributions of all people, including persons with disabilities must be a “key goal” as countries work to recover from COVID-19 pandemic, United Nations Secretary-General said on Friday, commemorating World Autism Awareness Day.
“The crisis has created new obstacles and challenges. But efforts to reignite the global economy offer an opportunity to reimagine the workplace to make diversity, inclusion and equity a reality”, Secretary-General António Guterres said.
“Recovery is also a chance to rethink our systems of education and training to ensure that persons with autism are afforded opportunities for realizing their potential”, he added.
Breaking ‘old habits’ crucial
Mr. Guterres also emphasized that breaking old habits will be crucial. For persons with autism, he added, access to decent work on an equal basis requires creating an enabling environment, along with reasonable accommodations.
“To truly leave no one behind in pursuit of the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development, we must realize the rights of all persons with disabilities, including persons with autism, ensuring their full participation in social, cultural and economic life”, he said.
“Let us work together with all persons with disabilities and their representative organizations to find innovative solutions to recover better and build a better world for all.”
Inequalities worsened by COVID-19
Intervention during early childhood is important to promote the optimal development and well-being of persons with an ASD, WHO added, emphasizing the importance of monitoring of child development as part of routine maternal and child health care.
While some individuals with ASD are able to live independently, others have severe disabilities and require life-long care and support. Persons with an ASD are also often subject to stigma and discrimination, including unjust deprivation of health care, education, protection under law, and opportunities to engage and participate in their communities.
The World Day
The World Autism Awareness Day, to be commemorated annually on 2 April, was established in December 2007 by the UN General Assembly, which affirmed that “ensuring and promoting the full realization of all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all persons with disabilities is critical to achieving internationally agreed development goals”.
The General Assembly also highlighted the importance of early diagnosis and appropriate research and interventions for the growth and development of the individual, and called for efforts to raise awareness throughout society, including at the family level, regarding children with autism.
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