Violence in Syria continues to kill and maim civilians with reports that missiles fired into settlements for people fleeing conflict in the country’s northwest on Wednesday night, killed at least 12 people and wounded dozens more, including children, UN humanitarians said on Thursday.
“Reports of shelling near the Qah IDP camp near the Turkish border in Idlib last night caused damage to a nearby maternity hospital”, Fran Equiza, UNICEF Syria Representative for Syria, told journalists in Geneva. “Children were also among the reported casualties; nearby IDP camps were also destroyed.”
Echoing those comments, Mark Cutts, UN Deputy Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Syria Crisis, called for an investigation into the “horrific” incident.
“I find it sickening that missiles hit vulnerable civilians, including elderly people, women and children sheltering in tents and makeshift shelters in a camp for internally displaced people,” he said.
In a statement, the official from the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) also condemned the fact that there had been “dozens of attacks against medical facilities and staff across Syria” this year.
“International humanitarian law requires all parties to strictly distinguish between civilians and combatants and to take constant care to spare civilians in the conduct of military operations,” he insisted.
Youngsters killed in northeast Syria too
In northeast Syria since 9 October, following the Turkish military incursion into Kurdish-held Syrian territory, at least 10 children have died and another 28 have been maimed, UNICEF’s Mr. Equiza said.
This toll doesn’t include three more children injured on Wednesday, when a shell hit a school in the southern town of Tal Abyad, that was housing 12 internally-displaced families.
In 2018, the UN confirmed that 1,106 children were killed in fighting linked to the nearly nine-year war. That was the highest number of children killed in a single year since the start of the war in 2012, according to UNICEF, which noted that the actual figure is likely much higher – a trend that has continued this year.
The agency noted too that as of September, the UN has verified 1,792 grave violations against children’s rights this year alone. This includes killing, injuring, recruiting and abducting children and attacks against schools and health facilities.
This year on course to match deadly 2018 toll
“Last year was the deadliest for year for the children in Syria and very unfortunately it looks that this year is following the same track record,” Mr. Equiza said. “So far, 657 children have been killed in Syria.”
In the troubled northeast of Syria, around 74,000 people - including an estimated 31,000 children - remain displaced. More than 15,000 people have fled to neighbouring Iraq.
Turning to the Al Hol camp complex, which houses people displaced from former ISIL-held territory, the UNICEF official said that it contained “around 40,000 children”. Of that number, 28,000 were foreigners, comprising 20,000 from Iraq and 8,000 “from around 60 different nationalities”, while around 80 per cent of the children there are below 12 and 15 per cent are below five years old.
Nine-year-olds ‘held in detention centres’
Elsewhere in the northeast, the UN agency has received reports that “at least 250 children” – some as young as nine - are being held in detention centres.
They “are spread around the northeast and we don’t have the coordinates sadly of where these centres are”, Mr. Equiza said.
In an appeal for the international community to repatriate the children of citizens who had gone to Syria, Mr. Equiza insisted that keeping them in Syria was only doing additional harm.
“So far, we know that 17 countries have repatriated at least 650 children over the last months and we expect that the figure will go up in the coming days. Every day is too late for not taking those kids out of the camp.”
Across Syria, people face massive vulnerabilities, UNICEF says, with limited services, damaged schools and infrastructure presenting “an almost insurmountable hurdle for children and their families”.
While the northeast is home to some of the most vulnerable children in the country, with one in five affected by stunting in Deir-ez-Zor and Al-Hasakeh governorates, the national average is one in eight.
With just six weeks left to go in the year, UNICEF’s emergency operations in Syria are about 60 per cent funded. Of the $295 million required in 2019, the agency has received around $180 million.