The Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict told correspondents at a Headquarters press conference that she had been “overwhelmed” by what she had seen during her recent visit to Syria and neighbouring countries Jordan, Iraq, Turkey and Lebanon from 28 June to 18 July.
Syrian children were not just losing their families and homes; they had lost hope and were “full of anger”, said Leila Zerrougui, adding that if the crisis persisted for much longer, there was a real risk that Syria would have a generation of illiterate people.
Since her previous visit in December 2012, it was evident just how polarized Syrian society had become, with the division clearer between those supporting and those opposing the Government, she said. Although it would be very difficult to bring the two sides together, a political solution was the only way forward.
The situation remained “dire”, she said, stressing that the effects of the conflict on children, whom she said made up the majority of those displaced within Syria as well as of the 1.7 million refugees outside the country, were especially bad, with violations occurring daily by all belligerents.
She noted that forces of both the Government and the opposition were on the Secretary-General’s so-called “List of Shame” of armed groups engaging in grave violations against children; opposition groups for their recruitment of child combatants and Government forces for killing and maiming, sexual violence and attacks on schools and hospitals.
The absence of education was an extremely serious matter, she said, outlining the many constraints. In Lebanon, apart from problems with changing curriculums and language of study, there was insufficient capacity, with the number of Syrian refugees so large that their entry into the Lebanese public school system could lead to a doubling in the number of students in the country. Elsewhere, education was not provided children for children of refugees, leaving them reliant on what the United Nations could provide, which was very limited.
She said she could not over-emphasize the importance of the work of neighbouring countries in helping Syrians. Those with greater capacity and fewer political problems were able to do more, but all needed support, funding and assistance with capacity-building in order to meet the needs of refugees and to mitigate the intense social, economic and political pressure that resulted.
In her meetings with Government officials, opposition groups, and officials in neighbouring countries, she had repeated the same message: apart from humanitarian assistance and the provision of basic services, access to affected populations was vital. Access was currently very limited, she said, citing as an example the difficulty she had in reaching the population outside Damascus.
Asked whether resources from outside the United Nations system could be mobilized for educating the population in exile and in Syria, she said that was the most difficult situation she faced. She was pushing States in the Arab world to offer Syrian students the opportunity to earn certification, she said, adding that non-governmental organizations could help in that regard. At the same time, supplies were also vital for teaching.
Asked who posed the main obstacles to access, she said bureaucracy and authorization processes were very complex. There was particularly stringent scrutiny around places where fighting was heavy or where sieges were in force. The “mushrooming” of opposition armed groups made movement even more complicated, particularly as some did not view the United Nations presence favourably.
Asked about the children who were taking up arms, she said that having met with boys who had been involved in the fighting and had been injured, it was clear that they were involved in a variety of functions and that their recruitment was ongoing in refugee camps like Zaatari in Jordan.
She filled in the blanks on a series of questions posed about child recruitment, noting that most were between the ages of 15 to 18, with children under the age of 15 also enlisted. Although she could now confirm their recruitment, she did not have figures on increasing numbers. On their demobilization, she explained that many children were volunteering to fight, although she had met people who were no longer part of armed groups.
Regarding recruitment of child soldiers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, she said many children there were forced to fight, while in Syria, a lot of boys were volunteering. She added, to a further question about whether the United Nations peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo would work with the armed forces on the “List of Shame”, that an action plan was in place and she was working with the Government to ensure the commanders’ accountability.
As for how that List could be made more powerful, she said it performed important functions, and when peace was achieved in Syria, those groups that had committed the atrocities would be brought to justice.
Queried about how commanders of opposition groups, with whom she had met, had handled questions about the use of child soldiers, she said their response had been denial. The Free Syrian Army wanted a way forward to delisting, but she was not in a good position to reach other opposition groups. As for Al-Nusra’s links to the Free Syrian Army, she said the last list was based on information from 2012, and any changes would be reflected in next year’s report.
Regarding what she expected of the Security Council when presented with evidence of such violations against children, she said her responsibility to the Council was to report verified information.
On a question of Syrian children outnumbering Lebanese students, she said that 1 million Syrians were estimated to be living in Lebanon, with over half of them children. Meanwhile, the number of Lebanese children who would be attending public school in September was 300,000, so there was a real chance that huge numbers of Syrian students would look to join the Lebanese public school system, for which the Lebanese Government needed assistance.
As for what cities she had visited, she said security considerations had prevented a visit to Homs. However, she had met people from there and other areas in shelters, and gained a clear understanding of what they were facing and how they were treated. Asked whether three days in Syria was enough, and she said she had spent nearly a month in the region, all of which had been dedicated to Syria.
She said in response to another question that she had learned much about the detentions, but that she had not been granted access to a detention facility.
Asked if the Syrian Government believed they would win the conflict, she said she had not heard anyone state that specifically. However, they believed they were fighting terrorism and had to win.
For information media • not an official record