An increasing number of children in Syria are being recruited by armed groups as fighters, porters, runners and human shields, bringing them close to the front lines of fighting, a U.K.-based charity said in a report published on Wednesday, a week after a U.N. report had said that children constituted about half of the million refugees who have fled their homes since the conflict began in 2011.
In a new report titled "Childhood Under Fire," which was published to mark two years of violence in Syria, the U.K.-based charity Save the Children estimated that some two million children in Syria are in need of humanitarian assistance.
There is a growing pattern of armed groups on both sides of the conflict recruiting children under 18 as porters, guards, informers or fighters, the report said. For many children and their families, these recruitments are a source of pride. But some children are forcibly recruited into military activities, and in some cases children as young as eight have been used as human shields, it said.
The report, which included findings from a study carried out among refugee children by Bahcesehir University in Turkey, said that three in every four Syrian children interviewed had lost a loved one because of the fighting, while one third of children surveyed said that they had been separated from members of their families due to the conflict.
“We had to stay in one room, all of us … My father left the room. I watched my father leave, and watched as my father was shot outside our home … I started to cry, I was so sad. We were living a normal life, we had enough food. Now, we depend on others. Everything changed for me that day,” 12-year-old Yasmine, whose name was changed to protect her identity, told Save the Children.
The report included drawings by Syrian refugee children, one of them depicting a child being shot at on a playground, in front of two other children, as warplanes tear across the sky.
An estimated 80,000 internally displaced people, including tens of thousands of children, are living in parks, barns and caves, with many of them having endured two winters that were marked by snowfall across much of the country, with temperatures as low as -8°C. Many Families had to leave their homes without enough time to gather winter clothing for children, the report said. Due to rationing of the power supply and fuel shortages, the poor have often not been able to afford heating, it said.
Children are being killed and maimed, in many cases by the indiscriminate use of shells, mortars and rockets, according to the report.
Some 2,000 schools in Syria have been damaged during the conflict, while many are closed or have become temporary shelters for displaced people. The attendance rates of both teachers and students have plummeted since the start of the civil war.
Early marriages of young girls are on the rise as families are desperate to protect them from the perceived threat of sexual violence, the report found.
There is some evidence that girls and boys as young as 12 are being subjected to sexual violence and rape, the report said, but it added that the prevalence of such abuses is hard to establish, as survivors often do not report the attacks for fear of dishonoring their family or bringing about reprisals.
The report stated that fear of sexual violence is repeatedly cited to Save the Children as one of the main reasons for families fleeing their homes.
Displaced families find access to healthy food more difficult, expensive and even dangerous, while there has been an increase in the number of children suffering from malnutrition.
Meanwhile, bringing assistance to the Syrian people continues to be difficult due to threats to aid workers including crossfire, indiscriminate use of force, explosive weapons, land mines, unexploded remnants of war and even kidnapping, with 15 aid workers in Syria killed in the past two years, the report said.