Syria conference hears from teenagers as UNICEF reports deadliest year yet

15 March 2019

PA

Young Syrians attend a session to raise awareness about the danger of conflict leftovers such as landmines, in Damascus, on Thursday of last week

Young Syrians attend a session to raise awareness about the danger of conflict leftovers such as landmines, in Damascus, on Thursday of last week

FOUR Syrian teenagers took to a stage in Brussels on Wednesday, at a high-level conference to discuss the future of their country.

On Tuesday, World Vision’s Syria Response Director, Marc-Andre Hensel, said that the young people — who have taken part in the charity’s projects in Lebanon — would have an opportunity to “speak about their own country. We speak a lot about them; others speak a lot about Syria.”

They took part in a discussion on education: a priority for World Vision. Today, one third of Syrian children are not in education, of which 40 per cent are aged 15 to 17. “These are the people that need hope, they need something to look for: a degree, or some sort of certification,” he said. “If they do not have that, that can create big problems. That will not help reconcile and rebuild.”

The third Brussels conference on “Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region” ended yesterday. This week, the British Government pledged an additional £100 million of aid, taking the total to £400 million this year, and to £2.8 billion since 2012. The UN’s current appeal is seeking to raise £6.6 billion.

Mr Hensel said that World Vision hoped that the aid would be distributed “on a need basis, and not on the basis of political considerations”. Most funding was going to areas not held by the government; yet 70 per cent of the need was in government-controlled areas, he said.

Speaking on Radio 4’s Today programme on Saturday, the Minister for the Middle East, Alistair Burt, said that it was “essential that there be no reconstruction support from the UK and the EU until there’s a political settlement that goes some way to meeting the needs of those people” (those displaced by the conflict who remained afraid to return to Syria).

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He reiterated the Government’s position on President Assad: “We don’t see a viable future for Syria in which someone who has been responsible for organising chemical attacks on his people, and the deaths of over half a million people, and the displacement of millions outside his country, can give a stable future for the people of Syria. . . Already it’s clear that he doesn’t want to see many of his refugees return — what sort of future do they have in Syria?”

Mr Hensel said that “very rarely” did he meet a Syrian refugee who did not want to return to Syria. “Most people I talk to, they want to go back at some point, but not for the foreseeable time frame. . . The majority of them want to return to Syria once they feel it’s safe.” World Vision believed that refugees needed “fair and correct information” before making a decision about returning, and that any return should be “voluntary, dignified, and safe”, he said.

Clarity was needed about “what we mean by reconstruction”, he said (News, 1 June 2018). He was also concerned about a fall in funding for Jordan, which remains host to more than 600,000 refugees.

He cautioned against saying that the war was over, pointing to ongoing conflict in the north of the country. On Sunday, coalition forces supported the attack by the Syrian Democratic Forces on Baghouz, an IS outpost.

This week, UNICEF reported that 2018 was the deadliest year for children in Syria: 1106 died in the fighting. The executive director, Henrietta Fore, spoke of “an alarming misconception that the conflict in Syria is drawing quickly to a close; it is not. Children in parts of the country remain in as much danger as at any other time during the eight-year conflict.” The biggest cause of child casualties was unexploded ordnance.

In opposition-held Idlib, in the north-west of Syria, more than 90 people were killed by shelling and airstrikes last month, nearly half of whom were children.

The head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Mark Lowcock, warned this week that a large-scale military assault on the area “would create the worst humanitarian catastrophe the world has seen in the 21st century (News, 17 August 2018).”

This week marks the eighth anniversary of the conflict in Syria, which has left much of the country in ruins, and three million people living with permanent disabilities. Half of the pre-war population are either refugees — 70 per cent of whom now live below the poverty line — or displaced inside the country.

“Persecution, discrimination, and other forms of ill-treatment continue in Idlib, Douma, Dara’a, and northern Homs,” the head of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, Paulo Pinherio, told the UN’s Human Rights Council this week. “Arbitrary arrests and detentions continue in Government-controlled areas.”

On Sunday, hundreds of people in the city of Dara’a, known as the “cradle” of the uprising, protested against a new statue of President Assad’s father. The original was brought down at the start of the conflict.

“Syria is ours, not for the House of Assad,” protesters chanted.

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