Psychological recovery of Syrian children is in 'serious jeopardy'

Psychological recovery of Syrian children is in 'serious jeopardy'
Feature: The psychological recovery and long-term rehabilitation of vulnerable children fleeing the Syrian war is in serious jeopardy, warns Save the Children.
5 min read
11 December, 2015
An entire generation is at risk, warn psychologists [Save the Children]
The psychological well-being of vulnerable children fleeing the Syrian war is in serious jeopardy, a leading children's charity has warned.

Save the Children found that factors such as a chronic lack of protection funding, the spiralling number of refugees and the severely over-stretched resources in host countries were all leading to long-term detrimental development of children.

"The repercussions for the future mental health of an entire generation could be catastrophic," stated Ian Rodgers, Country Director for Save the Children in Lebanon.

Inside Syria, a staggering quarter of all children are at risk of developing a mental health disorder, according to the United Nations 2016 Humanitarian Needs Overview.

"In addition to the obvious psychological damage caused by witnessing traumatic events and extreme violence, there are a myriad of secondary, under-funded and often over-looked, daily causes of psychological and social damage once a displaced child arrives in a new community," Rodgers added.

Pressures and burdens

The new Save the Children report, Childhood in the Shadow of War, provides a unique snapshot of the pressures and burdens of daily life in host communities - as experienced by Syrian refugee children now living in Lebanon and the Kurdish region of Iraq, as well as internally displaced Iraqi children.

In Lebanon, a considerable number of children have now been out of school for at least three years, and, this year alone, around 200,000 will still be without any form of education and are growing up lacking even basic numeracy and literacy skills.

"Millions of families simply cannot access basic life-saving assistance such as food, shelter, and medical care and, due to their refugee status, many are unable to work legally and are reliant on ever-dwindling government and humanitarian agency provisions," continues Rodgers.

"For children in particular, being out of school for months or years, dealing with the acute tension and anxiety at home, as well as separation from friends and relatives, daily discrimination, child labour, early marriage, and living in insecure, poor parts of cities or towns, has a serious and profound impact on their mental and physical health."

Staff at a Save the Children IDP camp in the Kurdish region of Iraq estimated ten percent of the children participating in the programme had lost at least one parent.

None of these issues are being properly addressed, particularly the long-term impact on children who, before they have even arrived, have experienced significant distress.

"Leaving children untreated has a negative impact later on - they can become aggressive, depressed, and acquire phobias," said Reem Nasri, Save the Children psychologist.

"Children are more resilient for treatment now, more than in adulthood."

Child protection is a life-saving response in any humanitarian emergency - but there are huge gaps in providing this much-needed service, with only 26 percent of requested child protection funding for the Syria refugee crisis secured, as of October 2015.

"There is a frightening lack of child psychologists and other trained professionals in all neighbouring host countries and the emotional and psychological impact on children, now and in the future, is a huge concern," said Rodgers. 

Voices of children

In an area that has been swamped in a quagmire of contending regional and global voices, Save the Children's report focuses particularly on the voices of the children themselves.

Images of planes and bombs, soldiers and tanks, and descriptions of seeing dead bodies, dead relatives, and the smell of gas, were often offered up by Syrian refugee children aged 8 to 13 when researchers asked what made them sad.

Others spoke of lost parents, siblings and relatives, and expressed a desire for things to be as they once were.

"They ruined everything for us," a 16-year-old refugee said.

"I just want to go to school, and learn a job and work. Here we have nothing, only this tent with no electricity."

The numbers affected by the Syrian civil war have grown seemingly exponentially since the outbreak of popular protests against Assad in 2011. With 5,000 refugees reported to have fled to Lebanon by April 2011, the number of Syrian refugees is now reported in excess of four million - with 95 percent in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt.

In an attempt to draw out voices of those too young to be able to fully express their experiences, researchers focusing on Syrian refugee children in Lebanon and Iraqi Kurdistan tried different techniques to understand the traumas the children had faced.

Some were asked to express themselves in artwork and puppet play, with others contributing drawings and writing depending on their age.

"I drew a sad child because my brother died," an 11-year-old girl said.

But witnessing violent acts was not the only cause of psychological damage for these children, the report added. Trauma was also caused by the secondary impact of refugee status, including the poor living conditions, lack of nutrition, low-level medical care and lack of access to education.

Glimmers of hope

Yet the resilience of children in overcoming psychological trauma during their early to adolescent years was a central emphasis of the Save the Children Report, pointing to a child's ability to recover if receiving appropriate and sustained support.

Child and youth issues on the agenda need to be made a priority by aid organisations, the report added, in order to dampen the traumatic effects of war through protection programs. Yet as of October 2015, only 26 percent of requested protection funding had been received.

Ultimately, it asserted the need for a political effort to bring an end to the conflict in the region.

"What would make me happy?" asked another refugee child. "When I hear there is no more war in Syria."