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Syria: Children with Disabilities Left Unprotected

UN, Governments Should Facilitate Aid; Strengthen Inclusion, Protection

(Beirut) – Children with disabilities caught up in the Syrian war are at greater risk of harm and lack access to the health care, education, or humanitarian aid needed to protect their basic rights, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The United Nations, the Syrian government, and concerned governments should urgently ensure protection and assistance to meet the needs of children with disabilities in Syria.

The 71-page report, “‘It Was Really Hard to Protect Myself’: Impact of the Armed Conflict in Syria on Children with Disabilities,” details the abuses faced by children with disabilities, including a heightened risk during attacks and a lack of access to the basic support services they need. The absence of inclusive and universal programs – including in education, delivery of humanitarian aid, and mental health and psychosocial support services – compounds the difficulties children with disabilities in Syria already experience. 

“One of the world’s deadliest conflicts, entering its twelfth year, continues to have a devastating impact on children with disabilities,” said Emina Ćerimović, senior disability rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The UN, Syrian authorities, and other governments should facilitate humanitarian access and ensure that support is available that meets the needs of children with disabilities and protects their rights.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed 34 children and young adults with disabilities, and family members, as well as 20 UN, healthcare, and humanitarian workers. Human Rights Watch focused primarily on people living in northwest and northeast Syria as humanitarian needs in these areas are particularly high and infrastructure is lacking.  

According to the UN, approximately 28 percent of Syrians have a disability, nearly double the global average, including due to wartime injuries and lack of access to care and services. People in Syria with a disability, including children, often struggle to flee attacks, especially due to a lack of access to assistive devices or to effective and inclusive advance warnings.

“Many times, I refused to leave the house [during an attack] and try to escape; it was just too difficult for me to run with crutches,” said Thara J., 18, who lost a leg in an airstrike when she was 13 and has not had any way to get a prosthetic leg. “It would take several people to help me get into the car.” She expressed concern that her inability to flee would endanger her family.

The conflict has contributed to Syria’s economic crisis, affecting the ability of Syrians, especially children with disabilities and their families, to realize their basic rights and needs, including to food and shelter. Conflict-related poverty, coupled with the destruction of physical infrastructure and support systems, has affected the families of children with disabilities who need health care, therapies, assistive devices, and social services.

“When the war started, everything changed – I lost my job and my house,” said Ahmed, whose 11-year-old daughter has a hearing disability. “[Now] I cannot even afford to buy her hearing aids.”

Children with disabilities face increased obstacles in access to education due to inaccessibility of public schools and a lack of adequate training for teachers to teach children with disabilities and inclusive curricula, and stigma. The mother of 7- and 9-year-old girls with hearing disabilities said that a teacher told her that “they cannot teach [her] daughters because they do not have specialists.” Only one child included in the Human Rights Watch research attended school.

Despite billions of dollars in aid, humanitarian operations in Syria have failed to sufficiently identify and address the rights and needs of children with various types of disabilities. A humanitarian worker said, “We have not been trained to support people with disabilities and most humanitarians still think disability inclusion is about rehabilitation centers, building ramps, [and] providing wheelchairs.”  

Although some UN agencies, donors, and aid groups have started to pay closer attention to the needs of people with disabilities in Syria, UN action to help children affected by armed conflict is still largely neglecting children with disabilities, Human Rights Watch found. In 2019, the Security Council adopted a resolution on the protection of people with disabilities and specifically asked the secretary-general to include information on issues relevant to people with disabilities in armed conflicts. Yet none of the UN secretary-general’s reports on the humanitarian situation in Syria address the needs of children with disabilities.

Careful UN monitoring and reporting on the abuses and exclusion experienced by children with disabilities, including from an intersectional approach that takes into account all facets of the abuses they face, is urgently needed to ensure that protection and assistance is effective for children with disabilities, Human Rights Watch said.

On July 12, 2022, the UN Security Council reauthorized cross-border aid deliveries for only six more months. The mandate will expire during the winter and its renewal will again be subjected to political pressures, making access to necessary support even more difficult. The Security Council, UN agencies, and donor countries should work together with civil society organizations to improve coordination and assistance to ensure that children with disabilities have equal, adequate access to nutrition, health care, education, assistive devices, and mental health and psychosocial support.

The rights of children with disabilities in armed conflict are protected by international humanitarian law and international human rights law, including the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. International humanitarian law prohibits direct, indiscriminate, and disproportionate attacks on civilians and civilian objects, and requires the facilitation of humanitarian assistance for civilians in need. Human rights law protects the rights of children with disabilities to health, education, and an adequate standard of living, and to be free of discrimination and abuse. 

All parties to the conflict in Syria should respect international humanitarian law and international human rights law and facilitate prompt and unhindered humanitarian access to UN agencies and humanitarian organizations to deliver impartial assistance to civilians in need across Syria, including to children with disabilities, Human Rights Watch said. 

“Most of the children included in this report were born just before or as the war started in 2011 and have not known a time without conflict, displacement, or difficulties in getting the services they need to grow and thrive,” Ćerimović said. “Many Syrian children with disabilities and their families depend on UN agencies and humanitarian organizations as well as authorities in Syria to provide the support they need to protect their rights, including access to assistive devices, inclusive education, and mental health services.”

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