AMMAN — More than 1,170 Syrian child refugees, many under 10-years-old, now call Jordan home, although they arrived in Jordan without parents or adult relatives, according to UNICEF.
They have taken refuge in the Zaatari camp and in host communities around the Kingdom, where they are taken care of by UNICEF in cooperation with international humanitarian organisations, a senior UNICEF official said.
UNICEF has been cooperating with the government and other international organisations over the implementation of two programmes specifically for unattended Syrian refugees under the age of 18 who have taken refuge in Jordan, said Michele Servadei, deputy representative of UNICEF Jordan.
Servadei explained that UNICEF’s mandate is to identify, register and provide interim care to separated and unaccompanied children.
“Unaccompanied children — also called unaccompanied minors — are children who have been separated from both parents or from their previous legal or customary primary caregiver, but not necessarily from other relatives. These may include children accompanied by other adult family members but who are not being cared for by an adult who, by law or custom, is responsible for doing so,” Servadei explained to The Jordan Times in a phone interview.
“Unaccompanied children are among the most vulnerable, especially in host communities, where the risk of abuse and exploitation is much higher,” he said.
He added that UNICEF and the International Rescue Committee (IRC) are currently monitoring and analysing the causes of separation, noting that these reasons include the death or sickness of their caregiver or family violence.
Some children are also separated from their families at the border, Servadei noted.
In some cases, he said, children travel alone to reunite with their family members who have already left Syria and are in Jordan, while in other cases, families have returned to Syria without their child because they believe it is safer to leave them in the Kingdom.
Some children are sent out of Syria ahead of their parents, who will eventually join their children in the host country, while others are sometimes sent away to avoid being recruited by armed groups within Syria, Servadei explained.
“Since July 2012, when the Zaatari camp first opened, more than 1,000 Syrian unaccompanied or separated children have been identified and provided with care in Jordan, the majority of whom are hosted in the camp,” he said.
“Through a comprehensive case management system, run by UNICEF and the IRC in Zaatari, these children are identified as unaccompanied or separated, and benefit from 24 hour support, including adequate follow up and referral services for medical, psychosocial care and school enrolment,” Servadei said.
“Unaccompanied children are registered as soon as they reach the camp and are hosted in the UNICEF/IRC interim care centre where they receive food, basic support, shelter and psychosocial support. If family members are found, the child is then reunited with them and in accordance with a best interest determination process,” he noted.
In case that is not possible, UNICEF identifies a foster family, Servadei said, adding that currently there are more than 60 foster families on a waiting list in Zaatari alone.
“If foster care is not feasible, the unaccompanied child lives in assisted living arrangements supported by social workers,” he explained.
Nearly 64 per cent of the unaccompanied children in the Zaatari Refugee Camp, over 80km northeast of Amman, are reunited with a relative or a family member.
“Many Syrian families are willing to foster unaccompanied children. Foster care is the second preferred modality of care after family reunification as long as it is seen to be in the best interests of the child,” Servadei added.
However, it is more challenging to identify unaccompanied and separated children in host communities as they are not in the confines of a camp.
Servadei underlined that UNICEF is currently working in partnership with the International Medical Corps (IMC) to strengthen child protection case management in host communities.
“In the host communities, UNICEF/IMC and partners have mobile teams who look at identifying and providing care to unaccompanied children,” said Servadei.
UNICEF Jordan Communications Officer Melanie Sharpe told The Jordan Times that the Kingdom has received the second largest number of Syrian child refugees after Lebanon, with 1,170 unaccompanied or separated children — including some as young as nine — having entered Jordan since the Syrian conflict began in 2011.
According to Sharpe, most of the unaccompanied minors are living in the Zaatari camp, which houses some 120,000 refugees.
“Each of these children has witnessed, or been a victim of horrific levels of violence. Separated from parents and caregivers, they are extraordinarily vulnerable to exploitation and abuse,” she said.
In more than two years of conflict in Syria, over 580,000 Syrians have fled across the border into Jordan, according to recent government statistics.
In total, more than 4,000 Syrian children have crossed into neighbouring countries without parents or adult relatives, UNICEF Spokesperson Marixie Mercado said in a statement issued on Friday.
As many as one million of the two million people who have fled Syria are children, the UN said in a statement issued in late August.