UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore's remarks at the Brussels V Conference: Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region
As prepared for delivery
NEW YORK, 30 March 2021 - "Excellencies. Fellow panellists. Ladies and gentlemen.
"First, thank you to our European Union partners here today for their leadership in organizing the fifth Brussels Conference.
"This is an important opportunity to shed light on the situation of Syrian children after 10 years of one of the most brutal conflicts in recent history.
"UNICEF welcomes this timely discussion. And we hope that it results in not only increased support for children and families — but in a much-needed shift in how we deliver assistance inside Syria and in neighbouring countries.
"Before I address their urgent education and protection needs, allow me to situate these needs in the broader context.
- Nearly 90 per cent of Syria’s children now require humanitarian assistance. About 20 per cent more than last year.
- The psychological scars that the war has left on children run deep. The number of families who reported psychological distress among children in Syria has doubled.
- Families’ resources have either been depleted or are dwindling fast — affected by the triple impact of conflict and displacement, multiple economic crises with a sharp increase in poverty, and the COVID-19 pandemic.
- 3.2 million Syrian children are out of school without any opportunity to access learning. Forty per cent are girls.
- And throughout, we cannot forget the impact of this decade-long crisis on Syria’s neighbours. They’ve generously taken in about 80 per cent of the total caseload of all Syrian refugees — while struggling with their own challenges, including economic and political instability.
"Ten years on, and in the absence of a political solution, the volume and the needs continue to grow.
"We see these needs very clearly in education.
"The conflict has brought about one of the largest education crises in recent history.
"One in three schools inside Syria can no longer be used because they were destroyed or damaged — or because they’re hosting displaced families or being used for military purposes.
"Many families can no longer afford to send their children to school.
"Children are falling behind in their learning, and finding it difficult to return to school. They’re at risk of dropping out.
"Younger children and children with disabilities face further challenges.
"And we’re seeing a sharp drop in attendance for adolescents. The critical lack of access to secondary education and vocational centres in many areas limits their ability to continue their education and prepare for the world of work.
"At the same time, Syrian children and their families recognize the critical need to continue education — even in the midst of conflict.
"Last year in Syria, one of our partners told me about a Syrian father who lost two of his daughters in a school attack. Despite this unspeakable tragedy, he did not want the school to close — because he wanted his only surviving daughter to continue learning. He did not want to lose her to ignorance and illiteracy.
"In response to these needs, UNICEF and our partners are scaling-up programmes — including learning kits and distance-learning options — to keep Syrian children and young people learning. Last year, we reached over 3.7 million children with formal and non-formal education in both Syria and neighbouring countries.
"But building truly sustainable and resilient education systems that can support children throughout their learning journeys, UNICEF believes need to make progress in four key areas.
"First — we need to strengthen formal and non-formal education to help children continue their education and ensure they don’t fall behind. One way to do this is to provide direct support to individual schools. For example, the support provided to Lebanon’s public education system has helped hundreds of thousands of Lebanese and Syrian children continue their education. And to do so in the face of COVID-19 and the challenges Lebanon is facing in forming a new government.
"Second — We need to increase life-skills programmes to prepare young people for the job market. This should include more investments in vocational training and skills-based programmes.
"Third — we need to continue our work to remove barriers to education. From cash transfers to help families keep their children learning, to school-feeding programmes to support their nutrition, to transportation support to ensure that children can travel to and from education centres safely.
"And fourth — we need to work with and for teachers. They need training and equipment to address the learning needs of Syrian children. As part of this, we need to continue closing the digital gap and continue making quality online learning an option for young Syrian learners, no matter where they live.
"Moving on to protection.
"We’ve heard about the many grave violations against children — and particularly the dire situation in northwest Syria.
"But today, I’d like to focus on the issue of mental health.
"Millions of Syrian children are suffering the consequences of 10 years of crisis — including the consequences to their mental health. They’ve seen and experienced things that no child should — loss, displacement and violence.
"This has lifelong consequences and cannot wait until a political solution to the crisis is found.
"Effective psychosocial support requires time and specialized skills delivered in communities, schools and healthcare facilities. Last year, UNICEF and our partners reached over 400,000 children with psychosocial support in both Syria and neighbouring countries. It’s a cornerstone of our work.
"But we’re only scratching the surface of the true needs. For example, there are only two qualified psychiatrists in the entire northwest of Syria — for a population of four million people.
"We need to urgently invest in training and capacity-development to expand mental health and psychosocial support services and systems. This means giving frontline workers — including health professionals and teachers — the tools and training they need to support not only the young people in their care, but themselves, too.
"As the global community invests in the physical protection of children and young people in the midst of this crisis, we urge investments and scaled-up solutions for their psychological protection and well-being, too.
"Before I close, allow me to address the critical question on access.
"Our operation in Syria continues to face a series of unnecessary hurdles that block our access to all children and hamper the regular delivery of aid.
"It’s time to reach an agreement where humanitarian access is unconditional throughout Syria using all modalities including cross-border and cross-line operations.
"We take this opportunity to ask for a renewal of the Security Council Resolution that will allow more regular access including to address huge protection and education needs in the northwest of Syria.
"Without the access we’ve had so far, the situation for Syrian children would have been much, much worse.
"But we must do more — the needs are growing every day. Ten years on, we cannot continue to be faced with the same restrictions we’ve faced so far.
"So as we urge the global community to stand behind children’s education and protection, let’s also commit to providing humanitarian access — on a sustained basis — to children and families, no matter where they live.
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