As violence escalates in Syria, new data on disabled children caught in the crossfire

A young Syrian refugee awaits orthopedic surgery. Photo by: Peter Biro / EU / ECHO / CC BY-NC-ND

LONDON — Three hospitals near the Syrian rebel-held city of Daraa were put out of commission by airstrikes on Wednesday, just as new data about the number and living conditions of children with disabilities in Syria paints an already-stark picture.

“On top of seriously compromising the availability of health care in the governorate, the targeting of three hospitals in Daraa will rapidly eliminate any hope of accessing health care for the thousands of vulnerable children living with disabilities in Syria, who already have limited access to medical and health care facilities and services,” Andrew Tchie, research and policy lead at the Syria-based NGO Syria Relief, told Devex.

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On Thursday, Syria Relief released the results of a survey of 789 children with disabilities aged 5-17 currently living in four Syrian governances, offering a snapshot of a marginalized demographic on which there has historically been a dearth of research. More than half of respondents said their disabilities were mobility related, while just under half said they were experiencing intellectual or psychological difficulties.

While 89 percent indicated a need for medical rehabilitation services, only 31 percent said these services were available in their area. Around three-quarters indicated a need for assistive devices, such as wheelchairs or hearing aids, but a similar number said that such devices were not available in their area, and that they had never received any.

Since the vast majority of children have had these disabilities since birth, Tchie said they would “need long-term and continuous support for decades to come,” and “that it is not only health and medical services in Syria that are in dire need of support, but specifically services that are vital for those children living with disabilities.”

Little is known about the number of disabled children within Syria. Broader data about the status of people with disabilities who are either displaced or living in fragile or conflict states is only beginning to emerge. The Saïd Foundation estimated that in 2009, before the start of the civil war, around 2 million people in Syria were living with disabilities — about 10 percent of the population at the time — of whom more than 700,000 were children.

“Persons with disabilities remain among the most hidden, neglected, and socially excluded of all displaced people today,” the Syria Relief report reads. “As they are often not recognised or calculated in record-keeping and data collection exercises, they continue to be neglected.”

Tchie added that the destruction of hospitals will only exacerbate “aid inequalities, thus deepening the disadvantage experienced by these most vulnerable children. The lack of provisions and strategic entry points for disability inclusion in many of the current programs will have a particularly profound impact for thousands of children with disabilities living in fragile and conflict-affected settings like Syria,” he said.

In its recommendations to the United Kingdom government, Syria Relief called for more efforts to fill the data gap on disabled children in humanitarian crises, and for U.K. lawmakers to ring fence a percentage of aid toward children with disabilities, in line with the government’s “leave no one behind” agenda.

“The humanitarian needs of the Syrian people are as grave now as they have ever been, and Britain is rightly at the forefront of the global humanitarian response,” Andrew Mitchell, a politician and former U.K. secretary of state for international development, said in response to the survey results. “However, the international aid community must recognize that children with disabilities are some of the most neglected of all displaced people today. This report goes some way to highlighting this increasingly important issue.”

The U.K. government has so far pledged £2.46 billion ($3.23 billion) to tackle the conflict in Syria, much of which will be spent on displaced Syrians outside the country, in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. In December 2017, the U.K.’s new Secretary of State for International Development Penny Mordaunt pledged to put disability “at the heart” of DFID’s work.

The U.K. Department for International Development had not responded to a request for comment at the time of publication.

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    Molly Anders

    Molly Anders is a U.K. Correspondent for Devex. Based in London, she reports on development finance trends with a focus on British and European institutions. She is especially interested in evidence-based development and women’s economic empowerment, as well as innovative financing for the protection of migrants and refugees. Molly is a former Fulbright Scholar and studied Arabic in Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco.