Unaccompanied Syrian children arrive in Lebanon under the radar

Four-year-old Adel and his 1-year-old sister Nour crossed the border from Syria to Lebanon alone. Their father had come to Lebanon in search of a place to settle, leaving his two wives and their children in Syria. When the time came, his second wife and her children crossed the border together, but Adel and Nour’s mother fled their hometown of Tal Kalakh, abandoning the children in Syria.
His wife, Fatima, recounted to The Daily Star how the father was able to arrange for the brother and sister to travel with strangers, paying to have them smuggled into Lebanon by boat, a process Syrian refugees at the NGO Women’s Charity League in Halba, say costs around $400 per person.
Now reunited with their father and siblings, Adel and Nour have no ID papers or documents, save for a letter from the local mukhtar noting their names and ages. Nevertheless, they are among the lucky ones.
There are a myriad of reasons why children become separated from their families in crisis situations. Of the rising number of Syrian children who came to Lebanon unaccompanied, some were separated from family accidently, during an evacuation or at the borders, and others were simply abandoned, some out of the belief that they would have a better chance of survival.

Reem, who lives in a refugee gathering near Halba and works as a monitor keeping track of new arrivals in the area for the UNHCR and the Danish Refugee Council, said that 50 percent of the children coming across the border into Akkar were crossing without their immediate families and the majority came through unofficial crossings.
While many of them arrive with a family member – an uncle, aunt, cousin or grandparent – there are some children who arrive to Lebanon alone. Often their parents are arrested at the border, she said, and they are smuggled across by strangers.
Reem also smuggled her four children across the border illegally, after hearing rumors that families were being separated at the crossings by the Syrian regime.
“A year and a half ago, parents were allowed to cross the border, but their children weren’t allowed to come with them,” she said, explaining why she tentatively left her children.
But when she went to cross the official crossing she was arrested by Syrian authorities, who alleged she had ties with the opposition. It would be months before her release and eventual reunion with her family.
It is difficult to estimate the number of unaccompanied children in Lebanon, said Andres Gonzalez, country director of the NGO War Child, because many stay illegally and move around to stay under the radar.
Some are identified by embedded monitors like Reem or municipalities and reported to the DRC, whose new arrivals program aims to assess the needs of those attempting to settle in Lebanon, without necessarily registering with the UNHCR. However, this program only captures about 30-50 percent of newly arrived Syrians, according to UNICEF.
Children who are deemed particularly vulnerable are provided with short-term shelter, he says, while the DRC searches for a long-term solution. In some cases unaccompanied children are settled with a foster family and others are referred to shelters.
Anthony MacDonald, UNICEF child protection officer, believes the official figures are “indicative” of a larger sum but emphasizes that the statistics can be misleading because they involve both “separated” and “unaccompanied” children, defined differently by U.N. guidelines.
Unaccompanied children are considered to be more at risk, because they have been separated from both parents and relatives, and are not under the care of a legal guardian. Separated children are not in contact with either parent but are in the care of relatives.
“It means [unaccompanied children] could be more prone to exploitation or forced labor,” MacDonald said.
Of the total 2,800 unaccompanied and separated children discovered by the U.N., MacDonald estimates that around 800 satisfy the former status.
The circumstances around their arrival vary according to the shifting dynamics at the borders and inside Syria. MacDonald said the agency had heard about families being separated at the Syrian side of the border but said most were soon reunited.
The ICRC facilitates family tracing for some unaccompanied children by collaborating with its delegation stationed in Damascus. Once the child is identified in Lebanon, ICRC’s department dedicated to re-establish family links tracks their family down in Syria. This way, the children can at least keep in touch with family members.
The process is facilitated by the widespread use of mobile phones, explained Christine Rechdane, who is in charge of the program.
In the meantime, finding appropriate care arrangements for unaccompanied children inside Lebanon is “complicated,” MacDonald said. UNICEF is trying to advocate that the institutionalization of the children should be a last resort. A family or community-based setting is the preferred option.
The children who evade the agency’s radar are sometimes swept up and used as agriculture workers in the Bekaa Valley and north Lebanon, working to the whim of the seasonal harvest, picking potatoes and tobacco.
Others are actively looking for work, explained Miriam Azar, UNICEF’s communication specialist.
“We met a [Syrian] sister and brother a couple of weeks ago who had lost their parents, but were looking after each other,” Azar said. “The girl was working but found herself in an abusive environment and left, the boy is trying to find work. They are really trying to survive.”
Often, when abandoned children are found on the streets, authorities refer them to the judiciary, where they come to the attention of the Union for the Protection of Juveniles in Lebanon. The association sometimes sends the children to shelters, including Home of Hope in Kahaleh.
Maher Tabarany, the director of Home of Hope, said he had three unaccompanied Syrian children, who arrived to the shelter by way of a court order. The earliest case he could recall was of 9-year-old Abdullah, who was found sleeping in a restaurant months ago.
Abdallah is nicknamed “smiling one” – “bassem” in Arabic – for his perpetual cheery disposition, something Tabarany finds staggering considering the boy witnessed the explosion that killed his immediate family in Idlib six months ago.
After the incident, Abdallah’s uncle took him across the Masnaa border and left him there. As the boy described to The Daily Star pithily when asked how he came to Lebanon: “[My uncle] came with me, then he went back.”
“If they are still young, we try to not let them think about the future, we want them to enjoy the moment and forget about the war and their deceased families,” Tabarany said.
Many of NGOs working with refugee children try to provide psychological support and counselling, but few are qualified to deal with extreme trauma cases.
Dr. Leila Dirani, an expert in childhood and adolescent psychology at the AUBMC, disagreed with Tabarany’s approach and said it was crucial that these children were able to talk about what they had been through.
“If they don’t find appropriate support, they develop what we call conduct disorder, so they commit antisocial acts because they need to survive,” she explained. “At the same time they may develop post-traumatic stress disorder and symptoms like nightmares, aggressiveness, depression and an inability to cope with stressful situations.”
While it may be tempting to resist addressing the child’s traumatic past in the hope they will forget it time, Dirani said this was futile:
“If we deny the pain, if we just put the child with other children and we don’t give this child the opportunity to let things out, because we want him to forget, here we are harming the child.”

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