Domestic violence against Syrian refugee children is “endemic” with 66% reporting abuse at home in the last six months, Unicef has said.
The organisation’s survey of refugee children - shared with HuffPost UK - underlines the mental health challenge facing aid workers in refugee camps.
A staggering 89% of Syrian youngsters in Jordan, aged 17 and under, told Unicef they faced some form of violence - verbal/physical abuse, at school, in the community or at home - in the past six months and 66% said they were the direct victim of domestic violence.
Ettie Higgins, deputy representative for Unicef in Jordan, said: “This is a very, very worrying figure.
“One young boy I spoke to was 11. Unfortunately he was subjected to physical violence at school and he went home and explained what happened at school and then was beaten at home.
“He told me he was now afraid to speak of any kind of violence that was happening to him at home, which is incredibly sad.”
Unicef said that while the impact of domestic violence on a child is “huge”, refugee care-givers are themselves in crisis. Many parents are grappling with a chaotic, impoverished existence, traumatised by extreme violence they witnessed in Syria and no hope of securing a work permit in a refugee camp.
One teenager, whose identity HuffPost UK agreed not to disclose, said his father changed dramatically when his family fled Damascus after the war started almost seven years ago.
The 17-year-old, who was just ten at the time, lived close to a rocket launcher.
“We lived in fear and terror,” he said. “We thought that one of these rockets was going to hit the house. We were thinking ‘this might be it’.”
The youngster now takes part in drama therapy at a Unicef-sponsored centre in Jordan’s Mafraq. He has been working on a play about parenting with friends. It includes a ‘good dad vs bad dad’ role-play that he hopes his father will come to see.
“My father is different now,” he said. “When I was a kid it was OK but now I am a young teenager, I can’t take it.
“When my father is abusive towards me, I just feel like I want to bury myself, especially when he says bad and difficult things in front of my brothers and sisters.
“It wasn’t like this back in Syria but because of the pressures here, things changed. From the inside, he might care about me but on the outside, he doesn’t show it.”
Abbad Amsel, an aid worker at the Mafraq Makani centre, said: “Many of these children’s parents have seen their brother, sister or parents die in front of them. Some of them were arrested in Syria and got out and then came here.
“A lot of them have psychological problems. It is very, very hard for them.
“Sometimes when we speak with the children who have experienced violence in the home, they say ‘it’s not his fault, my father saw his brother die’ or ‘my mother told me my father is ill because he was in prison in Syria’.
“But we want to work with the parents, so we can help them take the right steps.”
Salam Sedi, Unicef-sponsored psychologist and child protection team leader at a Makani centre in Mafraq, said PTSD, adjustment disorders, anxiety and depression are regularly found in children who have experienced the war, and domestic violence was exacerbating their conditions.
“We are aware that domestic violence causes psychological disorders and has many negative effects on the child, especially in their adolescent stage,” she said. “We have theatre therapy here and a stress management group to help them recover.
“Our goal with this role play is to show to the parents how domestic violence affects children. This gives parents a chance to talk with their children and other parents about how they deal with their children. It is also very personal to the children to express their emotions.
“Domestic violence can happen because of a parent’s mental health, their cultural background or because of the things they have seen, but it frustrates children, it stops them from achieving their dreams, from getting an education and from having a social life.”
Frank Roni is a child protection specialist for Unicef in Jordan. The country has taken in 660,000 Syrian refugees, and more than half are children.
“We know there has been an increase in domestic violence because there is an increase in divorce inside the camps,” he said. “We have also seen an increase in negative behaviour in young people themselves.
“It is well known that when you are living under pressure it will create violent behaviour. If after seven years of living in a camp you do not see the light at the end of the tunnel, all of this builds up feelings of frustration and helplessness.”
He said Unicef is attempting to transform attitudes among young people and their care-givers in order to break a cycle of violence.
“If you are talking about seven years of war and this new generation, the kids who arrived at the camp at five years old, now they are 12, the kid who was 15 they are now 22,” he said.
“You can imagine how violence in the life of these kids what type of behaviour it will transform to. Either they will take the anger in or they will take it out.
“If they take the anger in, they will end up with depression or different psychosomatic disorders. If they take it out, the only way that they have seen to do that is through violence.
“Violence will usually create more violence unless you have a safe environment where you present other behaviours other than what you see at home and in your community.”
Eittie Higgins said there were other indicators of the pressure refugee families are under.
“One of the more worrying statistics we have seen is that over 36% of all Syrian marriages registered in Jordan involve a minor,” she said. “I think this statistic demonstrates the level of desperation.
“Families are marrying off their younger girls very, very early and this is preventing them from fulfilling their potential in the future.”
She said violence against youngsters is the number one issue for the organisation, adding: “It’s endemic.
“In a recent survey we found that 89% of children have faced some form of violence in the past six month, be that verbal abuse, physical abuse or violence in schools, violence in the community or violence in homes. And this is having a knock-on effect on how children interact with each other.
“We have seen an increase in the level of bullying, amongst boys in particular. Unicef is now working towards stamping out violence in all schools across Jordan, because it is unfortunately it is a set social norm that will take several years to undo.”
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