LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Alarming numbers of Syrian refugee children in Jordan and Lebanon are missing out on school and being sent out to work illegally, said the U.N. refugee agency.
Thousands of children have also ended up separated from their parents and many hundreds more need treatment for war-related injuries, it added in a report.
Researchers said conditions in certain areas were prompting some boys to consider returning to Syria to fight.
"If we do not act quickly, a generation of innocents will become lasting casualties of an appalling war," said U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres at the launch of the report.
More than half the 2.2 million refugees who have fled Syria's three-year-old war are children. Most are living in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.
The report says many children are being sent out to work as families struggle to survive. In both Jordan and Lebanon, researchers found children as young as seven working long hours for little pay, sometimes in dangerous or exploitative conditions.
A survey of Syrian refugee households living across Jordan found nearly half relied partly or entirely on a child for income. Inside Za’atri, the world’s second-largest refugee camp, most of the 680 small shops employ children.
More than 100,000 Syrian refugee children in Jordan and around 200,000 in Lebanon could be out of school by the end of the year, the report said.
“The world must act to save a generation of traumatised, isolated and suffering Syrian children from catastrophe,” said actress Angelina Jolie, the U.N. refugee agency's special envoy.
More than 3,700 refugee children are living alone or separated from both their parents and more than 70,000 families are living without fathers, the study said. In some cases, parents have died or been detained. In other cases, they have sent their children into exile alone for their safety.
Many refugee children also need treatment for injuries sustained during the war, the report's authors said. In Lebanon, some 741 injured children were referred to hospitals in the first half of 2013. In Jordan, more than 1,000 children at Za’atri camp have been treated for injuries over the past year.
The report comes shortly after a London based think-tank estimated more than 11,000 children had been killed during Syria’s civil war.
Staff working with refugee children said they were also aware that some boys had gone back to Syria to join armed groups.
There is a lack of information on child recruitment, but researchers said they had come across several boys who expressed a desire to return to Syria to fight.
One teenager in Jordan said he had heard about boys being sent to Za’atari, being trained to fight, and then being sent back to Syria.
However, boys who talked about recruitment said they believed that children under 18 did not fight, but rather worked “distributing information”.
The report said there was a new initiative in Jordan to prevent child recruitment through better monitoring of those returning to Syria and an information campaign.
Researchers also said that many babies born to refugees were "stateless" with large numbers not having birth certificates.
Guterres and Jolie called for support for Syria’s neighbours to keep their borders open. They also appealed for countries beyond Syria’s borders to offer a home to refugees, including families with seriously wounded children.