OTTAWA — Observers see a growing number of Syrian child brides as a tangible impact of the $3 billion gap between the financial needs of displaced Syrians in the Middle East and the funds available to pay for them.
After seven years of living in exile, Syrians are increasingly under pressure and that's driving a rise in child marriage, said Robert Jenkins, a Canadian who is in charge of UNICEF efforts in Jordan.
"Living this long in an environment which you can't settle and build roots, you're in transit almost by definition," Jenkins said in a phone interview from Toronto after two days of meetings with Canadian government and UNICEF officials.
"But also the funding crisis that the international community and the UN is experiencing is having a bearing on the support that can be provided to refugees."
The increase in child marriage among Syrians has long been suspected, but this week an analysis was published of data from the Jordanian census proving it to be true.
It found that in 2010, 33 per cent of Syrian females getting married in Jordan were between the ages of 13 and 17. In 2015, that number rose to almost 44 per cent.
Jenkins said the data he's seen suggests that since 2015, the incidence of child marriage has doubled and child labour rates among refugees are rising as well.
"These are snapshots reflecting increasing vulnerabilities and that's something that is of real concern to us," he said.
The marriage rates reflect the entire population of Syrians in Jordan — about 1.275 million, of which about half are registered refugees. Of those, 51 per cent are under the age of 18.
One of the largest concentrations of Syrian refugees in Jordan can be found at the Zaatari refugee camp, where 35 per cent of the population is under 18. The Canadian cabinet ministers who visited shortly after it opened in 2012 would likely not recognize the place if they returned now.
Gone are the tents and nearly all the water trucks once used to house and help residents and in their place stands a sprawling city of caravans with a nearly competed sanitation system — one of many projects that Canada has funded to support the camp.
In 2016, the Liberal government pledged $1.1 billion over three years for aid and development related to the Syrian crisis and the money is helping with what positive outcomes UNICEF, among others, have seen, Jenkins said.
But it pales in comparison to actual need. In 2017, the UN required US$4.6 billion and as of July 1, only US$1 billion had arrived.
Studies of child marriage have identified several causes: one less mouth to feed for impoverished families, the financial boost of a bride price, the desire to protect girls from being preyed upon or give them a more stable home life.
At Zaatari, UNICEF seeks to address these causes, providing counselling to protect girls from child marriage and offering access to water, psychosocial support and schooling.
"When you need to prioritize amongst those key services it is incredibly challenging and will have an impact on the most vulnerable," Jenkins said.
— with files from The Associated Press.
Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press