By Magdalena Mis
LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The halt in U.N. food supplies to 1.7 million Syrian refugees makes it more likely that refugee children will be forced to go to work or marry early to help their families survive, the U.N. children's agency UNICEF said on Thursday.
The World Food Programme (WFP) suspended food vouchers for Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt on Monday due to a lack of funds and said it needed $64 million (41 million pounds) to feed the refugees for the rest of December.
Stopping the vouchers would have a very serious impact on children, "because it is very likely that families will be under even more pressure to push their children into work or ... early marriage," Isabella Castragiovanni, senior child protection specialist at UNICEF, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
A growing number of refugee children were already dropping out of school to go to work or were being married early, and food shortages were contributing to this, she said.
The withdrawal of food aid was a "looming disaster", as refugees had exhausted their resources and needed whatever help was available after years of displacement, Castragiovanni said.
Syrian refugees who fled the civil war in their homeland, now in its fourth year, resort to marrying their daughters off early to save money or to protect the girls from the sexual advances that single girls suffer.
In July UNICEF said that nearly one in three marriages among Syrian refugees in Jordan involved a child under 18.
The Aid organization CARE said that at least 50,000 Syrian refugee children in Lebanon were working, often in dire conditions, to pay for food and shelter for their families.
Castragiovanni said children find work as street vendors or shoe cleaners, but can also end up being sexually exploited, trafficked and recruited as child soldiers.
"Lack of access to even basic livelihood opportunities and diminished access to food and other assistance will make these families even more vulnerable and destitute and children will certainly become even more at risk," she said.
"...we shouldn't leave millions of children not only without hope, but without basic means to survive."
UNICEF called on donor countries to provide funds for the WFP to resume its food supplies to refugees "and avert a looming disaster."
(Reporting By Magdalena Mis; Editing by Tim Pearce)