The United Nations said on Friday estimates that at least 17,000 children in the Gaza Strip have been left unaccompanied or separated nearly four months into the war.
“Each one has a heartbreaking story of loss and grief,” said Jonathan Crickx, spokesman for the UN children’s agency UNICEF in the Palestinian territories.
“This figure corresponds to one percent of the overall displaced population — 1.7 million people,” he told a media briefing in Geneva, via video-link from Jerusalem.
Each one “is a child who is coming to terms with a horrible new reality”.
Crickx said that tracing who the children were was proving “extremely difficult”, as sometimes they were brought to a hospital where they may be wounded or in shock, and “they simply can’t even say their names”.
He said that during conflicts, it was common for extended families to take care of children who lost their parents.
However, in Gaza, “due to the sheer lack of food, water or shelter, extended families are themselves distressed and face challenges to immediately take care of another child as they themselves are struggling to cater for their own children and family”, said Crickx.
Broadly, UNICEF terms separated children as those who are without their parents, while unaccompanied children are those who are separated and also without other relatives.
A million children need mental help
He said the mental health of children in Gaza was being severely affected by the war.
“They present symptoms like extremely high levels of persistent anxiety, loss of appetite, they can’t sleep, they have emotional outbursts or panic every time they hear the bombings,” he explained.
Before the conflict erupted, UNICEF estimated that more than 500,000 children in the Gaza Strip needed mental health and psycho-social support.
Now it believes that “almost all children are in need” of such help — more than one million children, said Crickx.
The war in Gaza was triggered by Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel, which resulted in the deaths of around 1,160 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official figures.
Militants also seized about 250 hostages, and Israel says 132 remain in Gaza, including at least 27 believed to have been killed.
After the attack, Israel launched a relentless military offensive that has killed at least 27,131 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the health ministry in the Hamas-run Palestinian territory.
“Children don’t have anything to do with this conflict. Yet they are suffering like no child should ever suffer,” said Crickx.
“No child should ever be exposed to the level of violence seen on October 7 — or to the level of violence that we have witnessed since then.”
He called for a ceasefire so that UNICEF could conduct a proper count of children who are unaccompanied or separated, trace relatives, and deliver mental health support.