Syrian refugee girls are increasingly at risk of child marriage due to a surge in pandemic-linked poverty, legal loopholes and long-term displacement in countries across the Middle East and North Africa, charity Save the Children said on Friday.
More than 5.5 million Syrians are registered as asylum seekers in the region, 10 years since conflict broke out in their homeland, according to the United Nations.
"Refugee communities are reeling from protracted displacement, poverty and the consequences of COVID-19 and we know that economic hardship, protection concerns and lack of access to education are persistent drivers of child marriage," said Caitlin Smith from Save the Children.
"This is a dangerous trend that we fear could get worse in the summer," said Smith, the charity's campaign and advocacy manager for the Middle East and Eastern Europe.
The U.N. children's agency, UNICEF, said in March that up to 10 million more girls around the world may become child brides over the next decade because of COVID-19's impact on schooling and economies.
Across the Middle East and North Africa, nearly 40 million married women and girls were wed in childhood, according to Save the Children.
In a report titled "Married by Exception", the organisation found that laws against child marriage in Jordan, Iraq and Egypt included numerous exemptions - such as allowing early marriage with parental or judicial consent.
Lebanon, which alone is home to an estimated 1 million Syrian refugees, has not enacted a law against child marriage, despite years of campaigning by activists.
The report said that none of the countries it had studied enforce clear and consistent penalties for child marriage, and avenues for recourse were low, particularly in refugee camps, which often lie in remote areas.
Refugee girls are being married off at much higher rates than host communities as their families struggle to survive and see marriage as a way to save on expenses, it added.
The report noted that in Lebanon, 6% of Lebanese women aged between 20 and 24 reported being married before turning 18, but that rose to 40% among Syrian refugees of the same age.
Rana, a 16-year-old Syrian girl living in northern Lebanon, said all but one of her friends had already been married off.
"None of them are happy - they just want to go back to school," Rana, who is not married, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
In Turkey, too, about 15% of women between 20-24 were married as children, but that figure triples for Syrian refugees living there, the report said.
Ahead of the Generation Equality Forum in Paris next week, Save the Children urged all countries to set 18 as the minimum marriage age, close legal loopholes, register all marriages formally and penalise anyone who facilitates a child marriage.
"These countries need new laws, and it shouldn't matter where you live," said Rana, asking not to give her full name. "Whether in a village or a city, the law should be applied the same everywhere."