Many Syrians who have escaped their country are now desperate to escape from U.N.-run refugee camps, where women are not safe and teenage boys are recruited as soldiers to fight in the conflict, according to an internal U.N. report.
The U.N. refugee agency UNHCR is trying to cope with a massive humanitarian crisis, as 1.9 million Syrians have sought refuge abroad, mainly in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and the Kurdish region of northern Iraq.
The report, an self-evaluation of UNHCR's work in Syria entitled "From slow boil to breaking point", admits the United Nations could have done much better and "a far more substantial and coherent strategy is needed".
Organized crime networks are operating in the biggest refugee camp, Za'atari in Jordan, which is home to 130,000, it said.
The camp is "lawless is many ways", with resources that are "constantly stolen or vandalized".
Preparations for a new camp needed to learn the lessons from Za'atari, including to "ensure the safety of women and girls".
Refugees can live outside the camp if they are "sponsored" by a Jordanian citizen, but many refugees are paying up to $500 to middlemen to get out, the report said.
In the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, Domiz camp is critically overcrowded and living standards are "unacceptable" in many parts of the camp.
"There is currently no agreed strategy in place to deal with the existing refugee population in Northern Iraq or any future influxes into the territory," the report said, adding that UNHCR and NGOs held "directly opposing views" about work to help refugees living outside the camps.
Although UNHCR is planning to crack down on crime in Za'atari, partly by strengthening the role of the Jordanian police, "opposition to the plan, possibly of a violent nature, can be anticipated," the report said.
"Given the harsh physical conditions to be found in Za'atri, coupled with the high level of criminality in the camp, it is not surprising to hear refugees speaking of their desire to 'escape.'"
Increasingly that means returning to Syria, the report said, adding that returnees needed to be closely monitored to be sure they were not going back against their will.
One concern was "recruitment by armed groups, including of under-aged refugees", the report said, without elaborating.
A U.N. official told Reuters that there were suspicions that boys of 15 or 16 were often taken back to fight, chaperoned by an uncle, elder brother or other relative. "It's a war crime," the official said.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said child recruitment had not been a major problem until now because the opposition forces did not have enough arms and ammunition.
But the lifting of embargoes on supplying arms to opposition groups meant both sides would need more soldiers. Even if it suspects child recruitment, the U.N. is almost powerless to stop suspected child soldiers because refugees have a right to return to their own country.
The report said many Syrian children were not attending school in Jordan or Lebanon, but the U.N. official said there was evidence that many were attending religious schools, or madrassahs.
There was also evidence of a new trend of minors, Europeans and North Africans from Tunisia and Algeria, who had "apparently crossed into Syria for the Jihad", the U.N. official said.
Syria was likely to see a repeat of the so-called "Birds of Paradise", children trained by al Qaeda to carry out suicide bombings in Iraq, the official said.
By Tom Miles