The Syria crisis reached another grim milestone as UN aid agencies reported that the number of registered child refugees had reached 1 million, most of whom were under 11. Within the country, more than 2 million children have been displaced, they said.
About 7,000 children have been killed since the conflict began. Of the hundreds of people killed in an apparent gas attack in rebel-held parts of eastern Damascus on Wednesday, many were children.
“This 1 millionth child refugee is not just another number,” said Anthony Lake, executive director of Unicef, the UN agency for children. “This is a real child ripped from home, maybe even from a family, facing horrors we can only begin to comprehend.
He added: “We must all share the shame, because while we work to alleviate the suffering of those affected by this crisis, the global community has failed in its responsibility to this child. We should stop and ask ourselves how, in all conscience, we can continue to fail the children of Syria.”
Ahmed, 14, living at Za’atari camp in Jordan, said he longed to return home. “My brother has been killed and my sister [had] a brain injury. We thought we could not bring her here at first. But in the end we brought her and my brother in an ambulance.
“We ended up burying him here. My sister has been receiving treatment to learn how to walk again after the accident, because she lost the use of her left leg. I wish we could go back home one day.”
Children comprise half the refugees from the Syria conflict, according to Unicef and UNHCR, the UN refugee agency. Latest figures show that about 740,000 Syrian child refugees are under 11. Most have gone to Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt. Increasingly, Syrians are fleeing to north Africa and Europe.
In recent days, Syrian Kurds have streamed into the Kurdish north of Iraq in numbers not seen since the civil war began. The arrival of tens of thousands of refugees caught the UNHCR and Iraq’s Kurdish regional government offguard.
Besides the physical stress and trauma of leaving home, often in perilous circumstances, refugee children must almost confront the threats from child labour, early marriage and the potential for sexual exploitation and trafficking.
Link to video: Syria’s child refugees: ‘You feel that they have lost their hearts’More than 3,500 children in Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq have crossed Syria’s borders either alone or separated from their families.
“What is at stake is nothing less than the survival and wellbeing of a generation of innocents,” said António Guterres, UNHCR high commissioner. “The youth of Syria are losing their homes, their family members and their futures. Even after they have crossed a border to safety, they are traumatised, depressed and in need of a reason for hope.”
Syria’s upheaval, now in its third year, has prompted the UN to launch a $5bn emergency appeal, the biggest in its history. Part of the appeal, the Syria regional refugee response plan, which calls for $3bn until December of this year, has currently reached only 38% of its target.
While intensified efforts are needed to find a political solution to the crisis in Syria, parties to the conflict must stop targeting civilians and cease recruitment of children, said Unicef and UNHCR.
“Children and their families must be safe to leave Syria and borders must remain open so they can cross to safety,” they said. “Those who fail to meet these obligations under international humanitarian law should be held fully accountable for their actions.”