In the same week that a chemical weapon attack in Damascus has led to heightened pressure on the Unite States and other Western powers to use military intervention, the United Nations says that the number of children forced to flee from Syria has now reached one million.
Within Syria itself, two million more children have been displaced as a result of the civil war that is now in its third year. Of the estimated 100,000 people who have been killed, about 7,000 have been children. Many of the victims in the August 21 chemical weapons attack in eastern Damascus were children.
The total number of refugees from Syria is estimated to be nearing two million; the U.N. says that the Syrian refugee crisis is the worst since the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. About half the refugees are children, three-quarters of whom — about 740,000 — are under the age of 11. Most end up in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt; more and more Syrians are also seeking refuge in North Africa and Europe.
Those who have fled to a safer place in another country are too often “traumatized, depressed and in need of hope,” says U.N. high commissioner for refugees Antonio Guterres. He also says that “the youth of Syria are losing their homes, their family members and their futures.”
In some cases, children have crossed the borders of other countries on their own. Beyond physical injury and psychological stress that refugees may experience, young Syrians also face the dangers of child labor and of being forced into an early marriage or of sexual exploitation and trafficking. Said 14 year-old Ahmed, who is at the Za’atari camp in Jordan:
“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.”
The U.N.’s agencies have been overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of refugees. With its $5 million appeal for Syria less than 40 percent funded, the U.N. is now speaking of a lost generation of Syrian children who are poorly prepared to rebuild their war-torn country. Only about 118,000 of the refugee children have received some form of education.
The lives of children have been wound up in the Syrian conflict from the start. It was the arrest of a group of teenagers for writing anti-regime graffiti on a building in the southern agricultural city of Decca that spurred the first protests against the regime of Bashar al-Assad in March of 2011, after dictators in Tunisia and Egypt had been forced out.
Some two and a half years later, the violence in Syria has yet to cease and will only continue to take its toll on the country’s young people. As politicians and global leaders — as they have been since the conflict in Syria started – debate whether or not to intervene with military force, Anthony Lake, executive director of Unicef, the UN agency for children, expresses sheer frustration at how the global community has failed millions of children in Syria: ”This 1 millionth child refugee is not just another number. This is a real child ripped from home, maybe even from a family, facing horrors we can only begin to comprehend.”
Photo via Freedom House/Flickr