UN: Syrian war has uprooted 1 million children

The 1 million children who have fled Syria, and the 2 million displaced within the country, have been largely unable to get an education or receive help coping.

Hadi Mizban/AP
Children play at Kawergost refugee camp in Irbil, north of Baghdad, Iraq, Wednesday, Aug. 21. While 1 million children have been forced to flee the violence in Syria, the UN says that 2 million others are displaced within the country.

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One million children, three-quarters of them under age 11, have had to flee violence in Syria since the conflict began in 2011. The grim figure was released by UN agencies Friday morning.

“This one millionth child refugee is not just another number,” said Anthony Lake, executive director of UNICEF, the UN children’s agency. "This is a real child ripped from home, maybe even from a family, facing horrors we can only begin to comprehend."

The statistic was released as the UN pushes for immediate investigation of an alleged chemical weapons attack near Damascus. The Syrian government refuted the accusation, calling it “illogical and fabricated,” according to the BBC.

"But unverified footage shows civilians – many of them children – apparently suffering horrific symptoms, as well as rows of shrouded bodies," the BBC reports. "Chemical weapons experts have told the BBC that footage appears genuine and that the injuries shown are consistent with nerve agents."

On Friday, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon renewed calls for UN inspectors to be allowed to investigate the claims immediately.

"I can think of no good reason why any party, either government or opposition forces – would decline this opportunity to get to the truth of the matter," the UN chief said, according to Reuters.

As the Daily Beast reports, the UN is acting quickly as pressure mounts across the globe in the face of the allegations.

Angela Kane [the UN's top disarmament representative] will fly to Syria, which has received a formal request for access to the suburb where more than a thousand died in what appears to be a the largest attack so far in the Syrian conflict. The UN team currently inside Syria is only authorized to investigate three of the 13 sites deemed suspicious before Wednesday's attack. Meanwhile, France has urged that force be used if the use of chemical weapons is confirmed. 

Syria has become, according to the UN, the worst refugee crisis since the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. Some 100,000 people have been
killed since protests broke out against President Bashar al-Assad in March 2011. Refugees have been fleeing to Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, and Egypt, and increasingly North Africa and Europe.

Children are among the most vulnerable. While 1 million have been forced to flee the violence, the UN says that 2 million others are displaced within the country. "The youth of Syria are losing their homes, their family members and their futures," said UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres.

Education is a top longterm concern, as these children are part of a so-called “lost generation” that won’t easily be able to bring stability to their country in the future, says the BBC’s Imogen Foulkes. Few have been able to study or receive psychological counseling.

As The Christian Science Monitor reported in April: 

Throughout the region, one of the biggest concerns for Syrian refugee families is finding schooling for their children, who make up 48
percent of the Syrian refugee population and are unable to attend official schooling in their host countries. The longer children stay out of school, the
less likely they are to eventually return, according to a March report from Save the Children. In Jordan, CARE found that more than 60 percent of school-age children are not attending any classes, despite the availability of free schooling. 

For most parents, the auxiliary costs associated with schooling, such as transportation, supplies, and lunches, prove an insurmountable barrier.“It’s a worry in its own sense, of course for the education and the future of those children, but we also think it’s a very clear indicator of the levels of poverty that families are experiencing,” says Kate Washington, Syrian refugee response coordinator at CARE Jordan. “One of the things that is of concern … is the scope and scale of needs and the fact that they are increasing, and we have absolutely no reason to suspect that they will stop increasing.” 

On Friday, UNICEF officials urged the international community to respond to the problem, which it says belongs to everybody. "We must all share the shame," said UNICEF's Mr. Lake, "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." 

But Michael Gerson in The Washington Post shows the limits on countries that are responding to Syrian children who have been forced to leave their homes.

More than three-quarters of Syrian refugees live outside the camps in cities and towns. Initially, many Jordanians opened their homes and even took out personal loans to offer help. But this welcome has (naturally) faded over time. In a Jordanian border region near Syria where I visited, hospitals are full and refusing referrals, medicines are in short supply, schools are running double shifts, scarce water is delivered less frequently and wages have been undercut by high-skill, low-cost Syrian labor.

Add to this a growing resentment that refugees get aid while equally poor Jordanians often do not. Add to this a recent cut in the electricity subsidy in Jordan, a reform mandated by the International Monetary Fund as an austerity measure. At best, this is a recipe for tension; at worst, for instability. And Jordan is the keystone of stability for the whole region.

Jordan — a nation of about 7 million next to a collapsing country of 22 million — is in the process of being overwhelmed.

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