As the Syrian conflict enters its fourth year (who would have thought in 2011 that it would still be ongoing?), the country and its people continue to break the grimmest of records as their plight gets ever-worse. Of all the things to lament in this tragedy, the fate of Syria’s children is top of the list, and major reports published in the last week highlight why.
The United Nations says the number of children impacted by the war has doubled in the last year alone to 5.5 million. The number of those displaced inside Syria has risen to nearly 3 million from 920,000 a year ago. Nearly 3 million in Syria and neighboring countries are unable to attend school regularly - that is half of Syria’s school-age population. Two million require psychological support or treatment.
The number of child refugees has grown to 1.2 million from 260,000 since last year, 425,000 of them under 5 years old. They have limited access to clean water, nutritious food or learning opportunities. A million children are trapped in areas of Syria that are under siege, or that are hard to reach with humanitarian aid - 323,000 of them are under the age of 5.
One in 10 refugee children is working, and 20% of registered marriages of Syrian females in Jordan is a child under the age of 18. The United Nations says at least 10,000 children have been killed and 40,000 injured. However, the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) says the real number is probably higher, and represents the highest recorded child casualty rate in any recent conflict in the region.
“Syria is now one of the most dangerous places on earth to be a child,” UNICEF said in its report. “In their thousands, children have lost lives and limbs, along with virtually every aspect of their childhood.”
Save The Children released its own distressing report, warning: “This is more than a crisis. It is the threatened collapse of an entire health system, which endangers the lives and well-being of millions of children.” One of the many consequences is that “polio – eradicated in 1995 – is now being carried by up to 80,000 children across Syria: a figure so high that there are concerns that it may spread to other countries.”
The people behind the statistics
I make no apologies if all these statistics have made your head spin - that was my intention. The international community constantly bemoans this almost-unimaginable state of affairs, but has contributed to it, either through action or inaction.
It is vital to highlight the magnitude of the tragedy of Syria’s children. However, reeling off figures is not enough, and is in a way insensitive if it risks dehumanizing the victims, who are human beings, not numbers. How often this has happened in previous conflicts, and even existing ones, Iraq being a prime example.
Syria’s children are victims of a conflict they did not start, that they do not participate in, and from which they cannot escape or defend themselves.Sharif Nashashibi
The reason the plight of Syria’s children should come above all else is because they are literally the country's future - if the former is broken or lost, so will the latter. To save Syria’s children is to ensure the country’s long-term survival.
Although the conflict looks set to grind on and even worsen for the foreseeable future, that it will end one day is inevitable. However, the country’s suffering will continue well beyond the cessation of hostilities, due to the trauma experienced by its children, who are going through what no child should. They are likely to suffer well into their adulthood, if not their entire lives.
That might be the case even if they get the necessary counseling and care. The sad reality is that most will not receive this. The long-term damage done to children caught up in conflict is well documented elsewhere in the region, such as Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine. The words “never again” seem to have no application in the Middle East.
Syria’s children are victims of a conflict they did not start, that they do not participate in, and from which they cannot escape or defend themselves. They are not part of the regime, or the Free Syrian Army, or Al Qaeda. They do not identify themselves according to faith or sect.
They are just children, Syrian children. They have already lost their innocence - the danger is that they will start viewing themselves and each other through the same divisive lenses used by their preceding generation.
If that is ingrained from childhood, what hope is there that they will be able or willing to rid themselves of those destructive blinkers as they grow up? If they do not, a future resumption of sectarian conflict in Syria may be a matter of when, not if. One need only look at neighboring Lebanon and Iraq as evidence.
Although the suffering of children is in a league of its own, it is greatly amplified by that of their parents, on whom they are totally dependent. The overall death toll now exceeds 140,000 - one wonders how many orphans that has created. How many children are destitute because their parents cannot put food on the table, clothes on their backs or a roof over their heads? It is not a cliche to say that children suffer most in times of war.
As we mark the third anniversary of this abominable conflict, we must keep in mind above all else that an entire generation - Syria's future - hangs in the balance. It is vital to make aware those who are not, to remind those who would rather forget, but most importantly to act instead of just talk. It is a collective responsibility that the international community has thus far shirked, and an ugly stain on humanity of which we should all be ashamed.
Sharif Nashashibi, a regular contributor to Al Arabiya English, The Middle East magazine and the Guardian, is an award-winning journalist and frequent interviewee on Arab affairs. He is co-founder of Arab Media Watch, an independent, non-profit watchdog set up in 2000 to strive for objective coverage of Arab issues in the British media. With an MA in International Journalism from London's City University, Nashashibi has worked and trained at Dow Jones Newswires, Reuters, the U.N. Development Programme in Palestine, the Middle East Broadcasting Centre, the Middle East Economic Survey in Cyprus, and the Middle East Times, among others. In 2008, he received the International Media Council's "Breakaway Award," given to promising new journalists, "for both facilitating and producing consistently balanced reporting on the highly emotive and polarized arena that is the Middle East." He can be found on Twitter: @sharifnash