FIVE years into the civil war in Syria, about 8.4 million children — more than 80 per cent of Syria’s child population — are affected by the conflict, either in the country or as refugees in neighbouring countries, figures from UNICEF suggest.
In a new report, No Place for Children, published on Tuesday to mark the fifth anniversary of the conflict, UNICEF urged the international community to protect Syria’s youngest civilians in what it called a “children’s crisis”.
The executive director of UNICEF, Anthony Lake, said: “We cannot restore the precious years of childhood snatched away by this brutal war, but we can and must prevent their futures from also being stolen.”
UN figures from 2014 state that more than 250,000 people have died, at least 6.6 million have been internally displaced, and more than 13.5 million are still in need of humanitarian aid. The Syrian Center for Policy Research puts the deaths at 470,000, suggesting that a tenth of the population has been killed or injured. An average of 50 Syrian families have fled their homes every hour since 2011.
As UN-led peace talks resumed in Geneva on Monday, two weeks into a partial ceasefire brokered by the United States and Russia, Christian Aid urged the international community to “build on this brief respite to offer Syrians hope”.
The temporary truce has resulted in reduced violence, and more humanitarian aid getting into besieged areas in Syria. Both the opposition and the government have been accused of violations, however, and Russia has said that it will continue to conduct air strikes.
The UN confirmed on Monday that six “important” besieged areas — including Darayya and Douma — remain unreached as permits and security guarantees have not yet been obtained.
The Middle East response manager for Tearfund, Thomas Stocker, said: “The current cessation of hostilities is good progress, but it’s very fragile, and the peace process still looks extremely uncertain. What is certain is that, whatever happens, Syrians will need our help for years to come.”
A report by Save the Children, Childhood Under Siege: Living and dying in besieged areas of Syria, also published on Tuesday, suggests that there are a quarter of a million children in Syria still living under “brutal siege” who are starving, ill, dying, or becoming increasingly aggressive.
The report states that the Syrian government has been strategically closing off civilian areas, and cutting off electricity, water, and food supplies, since the start of the conflict in early 2011, and that the delivery of humanitarian aid to these besieged areas is becoming increasingly difficult.
Save the Children and its partners interviewed 126 mothers, fathers, and children, and 25 aid workers, doctors, and teachers in these areas, to support the research. It warns that sieges have become “increasingly systematic and commonplace”.
The majority of families said that they had been forced to cut the numbers of meals by half or more, and 32 per cent said they were living on one a meal a day. Inadequate healthcare is also putting children’s lives at risk: more than half of hospitals in Syria are closed or dysfunctional.
Ra’ed, an aid worker in Moadamiyeh, said: “Children are living on the verge of death. They are forced to eat leaves. Even flour and milk is forbidden to bring in.”
All the parents said that they observed “significant changes” in their children’s behaviour over the period of siege, and 82 per cent reported more aggressive, withdrawn or depressed behaviour. Half said that their children were unable to attend school for fear of bombing.
“Fear has taken control. Children now wait for their turn to be killed,” Rihab, a mother in Eastern Ghouta, said.
Save the Children is calling on parties to the conflict to “lift sieges immediately”, and permit the free movement of civilians. It also calls for an end to attacks on schools and hospitals, and urges the International Syria Support Group to ensure that offers of humanitarian aid are not used as assets in political bargaining.