The price of inaction: a lost generation of Syrian children

Sally Ko urges help for the five million put at risk by the conflict

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 March, 2014, 6:23pm
UPDATED : Friday, 14 March, 2014, 2:38am

Tomorrow, Syria will enter its fourth year of conflict. Ceaseless bloody fighting between the Syrian government and opposition forces has claimed more than 100,000 lives, and pushed almost half the country's population of some 22 million into desperation.

Thousands are fleeing Syria every day to take refuge in nearby countries. The region is facing a boiling refugee crisis, the worst since the Rwandan genocide of 1994.

On February 22, the UN Security Council finally passed a unanimous resolution demanding unhindered humanitarian access across conflict lines and borders. However, to advance this diplomatic breakthrough and make it genuinely humanitarian, the resolution must be translated into meaningful action on the ground.

In war, innocent civilians often pay the highest price. Nothing illustrates this better than the plight of Syrian children.

More than one million Syrian refugees are children; over 425,000 of those are under the age of five. Most have fled to neighbouring nations, including Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt and Iraq. The situation for more than three million displaced children inside Syria is even worse.

Many parties to the conflict are increasingly using children as combatants. The desperation for survival has left many without a choice.

Children are dying from malnutrition and disease outbreaks, on top of the many killed in indiscriminate bombings.

They are further affected when public services are targeted by parties to the conflict, with schools and health centres experiencing the worst of the impact.

Without food, education and money, children as young as four-year-old Saad have no alternatives but to work in order to survive. Saad and his three siblings stack concrete bricks for a meagre US$8 per hundred blocks stacked. The daily hard labour has left them exhausted.

With lives turned upside down, the physical and emotional trauma experienced by Syrian children can have adverse consequences on their development.

The conflict can induce severe and "toxic stress" among children. When their stress response system is activated over a prolonged period without the buffering presence of a protective and caring relationship, the elevated levels of stress hormones in the brain can affect their learning abilities, short-term memory and control of emotions.

Displaced children living in refugee camps, or in isolation from host communities, commonly face boredom and social exclusion, and lack stimulating activities or opportunities to play.

On the surface, this may seem like a minor concern, but this lack of adequate stimulation can be linked to significant neurological shifts in the developing brain, leading to severe impairment in the cognitive, physical and psychological development of the child.

In response to the situation, World Vision has set up "child friendly spaces" - safe places where children can play, learn, make friends, release stress and develop routines and a sense of normalcy - in Lebanon for Syrian refugee children.

Yet the scale of the need is so immense that World Vision is partnering with the UN and other child-focused agencies in a campaign to make sure Syrian children are not forgotten amid all the politics and to ask the world to do more to ensure this generation is not lost.

Scores of grave violations against children are being committed every day by all parties to the conflict. Without immediate, adequate co-operation and intervention of all stakeholders, some five million Syrian children are at risk of becoming a lost generation, according to the UN.

Sally Ko is communications officer at World Vision Hong Kong