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Syrian Children Face “Relentless Horror and Suffering”

UNITED NATIONS, Feb 25 2014 (IPS) - They number close to five million; some drift through the debris of their former homes, now reduced to smoldering rubble. Others limp over the border into neighbouring countries, dragging their feet and what few possessions could be salvaged from the fighting. United Nations officials say the plight of Syrian child refugees is dire, warning of “catastrophic” consequences if the international community does not respond to an urgent humanitarian appeal before the conflict concludes its third, bloody year on March 15.

Since its outbreak in 2011 the war has claimed over 100,000 lives and sent nine million people fleeing their homes, in a bid to escape the crossfire between forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and various oppositional groups seeking his ouster. The U.N.

High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) puts the number of refugees at close to 2.5 million, of which at least 50 percent are children. The displaced youth are taking shelter in makeshift camps that have sprung up in neighbouring countries already full to capacity with their own populations and troubles.

According to a press release issued Monday, over 932,000 Syrian refugee children have squeezed into Lebanon, 574,000 into Jordan, close to 613,000 in Turkey, over 223,000 in Iraq, and some 134,000 in Egypt. Already pressed for resources and struggling with a myriad of internal contradictions, these states can provide refugees little beyond the bare minimum: a tarp over their heads, a place to bed down for the night.

Last month, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) appealed for a billion dollars in emergency humanitarian aid to provide immunisation, water, sanitation and education for children at risk of becoming “a lost generation”, while UNHRC officials urged the international community to help alleviate the “relentless horror and suffering” these children – many of them unaccompanied orphans — face as they pick their way through the war-torn region.

The conflict has also interrupted regular schooling for some three million Syrian children. UNICEF estimates that “at least 20 percent of schools inside the country” no longer function as educational institutions – they have either been blown to smithereens, converted into shelters for the displaced, or occupied by opposition and rebel groups.

While UNICEF and UNHCR, together with organisations like Mercy Corps, Save the Children and World Vision, scramble to engage “one million voices” of support for Syrian children, a second crisis is looming on the horizon. Annamaria Laurini, UNICEF’s representative in Beirut, said Tuesday that the issue of malnutrition among some 2,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon is inching closer to a full-blown disaster.

She warned that “poor hygiene, unsafe drinking water, diseases… and improper feeding practices of young children” is aggravating an already perilous situation. Currently the regions most affected by malnutrition are in the north and east of Lebanon, which saw a doubling of “severe acute malnutrition” cases from 2012 to 2013.

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