UN Says One-Millionth Child Refugee Flees Syrian Conflict

The number of children among refugees who have fled Syria’s civil war has reached 1 million, the United Nations said today.

Children account for half of all refugees who have flooded across Syria’s borders into neighboring Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq, while increasing numbers are fleeing to Europe and North Africa, according to a statement from the United Nations Children’s Fund, known as Unicef, and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

“This one millionth child refugee is not just another number,” Unicef Executive Director Anthony Lake said in the e-mailed statement. “This is a real child ripped from home, maybe even from a family, facing horrors we can only begin to comprehend.”

The UN refugee agency pointed to an 8-year-old girl from Homs, named Aya, as representing the toll on Syria’s youth. With bombs rattling their home and kidnappings becoming common, Aya’s family drove to Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, where the girl lives in a makeshift tent with her parents, four sisters and two brothers, according to an agency fact sheet.

Family members work in nearby vegetable fields to earn money while Aya cares for an older sister who has Down Syndrome. While the girl wants to be a pediatrician, she doesn’t go to school because her family can’t afford $20 a month for transportation costs, the agency said.

Living Costs

The exodus from Syria is growing as the cost of living has almost tripled due to the plunging value of the Syrian pound, Unicef said in a report on its website. Families have lost the ability to protect their children from malnutrition and diarrhea, according to the report.

An additional 2 million children inside Syria have been forced from their homes by fighting between President Bashar al-Assad’s troops and rebel forces, the UN agencies said.

“The youth of Syria are losing their homes, their family members and their futures,” Antonio Guterres, the UN high commissioner for refugees, said in the statement. “Even after they have crossed a border to safety, they are traumatized, depressed and in need of a reason for hope.”

Forced Labor

The child refugees, about three-quarters of them under the age of 11, face threats from forced labor, early marriage and sexual exploitation and trafficking, according to the statement. The UN’s Syria Regional Refugee Response plan, which is part of “the largest humanitarian operation in history,” has raised only 38 percent of the $3 billion it needs, according to the statement.

More than 100,000 Syrians have died in the conflict that began in March 2011 on the heels of the widespread revolts in Arab nations. About 7,000 of the dead are children, according to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said today that the humanitarian situation in Syria “continues to worsen” and called for the resumption of negotiations to end the conflict.

“The Syrian people have suffered enough far too long,” Ban said in remarks in Seoul. “The time has clearly come for the parties to stop shooting, and start talking.”

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