In the seven years since the Syrian Civil War began, countless lives have been lost, people have been injured, and families have been torn apart. Nowhere is this toll more evident or devastating than in the permanently changed lives of millions of Syrian children, who have suffered immensely in the face of a war that, for many, has shaped their lives since birth or infancy.
The Syrian Civil War began in 2011, and was born of the Arab Spring revolutions that began spreading across Middle Eastern countries early in 2011. However, unlike many neighbouring countries caught up in the revolution, the Syrian government and President Bashar al-Assad did not cede power, and the rebel armies were unable to overpower government forces. Syria has since been embroiled in a civil war that has grown to involve countless other parties and players – both within and outside of the country – and resulted in widespread health issues, social unrest, violence, and an unprecedented refugee crisis.
As the war has evolved to include a number of players, Syria has also begun to face violence between religious factions and the growing threat of terrorism from ISIS. A number of other states are involved in various ways, from supplying arms to rebels and the Assad government, to sending ground troops to fight against ISIS, to deploying missile strikes. Currently, the World Bank estimates that more than 400,000 people have died in Syria since 2011. The UN estimates that about five million Syrians (at least half of them children) have sought refuge abroad, while another six million are currently internally displaced (including approximately 2.8 million children). Additionally, World Vision has stated that around 13.1 million people in the country today require some form of humanitarian assistance.
Children have been some of the hardest hit by this war and violence. Save the Children has declared Syria “the most dangerous place to be a child […] of all conflict-affected countries in the world,” and stated that 5.3 million children across Syria need urgent humanitarian aid. All children in Syria suffer from the direct and indirect effects of living in a war zone. War disrupts life and forces children to contend with the loss of normalcy and routine, poverty, the lack of access to basic necessities, the increased threat of illness, the increased risk of bombings and violence, the loss of family and friends, constant fear and insecurity, the loss of a safe home, and the lack of education and social connection.
These consequences of war affect children in a number of ways, both during childhood and later in life. In a 2017 report, Save the Children stated that these consequences cause “toxic stress” (stress that is specifically war-related) in children. Toxic stress can manifest as psychological trauma and mental illness symptoms, and causes “long-term effects on their psychological and physical health.”
Children in Syria also face further threats born of the war. Firstly, poverty is a major result of the war that has severe consequences for children. Many young people in Syria have left school to work in order to support their families, who have lost their primary source of income through the death of a parent. Coupled with poor housing conditions, poverty also increases the likelihood of illness, disease, and death. This is again compounded by a lack of healthcare access and services – including vaccinations for children.
The Syrian Civil War also prompted an unforeseen refugee crisis, resulting in the largest number of displaced people (almost 60 million) in the world since World War II. The European Migrant Crisis prompted many to cross the Mediterranean Sea from Libya to Southern Europe, and many of these people drowned during the journey, children among them.
Child marriage, abuse, exploitation, and recruitment into armed services and rebel groups also run high in Syria. Child marriage is often seen by many families as a safer alternative to protect their daughters, while child abuse can be prominent in refugee camps. Child exploitation is also a major threat for children, particularly with regards to the recruitment of child soldiers by rebel and militia groups. The use of chemical weapons has also been prominent during the war and resulted in many child injuries and deaths. A number of harrowing images of suffering children have continually raised an outcry from the international community.
The median age in Syria is 24.1 years, and – based on 2018 population estimates – children make up approximately 44% of the total current population. This means that due to the indiscriminate nature of war, children also suffer mass casualties. Save the Children has found that almost all of the eight million children currently in Syria have been affected by the war and require some sort of humanitarian assistance. Three million of these children are under the age of six and thereby know nothing but the war into which they were born.
UNICEF has found that as of March 2017, 280,000 children were living in areas under siege and two million children are currently out of school due to the number of functioning schools in the country being halved. As a result of the war, two in three children have also suffered from some form of war-related loss while at least one in four are at risk of developing a mental health disorder.
According to the Syrian Center for Policy Research, an estimated 55,000 children have been killed in the war. 2016 was the worst year on record for child fatalities, with around 650 deaths and 850 forced child recruitments into the war, according to UNICEF.
A number of charities and NGOs both within and outside of Syria work specifically to help children by providing aid, assistance, and necessary services where they are able. However, one of the largest inhibitors to providing life-saving humanitarian aid is the inability to reach children living in areas under siege. Such places are often tightly controlled by government forces or militia groups and do not allow NGOs or aid groups any access, limiting their work and the number of children they can reach. Without humanitarian aid, families often cannot afford to treat illness and disease, or in many cases even access basic necessities.
Without significant financial and humanitarian aid, millions of children in Syria – many of whose lives have been shaped by the war – will continue to suffer. These children pay the price for indiscriminate violence created by a war in which they play no part besides victims, and that many cannot even begin to understand.
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