Unicef UK Ambassador Michael Sheen meets child refugees as Syria crisis hits five years
LONDON, 14 March 2016 - An estimated 3.7 million Syrian children – 1 in 3 of all Syrian children - have been born since the conflict began five years ago, their lives shaped by violence, fear and displacement, according to a UNICEF report. This figure includes more than 306,000 children born as refugees since 2011.
Michael Sheen, actor and Unicef UK ambassador, has just returned from Jordan and Lebanon where he witnessed first-hand the situation for children in the region. “It’s absolutely heartbreaking to think that millions of Syrian children have known nothing but war, death and destruction their entire lives,” said Michael. “As a father, meeting children and families who have fled Syria and just hearing their stories was incredibly moving, so I can’t begin to imagine the impact on the children themselves.”
Michael made the journey with Unicef, the world’s leading children’s organisation, and one of the few agencies operating both in Syria and its neighbouring countries.
Michael continued: “I met children like Omaymah, who was forced to flee her home in Syria and now lives in a refugee camp in Jordan. Just 13 years old, Omaymah now tirelessly campaigns for girls education, and works with her friends to warn young girls in the camp of the dangers of child marriage.
“I was inspired by the courage, hope and optimism of Omaymah and the other children I met. It is children like Omaymah and her friends who are Syria's future, and we must do all we can to help them rebuild their lives. Ensuring all Syrian children have access to the education and protection they so rightly deserve is the first step on this journey. That's why protecting children and the schools that keep them safe must be a priority when the world responds to emergencies. It’s time for us to do all we can to give Syrian children the chance of a brighter future.”
In total, UNICEF estimates that some 8.4 million children - more than 80 per cent of Syria’s child population - are now affected by the conflict, either inside the country or as refugees in neighbouring countries.
“In Syria, violence has become commonplace, reaching homes, schools, hospitals, clinics, parks, playgrounds and places of worship,” said Dr. Peter Salama, UNICEF’s Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa. “Nearly 7 million children live in poverty, making their childhood one of loss and deprivation.”
According to the report “No Place for Children”, UNICEF verified nearly 1,500 grave violations against children in 2015. More than 60 per cent of these violations were instances of killing and maiming as a result of explosive weapons used in populated areas. More than one-third of these children were killed while in school or on their way to or from school.
In Syria’s neighbouring countries, the number of refugees is nearly 10 times higher today than in 2012. Half of all refugees are children. More than 15,000 unaccompanied and separated children have crossed Syria’s borders.
“Five years into the war, millions of children have grown up too fast and way ahead of their time,” Salama said. “As the war continues, children are fighting an adult war, they are continuing to drop out of school, and many are forced into labour, while girls are marrying early.”
In the earlier years of the conflict, most of the children recruited by armed forces and groups were boys between 15 and 17 years old, and they were used primarily in support roles away from the front lines. However, since 2014, all parties to the conflict have recruited children at much younger ages – as young as seven – and often without parental consent.
More than half of the UNICEF-verified cases of children recruited in 2015 were under 15 years old, compared with less than 20 per cent in 2014. These children are receiving military training and participating in combat, or taking up life-threatening roles at the battle-front, including carrying and maintaining weapons, manning checkpoints, and treating and evacuating war wounded. Parties to the conflict are using children to kill, including as executioners or snipers.
One of the most significant challenges to the conflict has been providing children with learning. School attendance rates inside Syria have hit rock bottom. UNICEF estimates that more than 2.1 million children inside Syria, and 700,000 in neighbouring countries, are out-of-school. In response, UNICEF and partners launched the “No Lost Generation Initiative”, which is committed to restoring learning and providing opportunities to young people.
“It’s not too late for Syria’s children. They continue to have hope for a life of dignity and possibility. They still cherish dreams of peace and have the chance to fulfill them,” Salama said.
The report calls on the global community to undertake five critical steps to protect a vital generation of children.
- End violations of children’s rights;
- Lift sieges and improve humanitarian access inside Syria;
- Secure £1 billion in 2016 to provide children with learning opportunities;
- Restore children’s dignity and strengthen their psychological wellbeing; and
- Turn funding pledges into commitments. UNICEF has received only 6 per cent of the funding required in 2016 to support Syrian children both inside the country and those living as refugees in neighbouring countries.
Unicef UK is calling on David Cameron to help protect children in emergencies like the conflict in Syria, add your name at http://unicef.uk/protect.
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Note to Editors
UNICEF’s response to the Syria crisis
In 2015 alone, UNICEF and a large network of local and international partners were able to deliver assistance to millions of children in need inside Syria and in neighbouring countries.
- More than 7.9 million people were provided with access to safe water
- Two rounds of polio vaccination campaigns reached over 2.9 million children. No new polio cases have been reported in the country since January 2014.
- Over 1 million children, including in hard to reach areas, accessed learning material through the printing and distribution of text books. This was done at a time when printing was no longer possible locally because of damage to infrastructure.
- Nearly 841,000 children received psychological support.
In the neighbouring countries, UNICEF and partners:
- Provided over 2.5 million people with safe drinking and domestic water.
- Vaccinated over 16 million children under 5 against polio.
- Helped more than 630,000 refugee children enrol in formal education.
- Provided over 377,000 children with psychosocial support services
- Provided around 184,000 children under 5 with multi-micronutrient supplements including Vitamin A.
- Reached over 139,000 children with winter supplies including blankets, clothes, heating supplies, cash and vouchers.
Unicef is the world’s leading organisation for children, promoting the rights and wellbeing of every child, in everything we do. Together with our partners, we work in 190 countries and territories to translate that commitment into practical action, focusing special effort on reaching the most vulnerable and excluded children, to the benefit of all children, everywhere. Unicef UK raises funds to protect children in danger, transform their lives and build a safer world for tomorrow’s children. As a registered charity we raise funds through donations from individuals, organisations and companies and we lobby and campaign to keep children safe. Unicef UK also runs programmes in schools, hospitals and with local authorities in the UK. For more information please visit unicef.org.uk