|Despite the freezing cold, children will be children... (via telegraph.co.uk)|
Most people, especially children, hope for a White Christmas. It is certainly not the wish of over 1.1 million Syrian children, now scattered across their own country or taking refuge in neighboring Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq.
With Christmas just over a week away, most families are now filling bags of gifts for their children, decorating their homes, putting up Christmas trees and stocking up on food for the festive season.
In the Middle East, and especially in Syria and Palestine, children will not even know it’s that time of year.
In Syria, in particular, where over half of all 2.3 million refugees are children, will this shameful milestone of conflict deliver more than headlines?
|Nowhere else to sleep...|
Why is it that the human heart and conscience remains blank and cold in the face of the tragedy of these kids? Why are there no more initiatives such "Do They Know It's Christmas?" in 1984 and Live Aid in 1985?
The UN refugee agency UNHCR is stepping up measures to protect the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, including 120,000 living in flimsy tents, as they face the onslaught of a massive winter storm in the region dubbed “Alexa.”
"For the hundreds of thousands of refugees in Lebanon, as well as those in neighboring countries and the displaced in Syria, a storm like this creates immense additional hardship and suffering," said Amin Awad, director of UNHCR's Middle East and North Africa Bureau. "With Lebanon's help, we're doing everything we can to get rapid additional help to people who most need it. This is on top of the winter preparations already done over the past months."
A host of other humanitarian agencies are working on the winter response in Lebanon, including the World Food Program, the Norwegian Refugee Council, the International Organization for Migration, Oxfam, Medair, Save the Children, World Vision, Humedica, Mercy Corps, Caritas and Handicap International.
Lebanon is now the largest Syrian refugee-hosting country in the region, with almost 840,000 Syrians either registered as refugees or awaiting registration, according to UNHCR. Unlike other countries neighboring Syria, there are no established refugee camps. Instead people are living in the community in nearly 1,600 different areas.
Before the storm hit last week, UNHCR undertook a research project, conducted over four months, on what life is like for Syrian children in the two countries hosting the highest number of Syrian refugees -- Jordan and Lebanon.
The Future of Syria: Refugee Children in Crisis found that Syrian refugee children face a startling degree of isolation and insecurity. If they aren’t working as breadwinners -- often doing menial labor on farms or in shops -- they are confined to their homes.
Perhaps the statistic we should pay the most attention to, says UNHCR, is: 29 percent of children interviewed said they leave their home once a week or less. Home is often a crammed apartment, a makeshift shelter or a tent.
Too many have been wounded physically, psychologically or both. Some children have been drawn into the war -- their innocence ruthlessly exploited.
A grave consequence of the conflict is that a generation is growing up without a formal education. More than half of all school-aged Syrian children in Jordan and Lebanon are not in school. In Lebanon, it is estimated that some 200,000 school-aged Syrian refugee children could remain out of school at the end of the year.
|The Arsal makeshift Syrian refugee camp in northeast Lebanon|
Another disturbing symptom of the crisis is the vast number of babies born in exile who do not have birth certificates.
A recent UNHCR survey on birth registration in Lebanon revealed that 77 percent of 781 refugee infants sampled did not have an official birth certificate. Between January and mid-October 2013, only 68 certificates were issued to babies born in Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp.
|How is this allowed to happen? (via yallasouriya.wordpress.com)|
Much more needs to be done if a catastrophe is to be averted, says UNHCR, including:
Keep the borders open: For all the problems identified in the report, children have access to protection because countries like Lebanon and Jordan have welcomed them. No effort should be spared in supporting Syria’s neighbors to keep their borders open. Further afield, in the past few months, many adults and children have lost their lives attempting to reach Europe. States must do more to ensure the safety of people attempting to cross water and land borders.
Help the neighbors: The unwavering commitment of neighboring countries to tackle the monumental task of supporting hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugee children must be matched by international solidarity. Overstrained school systems must be built up, health services expanded and local communities reassured that support is available for them too.
Stop recruitment and exploitation of children: Children should never be drawn into conflict. All parties should make every effort to end this practice.
Expand resettlement and humanitarian admissions programs for Syria’s children: Countries beyond Syria’s borders should also offer a home to Syrian refugees. These programs are important lifelines for the most vulnerable, including people who continue to be in danger and families with seriously wounded children. Unaccompanied and separated children are only considered for these programs after a careful examination of their best interests.
Provide alternatives so children do not have to work: We urge individuals and businesses to help fund UNHCR’s financial assistance scheme that targets vulnerable refugee families and call on governments to explore alternative livelihoods opportunities for Syrian refugees.
Prevent statelessness: Lack of a birth certificate or related documentation can increase the risk of statelessness and expose children to trafficking and exploitation. Returning home may be impossible for children without the necessary documentation. Progress is already being made in neighboring countries, but it is vital that host countries continue to improve access to birth registration.
|A few of the 1.1 million Syrian refugee children trying to keep warm|
Of the 1.1 million Syrian children registered as refugees with UNHCR worldwide, some 75 percent are under the age of 12. Children represent 52 percent of the total Syrian refugee population, which now exceeds 2.2 million. The majority live in Syria’s neighboring countries, with Jordan and Lebanon combined hosting more than 60 percent of all Syrian refugee children. As of 31 October 2013, 291,238 Syrian refugee children were living in Jordan and 385,007 in Lebanon.
The war in Syria has torn families apart, with over 3,700 children in Jordan and Lebanon living without one or both of their parents, or with no adult caregivers at all. By the end of September 2013, UNHCR had registered 2,440 unaccompanied or separated children in Lebanon and 1,320 in Jordan. In some cases the parents have died, been detained, or sent their children into exile alone out of fear for their safety.
UN agencies and partners help to find safe living arrangements for unaccompanied and separated children, reuniting them with their families or finding another family to look after them. Despite living in already crowded conditions, Syrian refugee families continue to open up their homes to relatives or even strangers.
The unrelenting exodus of Syrian refugees to Jordan and Lebanon is having a dramatic impact on these small countries. Lebanon, with a population of a little more than 4 million, has received more than 800,000 Syrian refugees in two years. The economy, essential services and stability of the country are all suffering.
Jordan, one of the most “water poor” nations in the world, with a population of a little over 6 million, is now home to more than 550,000 Syrian refugees. It is also buckling under the pressure on its services, infrastructure and resources.
While many Jordanians and Lebanese display kindness and generosity towards Syrian refugees, tensions between the communities -- and even within refugee communities -- have put refugee children at risk.
Has the world changed so much since the 1980s? Have we become immune to suffering, even that of children?
Maybe Santa doesn't exist after all…