As the Syrian war crisis sadly enters its sixth year, it’s estimated that one in three Syrian children have lived their entire lives under constant warfare and only know an existence filled with despair and fear.

An estimated 3.7 million Syrian children, one in three of all Syrian children — have been born since the conflict began five years ago. Their lives have been shaped by violence, fear and displacement, according to a UNICEF report released in March. This figure includes more than 151,000 children born as refugees since 2011.

In the report, No Place for Children, UNICEF estimates that 8.4 million children — more than 80 percent of Syria’s child population — are now affected by the conflict and live in extremely penurious conditions, either inside Syria or as refugees in neighbouring countries. Released on the eve of the fifth anniversary of the Syrian crisis, No Place for Children emphasises the devastating effect the crisis has had on all aspects of children’s lives.

“Today is not an anniversary. It is not a special occasion to mark. Today is a tragedy,” said David Morley, UNICEF Canada President and CEO. “Five years of war have left an entire generation of children uprooted, at risk, and uncertain of their futures and the future of their country. This report highlights the devastating effect of the crisis on Syria’s children, and a roadmap to reclaim these vital childhoods.”

“Thousands of remarkable people are in Syria and the surrounding countries doing life-saving work to make sure these children have a place to sleep, have food to eat, and have medicine when they get sick, but we need to do more to reach the more than eight million Syrian children at risk,” said Morley. “We call on all parties to end the attacks on education and health centres and to let humanitarian aid reach those who need it most.

This girl sheltered in Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan is one of a million Syrian children who have become refugees because of the war.
This girl sheltered at Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan is one of a million Syrian children who have become refugees because of the war.

Report highlights tragic impact on the life of Syria’s children

UNICEF verified nearly 1,500 grave violations against children in 2015. More than 60 percent 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, 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 seven million children live in extreme poverty, making their childhood one of loss and deprivation.”

In countries bordering Syria’s , the number of refugees is nearly ten times higher today than it was 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. “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.”

“It’s not too late for Syria’s children. They continue to have hope for a life of dignity and possibility,” Salama said. “They still cherish dreams of peace and have the chance to fulfil them.”

Child recruitment on the rise

In the earlier years of the struggle, most of the children recruited by armed forces and groups were boys between 15 and 17 years old. 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 verified cases of children recruited in 2015 were under 15 years old, compared with less than 20 percent 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.

Without education, an entire generation will be lost

One of the most significant challenges to the conflict has been providing children with education. School attendance rates inside Syria have hit rock bottom. UNICEF estimates that more than 2.1 million children in Syria, and more than 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.

The report calls on the global community to undertake five critical steps to protect a vital generation of children

  1. End violations of children’s rights;
  2. Lift sieges and improve humanitarian access inside Syria;
  3. Secure US$ 1.4 billion in 2016 to provide children with learning opportunities;
  4. Restore children’s dignity and strengthen their psychological wellbeing; and
  5. Turn funding pledges into commitments. UNICEF has received only six percent of the funding required in 2016 to support Syrian children both inside the country and those living as refugees in neighbouring countries.

The report gave a testimony from one of the girls that had been recruited to fight in the war.

“Huda was just 14 years old when she found herself in her first battle, facing armed men, with a weapon she barely knew how to use,” the report said. Huda herself remembers: “I was scared. The commander gave me a gun and said I should get ready for the battle.” Thankfully, Huda survived combat and now lives as a refugee in Jordan.

The barbaric terrorist group Daesh/ISIS has increased its offensive by releasing footage of child soldiers killing captives on the group’s command.

Even if these children physically survive the war, they are likely to be severely affected by what this war has forced them to do for the rest of their lives.