Alison Maccoll: Syria's children in danger

Around 8000 refugees pour out of Syria every day. Za'atari, the largest refugee camp in Jordan, has become the country's fourth largest city. Photo / AP
Around 8000 refugees pour out of Syria every day. Za'atari, the largest refugee camp in Jordan, has become the country's fourth largest city. Photo / AP

I arrived in Beirut three weeks ago. Once known as the Paris of the East, tensions are again rising in the often besieged Lebanese capital.

Over a million refugees have flooded across the border into Lebanon since the conflict began in neighbouring Syria two years ago. As a result, one in four people in this tiny and historically unstable country are now Syrian refugees.

While the Lebanese have been generous hosts, the demand for healthcare, education, accommodation and employment with such a large influx of refugees is now proving too much.

A recent report by World Vision found there are increasing security concerns and resentment between refugees and local communities. School classes have doubled in size and some have shut their doors to local children at lunchtime to make way for refugees. Some healthcare clinics have seen 50 per cent more patients in the past year.

Meanwhile, many Lebanese families face financial ruin as wages plummet and rents soar due to desperate refugees willingly working for less money and banding together to rent rooms.

The cracks are most certainly showing, and the same scenario is being played out in Jordan and Turkey too.

Around 8000 refugees pour out of Syria every day. Za'atari, the largest refugee camp in Jordan, has become the country's fourth largest city. More than 430,000 refugees have sought refuge in Turkey.

In addition to the 1.9 million who have crossed borders, at least four million Syrians are believed to have been displaced within their own country.

With no end in sight, the growing crisis threatens to destabilise the whole region.

Despite this the response so far from the international community has been slow. Money raised for this crisis is dwarfed by that for recent humanitarian crises such as the Haiti earthquake.

It seems fast-paced and visually shocking "acts of God" - earthquakes, tsunamis and droughts - compel people to give generously. Political conflicts are harder to understand and easier to apportion blame. In the case of Syria, the legacy of political turmoil in the Middle East adds yet another dynamic. However, in my experience, when working with mothers and children whose lives have been torn apart, you find their needs are no less than any other humanitarian disaster; natural or man-made.

The affect the war has had on Syria's people is nothing short of brutal. The burned out ghost towns we see on the news only partially capture the wide-ranging and extreme violence across Syria. What we don't see are the individual stories of mothers giving birth in dark cellars deprived of access to medical assistance and clean water, of family members having to risk their lives to cross streets to collect their dead, and of boys being summarily executed or drawn into the fighting.

Mothers and children have witnessed unspeakable violence. They have seen friends and family killed and their homes bombed. Families who once led peaceful and comfortable middle-class lives now live in makeshift tents or overcrowded apartments in foreign countries that don't have the capacity to look after them.

Estimates suggest more than half of the refugees and internally displaced from Syria are children. They have been wrenched away from the communities and families that kept them safe, are falling behind in their education and are vulnerable to disease and exploitation. These children are in danger of becoming a lost generation.

Safaa moved from one town to another fleeing from the violence with her 2-year-old son Hassan. Now living in a tent in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley she told World Vision: "I felt a stranger myself in my own country. Death is no longer new to us. I feel numb; I can't even provide affection for my own child who I know needs me."

Post-traumatic stress disorder is prevalent, with many mothers telling us that their children are too afraid to sleep. Some tell their children they are on a prolonged holiday, in an attempt to dissolve any fear for the future.

There is no doubt that strong political leadership is needed to bring an end to the crisis. World Vision and other humanitarian agencies are calling for an immediate halt to the bloodshed and an increase in aid. We need to see this conflict as the true humanitarian disaster that it is.

If this advice isn't heeded, the only certainty is the crisis will continue to uproot hundreds of thousands of innocent people and ebb away at the stability of the Middle East.

Alison Maccoll is an aid worker with World Vision, seconded to work with Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

- NZ Herald

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