When I visited Damascus almost 20 years ago, the ancient city was nothing like the brutalised and barren place we see in news reports today. My memories are of magnificent architecture and heritage sites, bustling market places and busy restaurants. The oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, credited with the invention of writing and agriculture, Damascus was astonishing, and its people prosperous and welcoming.
But war changes everything.
Seven years, to the day, since the Syrian civil war began, the city is barely recognisable. Relentless air-raids, chemical weapon attacks, and territorial battles between Islamist and pro-Assad paramilitary groups – as well as intervention by international actors - have displaced half the population and left eight million children living under the constant threat of bombs and bullets.
Our staff on the ground in Syria are reporting a humanitarian crisis for children, with insufficient food and water, and widespread child malnutrition. The war has destroyed health, education, energy and sanitation infrastructure, and the UN is struggling to deliver aid.
We are running child-friendly spaces in an attempt to ameliorate some of these effects by providing children with rest, food, medical attention, trauma counselling, and most importantly of all, a chance to play. But it will be years before the full extent of the psychological impact on children is known.
Work being done to protect children stretches well beyond Syria’s borders – as does the impact of the conflict itself – to refugee camps in neighbouring countries such as Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq, and all along the world’s key migrant routes. Lebanon alone is hosting more than half a million Syrian children, while in Greece we are caring for hundreds of unaccompanied child refugees.
But this is not an isolated situation. This complex conflict, with its widespread political and social ramifications is being replicated in hotspots all over the world. Nigeria, Libya, South Sudan, Yemen and the Central African Republic are all experiencing violent conflicts that have precipitated a global child refugee crisis.
Right now, one in six children worldwide – that’s at least 357 million– are growing up in a war-zone.
No child should be raised in bloodshed and bombing. Yet those who escape conflict often find they have exchanged one horror for another. The world’s 50 million child refugees experience poverty, uncertainty, and discrimination. Worse still, 300,000 are facing this alone, increasing exponentially their vulnerability to trafficking, slavery, exploitation and abuse.
We are caring for thousands of unsupported child refugees, and that work includes trying to reunite them with family. But for children with leave to remain in the UK - who have fled conflict and persecution, and survived the dangers of the route to Europe - this process is hampered by rules which prohibit children from applying for their families to join them. Regulations the Home Affairs Select Committee themselves describe as ‘perverse’.
Where is the sense in forcing children to live in care, when they could be raised by people who love them? Where is the humanity in denying a child – who has already been traumatised by war and bereavement - the chance of a normal, healthy family life?
On Friday, the Refugee Family Reunion Bill has its second reading before the UK Parliament. If it passes, it will be an important step towards reuniting child refugees with their families. We are fighting to ensure that it does.
At SOS Children’s Villages we know there is no better environment to raise a child than a caring and supportive family. In all its variety and forms, family shapes a young person’s development through millions of daily interactions, encouragements and reassurances. Making any child sacrifice this in return for sanctuary from war is inexcusable.
SOS Children’s Villages is the world’s largest charity working with unsupported children