23/08/2013 04:20 BST | Updated 22/10/2013 06:12 BST

Syria's Children: a Lost Generation?


Three young Syrian girls play in a rundown area of Erbil. The six-year-old in the middle lives with her family in a partially-constructed home. They fled from Syria after a tank entered their neighbourhood and began firing at houses. The girl says she was scared but now feels safe in Iraq.

Across the UK, British kids are getting ready - most likely with heavy hearts - to return to the classroom as the new school year starts. But for Syria's children, the routines of childhood usually taken for granted will pass unobserved. Because today marks a tragic milestone in Syria's brutal conflict: one million children have now been forced to flee their homeland.

Children make up half of all refugees from the Syrian conflict, the vast majority of them under the age of 11. And these are just the children who have managed to escape across the border to Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey, or Iraq. Inside Syria, 7,000 children are believed to have been killed during the conflict and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that a further two million children are displaced but remain inside the country. As the conflict drags on, these children risk becoming Syria's lost generation.

Earlier this year, I met twelve year-old Ali, one of the newest arrivals in Jordan's Za'atari refugee camp. With a mischievous smile, freckles and baseball cap, Ali would have seemed at home in any London street. 'You're from England? Arsenal! Arsenal!' he chanted, as he offered me candyfloss and showed me photos on his phone. But Ali had faced the kind of horror I could only struggle to comprehend. Just two weeks beforehand, his younger brother had been killed by shelling in the family's home town of Daraa. And rolling up his trousers, he showed me the scars from a sniper attack covering his legs. 'All we want is freedom,' he told me. 'But now we are too scared to go home.'

Sadly, Ali's story is far from unique. The numbers involved in this crisis are staggering. Latest figures show that more than 768,000 Syrian child refugees are under the age of eleven. That's the same as the number of children under the age of nine living in London. And more than 3,500 of these children have crossed Syria's borders either unaccompanied or separated from their families.

Despite providing shelter and safety from immediate danger, a refugee camp is no place to spend a childhood. The dislocation from home is traumatic for any refugee, but being far from home with big gaps in education can leave children particularly vulnerable to exploitation from forced labour, military recruitment, early marriage or trafficking.

All one million of Syria's refugee children have been registered by UNHCR, which means that they have an identity in exile, as well as access to education, counseling and other support services. The agency is also helping babies born in exile to get birth certificates, preventing them from becoming stateless.

But more remains to be done. The UN has called for almost £2 billion to address the acute needs of refugees until December of this year, but only 38 per cent of this sum has been received. More resources need to be devoted to plugging the gaps in education and health care, and building strong networks to identify refugee children at risk.

Funding alone cannot halt this tragedy; only a political solution can bring an end to the suffering. Until then, families must be free to leave Syria safely. Borders must remain open and Syrians in need of refuge in the UK and elsewhere in Europe should be offered protection - a crucial first step towards restoring hope and rebuilding a future for the children of Syria.