After a crowded dinghy hit rocks off the coast of Greece's Agathonisi island on New Years Day, a two-year old boy became the first known refugee casualty of 2016. While the young boy's nationality was not confirmed in media reports, such a tragic event reflects the impact that the Syrian conflict and associated refugee crisis have had on millions of children.
With the outbreak of the conflict now approaching its fifth anniversary, refugees of all ages face an increasingly uncertain future caught in the worst humanitarian crisis since the Second World War. Following the Government's announcement in September to accept 20,000 Syrian refugees directly from the Middle East, it was decided that the crisis, with a particular focus on the most vulnerable, would be a key priority for the International Development Committee in our first report of the Parliament.
There are currently over four million registered refugees in neighbouring countries (in addition to those who are unregistered) and these countries are struggling to cope with meeting the basic needs of many refugees. We heard that the best option for the majority of refugees is to stay in the region close to their homes, yet it is also true that, in certain cases, resettlement to a country like the UK is an appropriate solution. In such cases, it is important that refugees are prioritised based on their vulnerability.
In Lebanon and Jordan in particular, the ability to deliver basic services such as healthcare and education for both local communities and the refugees they host has come under extreme pressure. Indeed, the situation is becoming increasingly strained as support from certain international donors has consistently come up short. The World Food Programme (WFP), the UN food assistance agency, has been forced to cut its food support to certain groups of Syrian refugees due to lack of funding. This has had a worrying impact on poverty among the refugee population, particularly with regard to children who in certain cases have been pushed into child labour and forced early marriage.
The situation for those trapped in Syria itself is even more harrowing. Some 13.5million people in Syria are in need of humanitarian assistance, with many of these being in areas where access to humanitarian agencies is extremely limited and the ability of the Department for International Development (DFID) and its partners to offer even basic help to those who need it is restricted.
All refugees are likely to be vulnerable to some degree, yet we found that some groups within the refugee population face heightened risks and are less 'visible' than others. Christians and refugees from other religious minorities and refugees from LGBT communities often avoid camps through fear of persecution. We heard that for refugees with disabilities, their conditions are often underreported meaning they might not be prioritised for resettlement in a way that their vulnerability warrants. While these factors were of grave concern to us, it was the situation faced by millions of Syrian children that was perhaps the most shocking emerging from our inquiry.
Around 7.6million Syrian children (within and outside the country) need humanitarian assistance, close to 80% of Syria's child population. Child labour, early forced marriage, exposure to disease, risk of sexual violence - these are all risks that threaten the immediate well-being of Syria's children. Yet it is not just the immediate impact through risk of death, injury, abuse and/or psychological trauma that appalled us, but equally the potential lifelong effects through the lack of education. As of March 2015, approximately 752,000 school-age Syria refugees were not participating in either formal or informal education. As George Graham of Save the Children mentioned in oral evidence, "there are children who have not been in school for nearly five years, and that has just destroyed a generation. Five years is too long." We are pleased with the Government's commitment to helping these children through the No Lost Generation Initiative (NLGI), though clearly there is much more to be done.
The situation is undoubtedly desperate for many children that remain in the Middle East, yet it can often be worse for those who have travelled to Europe to seek safety, particularly those who are unaccompanied. The dangerous crossings of the Mediterranean often do not spell the end of danger, as we heard that a significant proportion of unaccompanied child refugees (around 31% in Italy in 2014) subsequently disappear. We are seriously concerned as evidence suggests that many of those that have disappeared may have been the victims of people traffickers who force them into prostitution, child labour or the drugs trade. These children are clearly some of the most vulnerable refugees this crisis has created and deserve the opportunity to be resettled. This lies behind our decision to urge a quick decision on the Save the Children proposal to accept 3,000 unaccompanied child refugees from Europe in addition to the 20,000. We would warmly welcome the Government's acceptance of this proposal.
Stephen Twigg is chair of the International Development Select Committee and the Labour MP for Liverpool West Derby