The world needs to act to help Syria’s child refugees

There’s something horribly fin de siècle about the drama playing out across the Middle East and Europe. Desperate men, women and children are fleeing the horrors of war, murder, rape and enslavement only to be tangled up on the barbed wire of Europe’s hastily constructed border fences.

Despite Germany’s pledge to take in many of the refugees, Europe has essentially shut up shop. Hungary has built razor wire fences across its border with Serbia and used water cannon and tear gas to keep the desperate people out.

Earlier this week the Hungarian government arrested 519 refugees under a new law that makes it a crime to cross the border anywhere other than at legal checkpoints.

Across Europe, the Schengen zone – the EU’s passport-free area – appeared to be collapsing under the pressure as countries tightened frontier controls.

Amid all the hysteria, I think it’s important to take a step back and really digest the sheer scale of the catastrophe these poor people – and particularly children – are facing and why it’s important for everyone, everywhere to help them.

According to the UN, more than 1.1 million Syrian children are now officially registered as refugees. Of this number, 75% are under 12 years old. Children represent 52% of the total Syrian refugee population, which now exceeds 2.2 million. About a million of these people are in Lebanon, which has taken in by far the highest number of displaced migrants from Syria

More than half of all school-aged Syrian children in Lebanon and Jordan are not in school. In Lebanon, it is estimated that 200,000 school-aged Syrian refugee children could remain out of school indefinitely. Furthermore, in Lebanese refugee camps Syrian children as young as 12 are being forced into labour gangs. These are the children who have no one left alive to look after them and who are too poor or exhausted to try to escape to Europe.

Meanwhile, those who have risked the perilous journey to Europe have seen friends and family killed in the war, been separated from their parents (who can often only afford to pay for their children to leave Syria) and in many cases have lost siblings and friends to drowning.

In Italy alone 7,600 children without parents or guardians have arrived since January this year, according to Save the Children. Many are malnourished, dehydrated and suffering all kinds of illnesses, physical as well as psychological.

In Sweden, which has taken by far the most Syrian refugees of any European country to date, 700 children are now arriving each week, without parents or guardians. Many have been hurt in accidents, beaten and even raped by people smugglers. There were instances recorded of teenage boys with hearing loss after being slapped across the ears throughout their journeys.

In one Swedish reception centre more than half the children needed psychological care after witnessing untold misery, death and violence on their journeys to Europe.

Back at the frontline in Hungary, the plight of all these people is now creating a pressure cooker. At the gates of Europe, children are arguably living in squalid conditions as bad as those back in Lebanon, lacking basic sanitation and food.

Voluntary medical organisations have been overwhelmed by the scale of health care issues affecting children. And as children wander alone throughout these throngs of displaced people in Serbia and Macedonia, they are becoming the focus of slave traders and child trafficking gangs.

The countries of the EU are incapable of acting in unison over this, while globally nations are wringing their hands claiming it’s not their problem. Although the UNHCR is doing great works in the Middle East, the UN itself needs to bring order out of the chaos to help these people.

This week Save the Children and Google announced a new global public giving campaign to assist families fleeing the Middle East. More of these initiatives need to be taken, NOW. We all have a duty to help people in desperate need. They need to be treated with respect and dignity. But instead of giving them food, shelter and safety, European countries such as Hungary are locking them up as criminals. Shameful.

We need to act in the cause of common humanity – and we need to act today.

– with Andrew Chilvers