GENEVA (Reuters) - The number of Syrian children forced to flee their devastated homeland reached 1 million on Friday, half of all the refugees driven abroad by a conflict that shows no sign of ending, the United Nations said.
Another two million Syrian minors are uprooted within their country where they are often attacked, recruited as fighters, and deprived of their education, the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR and U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said.
“If we just realize that last year around this time we had 70,000 Syrian refugee children and today we have reached 1 million, that tells us something about the escalation of this crisis and the problems facing children,” said Yoka Brandt, deputy executive director of UNICEF.
The 1 million mark was a “shameful milestone” in the two-and-a-half year conflict that has cost at least 100,000 lives, the U.N. agencies said.
There is a huge risk of a “lost generation” of Syrian youth, including adolescents whose anger has become “extremely dangerous” to society and the region, Antonio Guterres, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, told a joint news conference.
Guterres said he had met Syrian children in refugee camps suffering from loss of speech, disturbed sleep, and “very strange” forms of behavior after violence they had seen or endured.
Referring to a Syrian girl in Zaatari camp in Jordan which holds 120,000 refugees, he said: “I remember one child of four years old with a family in a tent in Zaatari. During the 15-20 minutes that I was with them, she was compulsively shooting with a toy gun and it was impossible to make the child stop.”
Nearly two million Syrians have fled to Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and North Africa, the UNHCR says. They include about 42,000 Syrian Kurds who have flooded into Iraqi Kurdistan in the past week to escape fighting and sectarian violence in the north of Syria.
“This is becoming a structural problem for the economies and societies of the neighboring countries,” Guterres said.
Arab League-U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi believes that the alleged chemical weapon attack in Syria this week should speed up work towards an international peace conference, his spokeswoman said on Friday.
Brahimi and U.N. secretary-general Ban Ki-moon are trying to convene a follow-up meeting to the June 2012 ministerial talks in Geneva in an attempt to end the civil war between Syrian rebels and forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.
“Unfortunately we do not see a solution in sight. We are still hopeful about the possibilities of a Geneva 2 conference. But we know that there aren’t many reasons to be optimistic,” Guterres said.
“And very probably this war will go on and on and on and on. And the humanitarian impact is become more and more devastating.”
Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Pravin Char