BEIRUT: The number of Syrian children who have fled violence in their homeland has topped 1 million, the United Nations said Friday.
"This one millionth child refugee is not just another number," said Anthony Lake, the head of UNICEF, the U.N. children's agency. "This is a real child ripped from home, maybe even from a family, facing horrors we can only begin to comprehend."
Lebanon has been forced to cope with the highest number of refugee children from its war-torn neighbor, with 350,000 registered in the country.
The numbers of refugees crossing the border both legally and illegally has been growing exponentially since January, UNICEF’s communications chief told The Daily Star.
“We have seen a rapid increase in the number of refugees this year. The numbers are four times higher than in January,” Soha Boustani said.
The U.N. documented a particular rise in refugees after the fall of Qusair – a strategic town near the Lebanese border that the President Bashar Assad’s regime overran in June.
“After the battle in Qusair, many came to realize that the conflict is going to go on a long time. People became increasingly desperate and left [the country] with nothing,” Boustani added.
While there are 700,000 refugees registered or pending registration in Lebanon, the figure is likely to be significantly higher as many families are choosing not to identify themselves to UNHCR , the U.N. refugee agency. Beirut says at least 1 million are residing in the country, with hundreds more crossing over each week.
In dire financial straits, some refugee families have been forced to send their children out to work.
“We are now witnessing some cases of underweight and malnourished children, an issue we are urgently addressing. With little or no means, some children and families are being pushed into cheap labor, working in the fields and in garages. They are often paid less than $2 a day,” Boustani said.
Across the region, children make up more than half of all refugees, according to Friday’s figures – a trend that is mirrored in Lebanon where 53 percent of the displaced are under 18.
The U.N. statistics also show that around 740,000 Syrian refugees are under the age of 11.
“This truly is a lost generation. This is not just a political conflict but a desperate humanitarian crisis. Around 80 percent of refugee children in Lebanon are not in school... Ultimately, this is an issue of survival,” Boustani said.