Today, Lebanon is facing an overwhelming challenge, with children at the forefront. A generation of children, deeply affected by the Syrian conflict, is at risk of being lost.
Syrian, Palestinian, and Lebanese children are together paying the heaviest price for the ongoing conflict.
Two years into the Syria conflict, up to 500,000 children in Lebanon may be in urgent need of assistance. With Lebanon receiving the largest number of refugees fleeing the violence in Syria, Lebanese host communities, mostly living in impoverished areas and who have shown enormous generosity in sharing their scarce resources, are becoming unable to cope.
Children have fled Syria, often carrying nothing more than clothes on them. Many of these children have experienced and witnessed unspeakable violence: the death or injury of relatives, neighbors and friends, or been exposed to traumatic scenes of violence and destruction. These experiences can significantly impact children’s psychological and social well-being and development, both in the short and long term.
Affected children in Lebanon are living in extremely difficult conditions due to displacement, insecurity, and limited or no access to health care, safe drinking water, adequate sanitation, or education. The new “homes” of children from Syria are often rooms in unfinished buildings, abandoned schools, tents or makeshift shacks. These frequently lack basic necessities and are overcrowded, leaving children exposed to disease and other dangers. Any savings refugees may have are dwindling as the crisis continues. Simultaneously, Lebanese host communities are becoming further impoverished as their own resources are stretched to the limit.
The images we see every day, the articles we read, all depict a tragic situation for children, deprived of their rights, marginalized and in danger of exploitation.
Some time ago, I spoke with a 10-year-old girl from Syria who had arrived to Lebanon with her family. She had lost her home and friends. The young girl took me to their new safe haven, a makeshift tent in a densely populated settlement put together on muddy grounds. When I asked her what she dreamed of and wanted the most, the young girl answered: “To go back to school in Syria. I want to become a children’s doctor.”
The desire to learn remains strong. However, like many others, this girl’s parents cannot afford transportation and other costs to send her and her sisters and brothers to school. Her education has been severely affected by the conflict. The longer the conflict in Syria continues, the weaker the coping mechanisms of refugees and affected host communities become. This girl’s parents may be forced to consider early marriage as the only viable option to provide their daughter with security. Associated with that are the health risks and long-term implications on the future of her children.
A priority of UNICEF has been to ensure the most vulnerable refugee and Lebanese host community children are in school, a safe, protective environment. So far, over 17,720 children have benefited from support to enroll in school, and from receiving basic education materials. However, this is not enough.
Through the principle of equity for all children, UNICEF is supporting the most marginalized and vulnerable children, their families and communities, including Syrian refugees, Palestinians from Syria, Lebanese returnees, and of course the most vulnerable Lebanese host communities.
Lebanon’s challenge is to manage a humanitarian response in which refugees are one of several affected populations dispersed across every corner of the country. All who are responding to the enormous needs are struggling to keep pace with the growing magnitude of this crisis. All are severely under-resourced to respond to the magnitude of the need. Many donors have yet to deliver on their pledges made at the International Humanitarian Pledging Conference for Syria held in Kuwait earlier this year.
The international community needs to step up. Firstly, funding is urgently needed to enable a response to immediate needs and to build resilience of local communities and institutions on the ground. Secondly, a solution must be found to end the violence in Syria, which continues to harm the rights of children across the region, without delay.
Children must come first. We cannot afford to allow a generation of children to be lost. And we must act now.
Annamaria Laurini is the UNICEF Representative in Lebanon.