BEIRUT: A generation risks being "lost forever" as the Syrian conflict enters its fourth year, displacing millions of children and depriving them of health care, education and security, aid agencies warned Saturday.
The UN refugee and children's agencies, UNHCR and UNICEF, and three NGOs on a visit to Lebanon stressed the war's "harrowing impact" on 5.5 million Syrian children living in their country and as refugees in neighboring states.
"For three horrific years, millions of innocent children have been living a childhood that none should endure," said UNICEF executive director Anthony Lake in a joint statement.
"The children of Syria cannot, and must not, face another year of this horror -- the violence and cruelty that has scarred their lives for three long years," he said.
Antonio Guterres, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said: "Syrians represent the largest population of forcibly displaced people in the world... They need and deserve to be protected, healed and educated."
The aid groups said 37,000 refugee babies had been born since the conflict in Syria broke out in March 2011. A total of 1.2 million Syrian children are now living as refugees in host countries, almost half a million in Lebanon alone.
Save the Children head Justin Forsyth said: "Doctors have told us of sick children who are unable to be treated because of the collapse of the health service. We know of children who have been tortured, starved or targeted in attacks.
"Hundreds of thousands of children are growing up having known nothing but the horrors of this war and the chaos and uncertainty that it has bought to their young lives. It has to stop."
The five groups, including Mercy Corps and World Vision International, said the conflict between the regime and its armed foes has "devastated the lives of millions of children and young people -- and a generation is at risk of being lost forever."
They said one-fifth of schools in Syria has been destroyed, damaged or converted to military use, and nearly three million children are not attending classes on a regular basis.
"The threat to long-term prospects for a more stable and prosperous Syria is also underlined by the collapse of the education system," they said.