Nearly 4 Million Syrian Children Born Into War Risk Becoming ‘Lost Generation’: UNICEF

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Asma al-Saleh, 33, from the eastern Syrian town of Deir ez-Zor holds her 5-month-old son, Ibrahim, into a camera for a registration photo in Herford, Germany, on February 22. A new UNICEF report warns that 3.7 million children born into Syria's five-year conflict risk becoming a "lost generation." Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters

Nearly 4 million children have been born into Syria’s five-year conflict knowing nothing but “violence, fear and displacement,” UNICEF said on Monday.

In a report released one day before the uprising’s five-year anniversary, UNICEF warns that 8.4 million, or more than 80 percent of children under 18, in the country are affected by the conflict. The 3.7 million children born into war risk becoming a “lost generation,” Anthony Lake, UNICEF’s executive director, said in the report.

The 3.7 million consists of those born in Syria, those who now live in neighboring countries and 306,000 children who were born as refugees since 2011, says Juliette Touma, UNICEF regional spokeswoman for the Middle East and North Africa.

“What it means is that you’re growing up in violence, you’re growing up in war. You’re losing your education, your health rights. You’re displaced and unfamiliar with new environments,” Touma tells Newsweek. “A child has to get used to living in exile. There’s this whole sense of loss and alienation.”

“When that happens to you when you’re under 5, it’s quite critical. It leaves a huge impact on who you’re going to be when you grow up,” she says. “It’s a warning that we must help these children so that they don’t get lost.”

Children born into Syria’s war are affected by a lack of educational opportunities, health care and recreational spaces, many of which have been damaged and destroyed by bombs, says UNICEF. Diseases such as polio have also returned, and in some besieged areas of Syria many people, including children, have starved to death from malnutrition.

The number of children out of school is “staggering,” says Touma. Half of Syria’s children have either never been to school or have dropped out because of displacement, violence or teachers who have been killed or fled.

“Millions of children have grown up ahead of their time, some forced to become their family’s sole breadwinners, while others have had no choice but to marry and become wives and mothers,” the report says. “Many have joined the fighting at a younger age and often without parental consent.”

UNICEF says it verified nearly 1,500 “grave violations” against children in 2015, most of which were cases of children killed or maimed by explosive weapons in populated areas. More than one-third were killed while in school or on their way to school. Both boys and girls, some as young as 7, have been recruited into fighting by “all parties to the conflict,” says Touma. Their work includes manning checkpoints and executions, she says.

“It’s not too late for Syria’s children. They continue to have hope for a life of dignity and possibility,” Dr. Peter Salama, UNICEF’s regional director for the Middle East and North Africa, said in a statement. “They still cherish dreams of peace and have the chance to fulfill them.”