Actor and Unicef UK ambassador Michael Sheen has described the plight of Syrian child refugees as “heartbreaking” on his return from visiting camps in Jordan and Lebanon where he met children affected by the ongoing conflict.
During his visit, the film star witnessed the conditions those who had fled their war-torn countries now faced.
Unicef recently released a report claiming that an estimated 3.7 million Syrian children – one in three – had been born since the conflict began five years ago. This figure includes over 151,000 children born as refugees since 2011.
“It’s absolutely heartbreaking to think that millions of Syrian children have known nothing but war, death and destruction their entire lives,” said The Damned United star. “As a father, meeting children and families who have fled Syria and just hearing their stories was incredibly moving, so I can’t begin to imagine the impact on the children themselves.”
Unicef is one of the few agencies working both in Syria and its neighbouring countries to keep children safe. Around 8.4 million children, over 80 per cent of Syria’s child population, are now affected by the conflict, either inside the country or as refugees in neighbouring countries.
“In Syria, violence has become commonplace, reaching homes, schools, hospitals, clinics, parks, playgrounds and places of worship,” said Dr Peter Salama, Unicef’s regional director for the Middle East and North Africa. “Nearly seven million children live in poverty, making their childhood one of loss and deprivation.”
The Unicef report, No Place For Children, revealed that there were around 1,500 ‘grave violations’ against children in Syria in 2015, with six out of 10 being deaths and maiming from explosions.
A third of these were children killed either at school or on their way to or from it.
According to Unicef, half of all refugees are children, with 306,000 born to refugee parents since 2011 and over 15,000 unaccompanied and separated children have crossed Syria’s borders.
Sheen described meeting Omaymah, a 13-year-old girl who lives in a refugee camp in Jordan and works to warn other girls about the dangers of child marriage. “I was inspired by the courage, hope and optimism of Omaymah and the other children I met.
“It is children like Omaymah and her friends who are Syria’s future, and we must do all we can to help them rebuild their lives.
“Ensuring all Syrian children have access to the education and protection they so rightly deserve is the first step on this journey. That’s why protecting children and the schools that keep them safe must be a priority when the world responds to emergencies.
“It’s time for us to do all we can to give Syrian children the chance of a brighter future.”
Unicef has called for £1 billion to be raised this year to provide an education for the nation’s children.