With the Syrian War now lasting longer than World War Two, it may seem difficult to think of a time when the guns fall silent and fighter jets no longer cut through the skies.
But as far away as this may seem, it will happen. And when it does, the child refugees of today will play a huge role building the Syria of tomorrow.
Syria’s future is the central topic of the Brussels conference on ‘Supporting the future of Syria and the region’, taking place today and tomorrow (4-5 April 2017). This conference must look into how to care for the child refugees on whom Syria’s future depends.
Whether these children will be capable of rebuilding Syria in the future depends on the treatment they receive from host countries and international institutions in the present.
Firstly, the importance of child refugees getting psychosocial support cannot be overemphasised. Two out of every three children in Syria have lost a loved one, been bombed out of their homes or suffered injuries in the conflict. Many have watched family members or friends die in front of their eyes.
This has sparked a mental health crisis of epidemic proportions. Self-harm and suicide attempts are common amongst children both in Syria and in refugee camps outside of the country, as well as bedwetting and ‘toxic stress’ – severe emotional distress which can limit a child’s development and cause physical and mental illness lasting into adulthood.
These children must get psychosocial support to deal with what they have experienced. Only with proper care can these children move past the horrific events they have been through, and grow into adults capable of restoring Syria.
The decimation of many Syrian children’s schooling is also something the conference must act upon. Six years of war have laid waste to most children’s education, leaving their hopes for the future also lying in ruins.
This lack of education could have consequences outlasting the war itself. Educated children are more likely to become adults who can rebuild their communities and have more employment opportunities, either in Syria or in host countries. Children who attend school are less likely to be given away in child marriages, and education cuts the risk of children being exploited or forced into dangerous work.
To avoid the Syrian War creating a ‘lost generation’ of children, both Syrian child refugees and children still living in Syria must get back into school as soon as possible. Refugee children must not be hindered in accessing education within host countries, and schools and other educational buildings must not be deliberately targeted in military campaigns within Syria.
Finally, both today’s conference and future global migration policies must bring an end to the detention of child refugees. Keeping children locked up while determining their migration status, even for a short time, is proven to negatively affect their physical and mental wellbeing – causing depression, anxiety and bedwetting. The perceived hopelessness of the situation can also drive children to self-harm and suicide.
If countries detaining Syrian child refugees want these children to build a genuinely prosperous Syria in the future, they must do away with this barbaric system and allow them to live in communities rather than behind bars. Rather than trying to keep these children out of site, authorities must provide them with an environment where they can heal, learn and thrive again.
Today’s conference links together many different organisations and institutions that can influence what a new Syria will look like. But it must not overlook one of the central pillars in a rebuilt Syria’s future success – the children who will grow up to build it.