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By: LGen Roméo Dallaire and Dr. Shelly Whitman
In the ongoing Syrian conflict, the numbers of vulnerable children are truly staggering.
Over 10.8-million people — half of Syria’s total population — are in need of humanitarian assistance. Some 6.8-million individuals are internally displaced, with many others taking refuge in neighbouring countries. Casualties have become so numerous — last estimated at 220,000 — that the UN has officially stopped counting, a first in the organization’s 70-year existence.
As in every conflict, it is the most vulnerable who are disproportionately affected. Approximately six-million children find themselves out of school, with 4.6 million in need of humanitarian assistance. Countless others continue to be forced, coerced or “volunteered” to take up arms with the myriad of groups fighting in the region, chief among them ISIL, which now controls large swaths of the region.
Today we are five years into a conflict that should not have lasted five days. At the earliest onset of this conflict, the international community had countless opportunities to exert its will and uphold the rights of the most vulnerable. This embarrassing inaction is particularly worrying for the hundreds of thousands of children whose rights to education, protection and basic human dignity have been denied.
Lamentably, it has taken the heartbreaking image of a young drowned refugee, Alan Kurdi, for the international community to again look at the continued suffering of millions. But are we too late? Today, thousands of children take up arms as some flee to hostile neighbours while others languish in refugee camps, not knowing their fate and slowly losing their dignity as each day passes.
A young man we met in Jordan’s Za’atari refugee camp best summarizes this stark reality. He asked us rhetorically, “Is it better to die fighting to save my home than to die in this camp doing nothing?” Chatting with him or any one of his peers for a couple of moments makes you realize that this conflict is not black and white.
There are significant long-term effects to the continued lack of protection afforded to children, particularly the escalation and development of a cycle of violence. By failing to act, we are not only failing those children who suffer today, but we put at risk the future of the entire region and beyond.
With the increasingly complicated conflict in Syria, points of collaboration can be few and far between. However, it is through the children that we can ultimately make a concerted effort to affect real and sustained change to the current atmosphere of indifference and inaction within the Syrian conflict.
Not until the image of Alan Kurdi’s untimely death did citizens begin to question why we have so far done nothing to end the suffering of thousands
There is a necessity to raise the issue of children to the top of the security agenda. Only when this is accomplished will we truly find a point for collaboration to address the ongoing needs of children affected by the conflict in Syria. The death of Alan Kurdi is proof of this. Not until the image of his untimely death did citizens begin to question why we have so far done nothing to end the suffering of thousands. Our collective inaction will be held to account.
If we fail to address these conflicts early on, eventually the young people affected will come knocking on our doors, by boat, through social media or horrific images in the mainstream media. Pleading ignorance to the realities of contemporary conflict can no longer be an excuse for those who have the privilege to observe. The children of the Syrian conflict have been seen, we now must “hear” their cries and act.
Roméo Dallaire is a retired lieutenant-general, retired Canadian Senator and founder of the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative; Dr. Shelly Whitman is the executive director of the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative.