More than one million children have now fled Syria as part of its growing refugee exodus, a disturbing sign of the conflict's power to reshape the Middle East, the United Nations has said. Officials said the milestone demonstrated that Syria was the world's "worst crisis for children".
One of the one million displaced Syrian children looks out from her temporary home in northern Iraq Photo: THAIER AL-SUDANI/REUTERS
Richard Spencer, Middle East Correspondent
9:20PM BST 23 Aug 2013
As Wednesday's apparent chemical weapons attack sent yet more people fleeing from the embattled suburbs of Damascus, the UN said three million children had been forced to leave their homes. Two million had moved to other parts of the country, where some were forced into militias despite being under age, with the remainder pouring into camps in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and other Arab states.
"What is at stake is nothing less than the survival and well-being of a generation of innocents," Antonio Guterres, the UN high commissioner for refugees, said on Friday.
"The youth of Syria are losing their homes, their family members and their futures. Even after they have crossed a border to safety, they are traumatised, depressed and in need of a reason for hope."
The escalation of the Syrian crisis has been dramatic in the second year of the war, which began with largely peaceful protests in March and April 2011. This time a year ago, there were 70,000 refugee children abroad, the UN said.
Many now are packed into refugee camps along the borders, most notably Zaatari in northern Jordan, a home in the desert to more than 130,000 people, leading some to describe it as the country's fourth biggest city.
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Their existence is often squalid. The heat can be intense in the summer, while attempts to keep warm in the freezing winters have led to people been killed by out-of-control fires.
Just as significantly, the sheer numbers are affecting the demographic and political nature of host countries. Jordan, divided between native residents and a majority Palestinian refugee population, fears the arrival of a third force, as well as the spillover from the civil war to its own politics, in which King Abdullah is often at loggerheads with Islamist politicians.
In Lebanon, the refugees are both victims of discrimination and triggers for sectarian conflict between its Sunni, Shia and Alawite communities. In Turkey there have been outbursts of anti-Syrian feeling, with the government's pro-rebel policies unpopular with many people in border areas.
"This is becoming a structural problem for the economies and societies of the neighbouring countries," Mr Guterres said.
Each new front in the war, now being fought by several different factions besides the Free Syrian Army and the regime, leads to a new surge. Most recently, thousands of Syrian Kurds have fled fighting between Kurdish militias and militant Islamist groups in the north-east, as well as regime attacks, heading into Iraqi Kurdistan.
Doctors without Borders yesterday said that outflow had reached 42,300 people in the last week, since the border crossing at Peshkabour was reopened. New camps have been set up in the largest cities in the area, Erbil and Suleimania.
With many diplomats suggesting that Syria might now formally break up along sectarian lines, with the Sunni north and Kurdish east breaking away from the Alawite coastal area, leaving a rump state between Damascus and Homs, there is no clear end in sight to the refugees' plight.
It is a region already struggling to cope with large refugee populations. festering conflict between Israel and the Palestinians means the number of Palestinian refugees has grown since 1948 from 700,000 to five million, many of whom six decades on still live in camps and lack citizenship in their host countries.
Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN envoy to Syria, said he hoped that the apparent chemical attack would speed progress towards peace negotiations.
But Mr Guterres said there was little end in sight for the refugees.
"Very probably this war will go on and on and on and on," he said.
"And the humanitarian impact is becoming more and more devastating."