BEIRUT — The number of Syrian children affected by the civil war in their homeland has doubled in the past year to at least 5.5 million — more than half the country’s children — with devastating effects on the health, education, and psychological well-being of an entire generation, the United Nations children’s agency said Tuesday.
The conflict, which enters its fourth year this month, has unleashed massive suffering across all segments of Syrian society, but the impact on children has been especially acute, according to a new report by UNICEF. Malnutrition and illness have stunted their growth; a lack of learning opportunities has derailed their education; and the bloody trauma of war has left deep psychological scars.
‘‘After three years of conflict and turmoil, Syria is now one of the most dangerous places on earth to be a child,’’ the agency said. ‘‘In their thousands, children have lost lives and limbs, along with virtually every aspect of their childhood. They have lost classrooms and teachers, brothers and sisters, friends, caregivers, homes, and stability.’’
‘‘Millions of young people risk becoming, in effect, a lost generation,’’ UNICEF said.
Since the conflict began, thousands of videos and photographs of bloodied babies, lifeless children, and bombed out schools in Syria have provided stark images of the war’s impact on children. But in many ways, figures provide perhaps the clearest indication of how sweeping an effect the conflict has on their lives.
UNICEF said that more than 10,000 children have been killed in the violence, which would translate into the highest casualty rates recorded in any recent conflict in the region. Of those who have survived, thousands have been wounded, lost their homes and schools, and seen family members and friends killed. That trauma has left around 2 million children in need of psychological support or treatment, the agency said.
Almost 3 million children are displaced inside Syria, while another 1.2 million have fled the country and now live as refugees in camps and overwhelmed neighboring communities where clean water, food, and other basic items are scarce.
On the education front, UNICEF said that nearly half of Syria’s school-age children — 2.8 million and counting — cannot get an education because of the devastation and violence.
More than 2 million of those who should be in classes remain within Syria’s borders, as education and health services collapse and classrooms are bombed or used as shelters and military barracks. Another 300,000 Syrian children are out of school in Lebanon, along with some 93,000 in Jordan, 78,000 in Turkey, 26,000 in Iraq, and 4,000 in Egypt, agency officials said in Geneva.
Many are forced to grow up fast: One in 10 refugee children is now working, the agency estimates, while one in five Syrian girls in Jordan is forced into early marriage. Inside Syria, boys as young as 12 have been recruited to help the rebels, some as fighters and others in a support role, the UN report said.
Syria’s conflict began in March 2011 with largely peaceful protests against President Bashar Assad. Facing a brutal government crackdown, protesters eventually took up arms, and the country descended into a civil war that has killed more than 140,000 people so far.
Two rounds of peace talks in Switzerland early this year between Assad’s government and Syria’s main Western-backed political opposition group broke up without making any progress, and there are no immediate plans for another session.