Humanitarians caring for displaced Syrians in and outside their country are calling for an end to Syria's brutal civil war as it enters its 10th year. The magnitude of displacement, death and destruction in Syria marks one of the world's worst humanitarian crises right now, the United Nations and human rights groups have said.
Henrietta Fore, executive director of the U.N. children's agency, made an impassioned appeal for peace, saying it "has never been more pressing," in a statement issued in the Jordanian capital, Amman, March 15.
"More than 9,000 children have been killed and injured in the conflict, while close to 5,000 have been recruited into the fighting," she said.
"Nearly 1,000 education and medical facilities" have also been attacked and destroyed ... while "more than 2.8 million children are out of school," the statement said.
"Stop hitting schools and hospitals. Stop killing and maiming children," UNICEF urged, saying the agency needs access to reach those requiring humanitarian assistance.
Juliette Toma, the UNICEF Middle East and North African regional communications chief based in Amman, told Catholic News Service: "There have been nine long brutal years for the children of Syria. It's not only for the children who are inside Syria. This crisis has had serious ripple effects on the countries neighboring Syria and beyond.
More than half of Syria's pre-war population of 23 million people have been driven from their homes -- displaced internally and abroad by the conflict, while 80% of the population lives beneath the poverty line, according to the United Nations. Half the country lies in ruins.
Every 10 hours for the last six years, a child has been killed in Syria, a statistic that "is pretty staggering," Toma said.
Meanwhile, Father Emanuel Youkhana, a priest, or archimandrite, of the Assyrian Church of the East, runs Christian Aid Program Northern Iraq. CAPNI helps Syrian Christians and Kurds who escaped to northern Iraq due to the recent Turkish military invasion in northeastern Syria, as well as Iraqi Christians and Yazidis uprooted by Islamic State militants.
"Many of the people who managed to flee to northern Iraq (from northeastern Syria) are hosted in Bardarash camp (near Dahuk), but there are hundreds of families outside of the camps. So, CAPNI is providing a nonfood distribution to these people, including bedding, kerosene heaters, and kerosene, especially during these bitter winter months," Father Youkhana told CNS by phone from northern Iraq.
"None of them returned to Syria," following Turkey's military offensive in the region last October, he said.
"Although we are allowed to work in the camp, we don't have the capacity to work there," Father Youkhana explained. "There are other agencies working in the camp, like the International Organization for Migration, who have the capacity to work in a big camp like Bardarash."
He said CAPNI was focused on reaching remote communities that are hosting the Syrian refugees.
"We are targeting these people for two reasons: They are within our capacity and secondly, they are not reached by the U.N. agencies, because the U.N. and international nongovernmental organizations are focused on the camp," Father Youkhana said. "So, they are overlooked, let us say."
Syria's northwestern Idlib province, the last rebel stronghold where some 3 million people are trapped, has been the Syrian government's latest target. A fragile cease-fire came into effect there earlier in March, and Turkey and Russia, on opposing sides in the conflict, have agreed to start joint patrols in Idlib.
Syrian forces and Russian warplanes had bombed the area since December, killing nearly 500 civilians, according to an independent monitor, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, while forcing nearly a million to flee, according to the U.N.
A brewing coronavirus outbreak would be catastrophic, especially as bombardments have destroyed many of Syria's hospitals, compromising its health care system. UNICEF reports that "over half of all health facilities in Syria are now nonfunctional."
"Its fragile health system is likely incapable of detecting and responding to the epidemic," warned Souha S. Kanj, professor of medicine and chair of the Infection Control and Prevention Program at the American University of Beirut Medical Center. She told the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut that the lack of information was peculiar given that Syria had no reported COVID-19 cases, "despite its close ties to Iran," which is witnessing one of the largest outbreaks in the world.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reports that doctors in several Syrian provinces have secretly recorded coronavirus cases, as well as some deaths from the virus, sources told the Britain-based observatory.