Syrian refugees are experiencing their worst crisis to date. Coronavirus will make it worse

Displaced Syrian children wait in line to receive humanitarian aid supplied by Humanitarian Relief Foundation's on Feb. 20 in Idlib, Syria. (Burak Kara/AFP/Getty Images)
Displaced Syrian children wait in line to receive humanitarian aid supplied by Humanitarian Relief Foundation's on Feb. 20 in Idlib, Syria. (Burak Kara/AFP/Getty Images)

You may not realize it from the news coverage, but we are witnessing one of the worst humanitarian crises in modern history. Resurgent fighting and violence around Idlib, Syria, have produced the largest wave of human displacement in Syria’s nine-year civil war. But with the rapidly emerging global crisis related to the uncontrolled spread of the lethal new coronavirus, as well as the 2020 presidential election, these refugees and displaced civilians are simply not getting the attention this humanitarian catastrophe deserves.

All of this means more misery and danger for children who have been living under chronic instability and persistent disruption for close to a decade. With some 560,000 Syrian children displaced since this past December and an additional 2.5 million children living as refugees in neighboring countries, there’s no respite in sight. In fact, it’s getting worse: More than 140,000 Syrians were displaced from their homes over a three-day span this month alone. UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore has called the situation in northern Syria “a child protection crisis of unprecedented scale.”

Think about the impact that so many kids who are unable to complete their education will have as they become adults. In 2017, one of us (Redlener) met many of these children — including an adorable 8-year-old girl sitting on her mom’s lap at a desolate camp in northern Greece. When asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, she immediately replied with a smile: “A doctor!”

The problem is that this bright-eyed child had already missed more than two years of school with little prospect of resuming her education in the foreseeable future. The aspiration she dreamed of would be essentially unattainable.

Children of course need immediate humanitarian assistance and freedom from the trauma of unending war. In addition to the fatalities among children attributed to virtually nonstop attacks and counterattacks from Turkish, Syrian and Kurdish forces, as many as 130 Syrian children died of hypothermia in northeast Syria last year alone. This year, even more are at risk and need urgent protection. But they also desperately need a “normal” life of routine, including access to health care, social stability and a good education. Children are especially vulnerable to both the short-term consequences of the acute humanitarian crisis and the long-term impact of persistent trauma, psychological stress and educational disruption.

If the immediate threats of violence, food and nutritional deprivation and exposure to the elements weren’t enough, there is a host of deeply traumatic psychological consequences for children resulting from constant displacement, unrelenting fear and loss of loved ones. As Fran Equiza, UNICEF’s top official in Syria, said last fall: “There’s a high level of stress [in Syria]. Someone asked me how many kids I’ve seen in Syria who are in need of psychosocial support. And my answer was every one of them.”

And the worst may yet be to come. The coronavirus has already hit Lebanon and Iran; it’s entirely possible that it will run rampant through the Middle East, including the war zone in northern Syria. The United Nations reports 53 medical facilities have closed or stopped operations in Syria — many of which, including two recently in Idlib, have been deliberately attacked — making it difficult to envision how Syria would even begin to manage a deadly outbreak.

Still, we should not throw up our hands in despair. There are strategies that could help children and families — and bring stability to the region.

First, we should consider mobilizing a U.N. peacekeeping force to separate the antagonists in the region, much like the purpose served by the U.S. military, working with regional Kurdish forces, before they were withdrawn by President Trump in October 2019.

Second, NATO and the United States should advise Syria that continuing the attacks on civilians will result in serious military consequences.

Third, a coalition of humanitarian medical groups coordinated by the World Health Organization and a number of collaborating nations should stand up an appropriate number of field hospitals, medical services and public-health facilities to help quell a coming covid-19 outbreak.

And, fourth, there are any number of international foundations that could help create a re-normalized reality, including schools and psychological support, for the Syrian children who have been on the run for so long.

Can all of this be accomplished? It’s hard to know for sure, but there’s too much at stake to not give it our best shot.

Irwin Redlener directs the National Center for Disaster Preparedness (NCDP) and is a pediatrician, a professor at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University and president emeritus of Children’s Health Fund. Sean Hansen is a graduate student at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and a research assistant at the NCDP.

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