Justin Forsyth is the Chief Executive of Save the Children
With a matter of days to go, the bets are on as to whether or not this will be a white Christmas.
Snow is central to the season – it’s on every card, in Christmas carols, blanketing every advert and festive special. We dream of a white Christmas, of hats and scarves and building snowmen. It’s almost as if it isn’t really Christmas unless we’ve seen a couple of snowflakes.
But for the children of Syria, there is nothing magical about a white Christmas.
Last week, the first snow storms hit the region, with devastating effect.
In Lebanon, refugees living in flimsy tented settlements in the Bekaa valley have found their settlements covered in snow as a brutal winter sets in. The snow is the first sign of the treacherous weather set to engulf the region, increasing the suffering of children and their families.
Over the weekend, Save the Children staff battled against the elements in Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan, evacuating families whose tents have flooded and distributing clothing, blankets and other items to reinforce shelters. It’s a race against time, with temperatures set to drop to as low as minus six between now and February, adding to the daily struggle of the two million refugees, a million of them children, in the region and the 6.5 million displaced within Syria itself.
Peace talks are scheduled for January in Geneva, almost three years after the conflict began, but in the meantime it is critical that we get access to those children in need. We must reach people cut off by the fighting, in all parts of Syria, many of whom are getting little or no aid. Launching its unprecedented Syria appeal on Monday, the UN estimated that nearly three-quarters of Syria’s 22 million population, many of whom are children, will need humanitarian aid in 2014. If the world can act, as it did a few months ago, to ensure chemical weapons inspectors can access all parts of Syria, surely they can ensure aid gets to every child that needs it. This failure is a stain on the world’s conscience.
It’s not just Syria. No matter where they are in the world, children pay the ultimate price of conflict. I have just returned from the Central African Republic (CAR), where brutal violence has escalated in recent weeks. Children have been maimed and killed, I saw a three year old boy who’d been shot. It’s thought over half a million people have been forced to flee their homes into the bush, and are now vulnerable to disease, hunger and attacks by armed groups.
While I was in CAR’s capital Bangui, I saw bodies littering the streets, while one hospital supported by Save the Children in Bouar was overwhelmed, with one doctor responsible for over 57,000 people. I met six year old Celine, who had lost an arm after being shot while fleeing an attack – just one of the countless children who are victims of this conflict.
Even more distressing is the number of children conscripted into armed groups as CAR descends into anarchy. According to UN figures, this has doubled in recent months to at least 6000. As well as being physically harmed, children are increasingly traumatised by what they have witnessed. Children have seen their parents brutally injured or even killed. Understandably, many are struggling to cope
Now, more than ever, the international community must act to protect children caught up in conflict. They have the right to be safe at all times.
The conflicts in Syria and CAR may be making the headlines but we must remember that the wider story is one of hope and progress. In the last few decades, we have made enormous progress in reducing child mortality. Last year we saw the biggest fall in history. Aid has helped make this happen by investing in vaccines, health and education. This has been achieved through tackling illnesses like diarrhoea and pneumonia. Over 50 million more children have been enrolled in school in the last decade, and one child is vaccinated every two seconds, thanks to aid. UK aid has saved the lives of millions of men, women and children. David Cameron, George Osborne and Justine Greening deserve real credit for delivering on our 0.7 aid promise. It’s something the British public should be rightly proud of.
We know that when a disaster hits, Britain can be relied on to respond and help those struggling to survive. A Save the Children team was on the ground in the Philippines before Typhoon Haiyan even hit, ready to assess the need when it did. Within days a team of Save the Children doctors, backed by UK aid, flew out and a plane packed with aid was deployed to help the 13 million people affected and the 3.43 million who’d been displaced. The UK Government has pledged over £50 million to the relief effort and the unprecedented response from the British public has raised tens of millions of pounds, which in turn will help millions of children without food, water and somewhere safe to live this Christmas.
Yet again, the UK proved itself to be a global leader. Giving international aid is part of the British DNA. It is a long held tradition of which we can be proud.
Closer to home, I only have to look at the great success of Save the Children’s Christmas Jumper Day last Friday to know that the British public care about the plight of the world’s children with over a million people pulling on a sweater to make the world better! As 2014 dawns, world leaders must not forget children like Celine in CAR – it is time to end her suffering.
Photo credit: Ahmad Baroudi/Save the Children.