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UN: Over 1 million child refugees from Syrian war

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GENEVA (AP) — It's shaping up to be a lost generation: The number of child refugees fleeing Syria's violence has now topped the 1 million mark.

The grim milestone announced Friday by U.N. officials means as many Syrian children have been uprooted from their homes or families as the number of children who live in Wales, or in Boston and Los Angeles combined, said Antonio Guterres, the head of the Office for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

"Can you imagine Wales without children? Can you imagine Boston and Los Angeles without children?" Guterres told reporters in Geneva.

Roughly half of all the nearly 2 million registered refugees from Syria are children and 740,000 of those are under the age of 11, according to the U.N. refugee and children's agencies.

Guterres said the horrors of war experienced by these children puts them in grave danger of becoming a "lost generation." With emotion he recounted some of his personal visits with Syrian child refugees, including seeing one compulsively shoot a toy gun and others who drew pictures of dead children, planes with bombs and destroyed homes.

"This is totally unacceptable," he said. "They will be paying for it the rest of their lives."

Yoka Brandt, deputy head of the U.N. children's agency known as UNICEF, called the exodus from Syria's civil war "truly a children's crisis. And the unacceptable thing is that it is children who have nothing to do with this crisis that are paying the price."

But the children's ordeals are not over once they escape Syria, Guterres said. Even after they cross a border to safety, they are often traumatized, depressed and in need of a reason for hope.

His agency tries to ensure that babies born in exile are given birth certificates, preventing them from becoming stateless, and that all refugee families and children live in safe shelters.

Still the threats to refugee children are rising, the agencies say, including child labor, early marriage and the potential for sexual exploitation and trafficking. More than 3,500 children in Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq have crossed Syria's borders unaccompanied or separated from their families, according to U.N. figures.

The agencies say some 7,000 children are among the more than 100,000 killed in the unrest in Syria, which began as a protest against President Bashar Assad's regime in March 2011 and later exploded into a civil war. Most of the refugees fleeing Syria have arrived in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt, but U.N. officials say increasingly Syrians are also fleeing to North Africa and Europe.

The two U.N. agencies estimate that more than 2 million children also have been displaced within Syria.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Friday the real number of Syrian refugees is "well over 2 million" if unregistered refugees are counted.

"The situation in Syria continues to worsen. The humanitarian suffering is alarming. Sectarian tensions have been ignited. Regional instability is spreading," Ban said in a speech in Seoul, South Korea.

"It is heartbreaking to see all these young people, children and women and refugees, who do not have any means, any hope for their country," he said. "They do not know when they will be able to return to their country."


Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


 

Obama: Syria attack a 'big event of grave concern'

JULIE PACE, AP White House Correspondent

AUBURN, N.Y. (AP) — President Barack Obama says a possible chemical weapons attack in Syria this week is a "big event of grave concern" that has hastened the timeframe for determining a U.S. response.

"This is something that is going to require America's attention," Obama said during an interview broadcast Friday.

However, the president said the notion that the U.S. alone can end Syria's bloody civil war is "overstated" and made clear he would seek international support before taking large-scale action.

"If the U.S. goes in and attacks another country without a U.N. mandate and without clear evidence that can be presented, then there are questions in terms of whether international law supports it, do we have the coalition to make it work," he said in the interview on CNN's "New Day" show. "Those are considerations that we have to take into account."

Obama's comments on Syria were his first since Wednesday's alleged chemical weapons attack on the eastern suburbs of Damascus that killed at least 100 people. While he appeared to signal some greater urgency in responding, his comments were largely in line with his previous statements throughout the two-year conflict.

The president said the U.S. is still seeking conclusive evidence that chemical weapons were used this week. Such actions, he said, would be troubling and would be detrimental to "some core national interests that the United States has, both in terms of us making sure that weapons of mass destruction are not proliferating, as well as needing to protect our allies, our bases in the region."

Wednesday's attack came as a United Nations team was on the ground in Syria investigating earlier chemical weapons attacks. Obama has warned that the use of the deadly gases would cross a "red line," but the U.S. response to the confirmed attacks earlier this year has been minimal.

That has opened Obama up to fierce criticism, both in the U.S. and abroad. Among those leading the criticism is Arizona's Republican Sen. John McCain, who says America's credibility has been damaged because Obama has not taken more forceful action to stop the violence.

The president pushed back at those assertions in the interview aired Friday, saying that while the U.S. remains "the one indispensable nation," that does not mean the country should get involved everywhere immediately.

"Well, you know, I am sympathetic to Sen. McCain's passion for helping people work through what is an extraordinarily difficult and heartbreaking situation, both in Syria and in Egypt," he said.

"Sometimes what we've seen is that folks will call for immediate action, jumping into stuff, that does not turn out well," he said. "We have to think through strategically what's going to be in our long-term national interests, even as we work cooperatively internationally to do everything we can to put pressure on those who would kill innocent civilians."

The U.S. has called on Syria to allow the U.N. team currently on the ground to investigate this most recent attack. However, the president was pessimistic about those prospects, saying, "We don't expect cooperation, given their past history."

More than 100,000 people have been killed in Syria during more than two years of clashes between forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad and opposition fighters seeking to overthrow his regime. The U.S. has long called for Assad to go and has sent humanitarian aid to the rebels, but those steps have failed to push the Syrian leader from power.

After the earlier chemical weapons attacks, Obama did approve the shipments of small weapons and ammunition to the Syrian rebels, but there is little sign that the equipment has arrived.

Obama addressed the deepening crisis in Syria from central New York, where he is on a two-day bus tour promoting policies to make college more affordable.

___

Follow Julie Pace at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC


Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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