Protecting Refugee Children From the Failures of Adults

If every crisis has a tipping point, an instant when a distracted world's empathy is jolted to attention, then that moment arrived when the images of Aylan, the 3-year-old Syrian boy whose lifeless body washed up on a distant Turkish beach, began their viral orbit around the world, and into our hearts.

Up to that point, we were certainly aware of the crisis in Syria, where almost a quarter of a million people have died and millions more have been displaced from their homes over the past four years. But these were distant headlines, and the political underpinnings creating the circumstances in the Middle East and Persian Gulf hold confounding complexities with no easy answers. And so the response from much of the world has been a collective shrug: "What's to be done?"

Then, like a thunderbolt, came Aylan, and the crisis became all too real, all too human. He was, after all, just a child, a transcendent fact that has raised the emotional quotient of the entire drama.

Buried under the weight of this tragedy is a truth that pervades so many crises: that children -- infants and toddlers among them -- bear the most disproportionate burden during such catastrophes. The civil strife in Syria has killed almost 12,000 Aylans, despite their parents' best efforts to shield them from the danger. For another 2 million of them, there is now no school to attend, no opportunity to learn and grow intellectually, developmentally. No Syrian children are immune to the trauma that comes with the violence and uncertainty that greet them every day and night, and for those children who now have become refugees, that trauma will consume every part of who they are.

The Syrian crisis has given birth to the largest exodus of refugees in decades, and such massive migrations carry with them enormous physical and psychological burdens for the people involved. When I recently saw a news story in which a Syrian man kissed the soil of his new country, thankful that his long journey was over, I recalled my work with refugees back in the late 1990s during the NATO bombing of the former Yugoslavia. Some 200,000 ethnic Albanians from neighboring Kosovo had sought refuge in nearby Macedonia, where we had set up camps to attend to their many needs.

As we pitched tents and processed the seemingly endless queues of people, ensuring that they had the food, potable water and medical care they needed, they moved within the confines of the camp with a sense of confusion, unsure of where they were going or how they would get there, and yet with a faith and hope that there was a system in place that would take care of them. As with the Syrian refugees, these were not the desperately poor but middle-class, working people whose lives and livelihoods had been shattered by war. Their migration, like Aylan's family's, was driven not by hunger and poverty but by fear for their safety and a desire for sanctuary.

What we know from our experience, however, is that soon after an initial sense of relief, a new reality sets in. The euphoria that comes with the end of a long journey dissipates over time, especially as refugees realize just how much they have lost. Gone are not only their homes and jobs, but also their entire networks of community and family, the support system that sustained them. And despite whatever position or rank they previously held, they abruptly find themselves at the bottom of the totem pole, resigned to accept whatever jobs they can in order to scrape out a living.

They will ultimately persevere and strive to do what most every parent in every part of the world endeavors to do -- make a better life for their children. It is a universal objective and no doubt what has propelled these refugees to risk so much. Children have but one childhood, and we as adults have only one chance to ensure that it is one that is free from violence, and that it includes adequate sustenance, care and opportunities for learning and growth.

The children of Syria have lost their lives and homes and schooling and innocence -- they have lost the precious and fleeting years we call childhood. Children deserve the right to be children, and we must make this as much a priority as every other consideration during this tragedy. The issues surrounding the entire situation are complex and nuanced, but our overriding imperative must be to protect children from the failures of adults.

That imperative, of course, exists beyond times of crisis. For more than two years, ChildFund International has advanced a global campaign that raises awareness about the many dangers that are inflicted upon millions of children every day. Our Free From Violence initiative calls on governments around the world to take action to better protect children from physical violence, hazardous labor and sexual abuse, among other dangers.

The crisis growing out of Syria is far from over. As nations move to address it -- as we seek to implement our immigration policies, determine our commitment to aid and help resolve the underlying causes of the strife -- let the image of a young boy on a gray Turkish beach drive our collective response.

We owe him and all of our children nothing less.