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Cold Winter Jeopardizes Hundreds of Thousands of Syrian Children

FILE - Syrian refugee children sit at a makeshift settlement in Qab Elias in the Bekaa Valley, Dec. 8, 2014.
FILE - Syrian refugee children sit at a makeshift settlement in Qab Elias in the Bekaa Valley, Dec. 8, 2014.

The U.N. Children’s Fund says it is stepping up assistance for hundreds of thousands of Syrian children at risk of illness and death due to bitterly cold weather.

Harsh winter conditions in the Middle East have made life a misery for millions of people, and children suffering through Syria’s nearly four-year conflict are among the hardest hit.

According to estimates by the U.N. Children’s Fund, at least 7 million internally displaced and refugee children are in desperate need of assistance. UNICEF spokesman Christof Boulierac says the number of vulnerable children is growing on a daily basis.

“Planning has been extremely challenging due to the increasing numbers of families moving to informal settlements," he said. "More and more displaced Syrians have run out of savings and are now having to resort to desperate measures, including moving to settlements as a last resort.”

UNICEF has delivered warm clothing, blankets, heating supplies, cash and vouchers to more than 900,000 children in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. But Boulierac said this aid has come too late for some, with the agency reporting of at least five children who have died in Syria and one in Lebanon.

The exact number of confirmed, weather-related fatalities, he says, may be greatly underestimated.

“For instance, three family members died in [a] ... neighborhood of Damascus city due to fire caused by using fuel alternatives for heating," he said. "The father and children aged 17 and five ... have died, while the mother and daughter are suffering deep burns.”

Boulierac said similar tragedies are becoming increasingly common throughout the region as the weather worsens, and as essential supplies and health care become scarcer.

UNICEF winter relief items are reaching hundreds of thousands of children in Syria and the four neighboring countries of refuge. While this life-saving aid is important, agency officials agree it pales in comparison to the numbers of children and families whose lives are being devastated by Syria’s war.