GENEVA - 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 labour, 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."