A year ago today, as global leaders quibbled and quarrelled about how to deal with the European refugee crisis, a photo emerged from the beaches of Turkey that silenced everyone who saw it. It showed a tiny boy lying face down in the sand, his body lapped by the waves of the Mediterranean sea.
His name was Aylan Kurdi – and for a brief period of time, he came to symbolise the tragic human cost of a crisis which had all too often been characterised by abstract statistics and shameless fearmongering.
The photo had an immediate impact, raising awareness about the Syrian conflict and the tragic crisis faced by so many innocent victims, who were forced to flee.
In turn, the resultant shift in public opinion persuaded the British government to soften its stance towards refugees making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean.
Under mounting pressure, David Cameron – who had previously taken a relatively hard-line stance towards the refugee crisis – announced a commitment to take in thousands more Syrians, especially unaccompanied children.
His political discourse also changed – there was no more talk of “swarms” of people, but a reference to the “crisis and suffering” of those fleeing violence in their homelands.
This shift was welcome – but one year on, it doesn’t feel like enough has really changed. Despite the publicity surrounding Aylan’s death, the civil war that caused him and his family to flee is still raging unabated.
As the specialist charity for children affected by conflict, we at War Child UK support thousands of Syrian refugee children in the region – every day, our staff provide psychological assistance to boys and girls suffering unimaginable trauma due to their experience of the conflict.
Inside Syria itself, the reality of war remains unchanged. If anything, it is much worse, as President Assad’s brutal government – with Russian support – continues to bomb civilian areas and target children, teachers and doctors in violation of international humanitarian law.
Communities continue to go hungry and die from their injuries as life-saving aid convoys are blocked. The short-term ceasefires which have been brokered over the past year do not provide adequate time to deliver the relief needed.
As a result, boys and girls continue to be targeted indiscriminately every single day. Thousands have been killed, untold numbers injured and many have been recruited into the ranks of armed groups like Islamic State.
Only a few weeks ago another image provided a face and a name for the terrible situation being faced by children every day – a young boy called Omran, who was pulled from the rubble of a bombed-out building in Aleppo, his shell-shocked face encapsulating the horrors of war.
Unfortunately, boys like Aylan and Omran are not exceptions but the rule of Syria’s present reality. So the question now is: what can be done?
Clearly a political solution is needed to bring the civil war to an end – one in which the US and Russia are both involved.
But there also needs to be a fundamental shift in the way the humanitarian system is structured to respond to children who are affected by conflict and forced to flee.
The UK and the international community must start prioritising young people. More than half of those affected by conflict are children, and 17,000 boys and girls are forced to leave their homes every day due to war and persecution.
Yet less than 5 per cent of humanitarian aid is spent on programmes which directly support children, such as education and protection.
We need world leaders to deliver a global action plan for child refugees. This would involve mobilising the finances needed for child protection and quality education programmes, as well as committing to host a fair share of the most vulnerable children through the duration of the conflict.
Later this month, during the annual UN General Assembly meeting, there will be two high profile summits in New York which will deal with the issue of refugees.
The summits will offer a perfect opportunity to launch the global action plan we think is necessary. War Child UK is calling for international leaders to finally stand up and start making children fleeing conflict a humanitarian priority.
If they fail to do so, the likelihood is that more children like Aylan and Omran will continue to bear the brunt of the Syrian civil war – and we will continue to see their photos on the front pages of our newspapers.
Rob Williams is CEO of War Child UK