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Pushed to the brink: War, disaster, lost rights challenge kids worldwide

From a rollback of basic rights in the United States to the killing fields of Ukraine and the earthquake zones of Turkey and Syria, children struggle in an often indifferent world.

Earthquake debris in northwest Syria
Earthquake debris in northwest Syria (AN/Khalil Ashawi/Save the Children)

In a world that can be cruel even to the fit and strong, our present era of wars, climate change, eroding human rights and historic natural disasters is especially perilous for the young, in countries rich and poor.

The children of Ukraine are being killed, brutalized and even kidnapped by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion forces. In Turkey and Syria hundreds of thousands of children remain homeless after last month’s devastating earthquakes.

The United Nations reports that more than three-quarters of the world’s 2.2 billion children survive without even a basic social safety net as they struggle to navigate a seemingly indifferent world.

U.S. lawmakers attack children's rights

In the United States, one of the world’s wealthiest nations, radical Republicans in Congress and state legislatures are maneuvering to slash government spending on food, housing and health care, cuts that will disproportionately affect America’s neediest children.

In states like Florida and Texas, where evangelical Christians are a political force and governors and lawmakers see it as a calling to impose their ethical, moral and religious beliefs, children are being denied health care and social services because they are gay or transgender. Parents in Texas who help their children receive transition care, such as hormone therapy, face child abuse charges.

Arkansas to children: Get a job

Elsewhere in the U.S., some states are responding to a national labor shortage by sending children off to factories, often in difficult and dangerous jobs.

Arkansas, for example, already one of the least educated U.S. states, is encouraging children to go to work rather than to school with a new law that rolls back significant child labor laws.

Iowa legislators are considering measures that would allow kids as young as 14 to labor in the state’s industrial abattoirs. And if a child should get injured or killed on the job? Tough luck. Lawmakers propose shielding big business from liability.

A stunning new expose by The New York Times found “a new economy of exploitation.” Migrant children as young as 12 years old who traveled to the U.S. from Central America, often without parents, are going to work in some of the most punishing jobs in the country — roofing, logging, working in slaughterhouses.

“When I started this reporting, I thought that we might find that some kids were working agricultural jobs, maybe dishwasher jobs,” Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Hannah Dreier said in a recent interview on the Democracy Now! broadcast program. “I never anticipated that we would find the scope of children working these really industrial, adult, dangerous jobs in all 50 states.”

'A year of horror' in Ukraine

Danger remains the one constant in the everyday lives of the children of Ukraine. In the past year, Russia has killed tens of thousands of Ukrainian men, women and children and uprooted millions of people from their homes. For the children, Putin’s punishing war has impacted every aspect of their lives.

“Children in Ukraine have experienced a year of horror,” said the executive director of UNICEF, Catherine Russell, as the Russian invasion reached the one-year mark. “Millions of children are going to sleep cold and scared and waking up hoping for an end to this brutal war.”

According to news reports on Monday, the International Criminal Court is close to opening two war crimes cases involving the Russian invasion. The cases will allege, the Times reports, that Russians abducted children and teenagers from Ukraine and that Putin’s forces deliberately targeted civilian infrastructure.

'How much more' can children endure?

In Turkey and Syria, the impact of this winter’s earthquakes and aftershocks have been catastrophic for the region's children and their families. More than 850,000 children remain displaced after being forced out of homes that were destroyed or severely damaged, UNICEF reports. It remains unknown how many children were killed or injured but it will likely be in the many thousands.

For families in northern Syria who have lived through more than a decade of civil war and violence, the earthquakes have only made worse an already dire humanitarian crisis.

The conflict has led to multiple displacements, widespread poverty, and millions of Syrian children suffering repeated shocks, which were only exacerbated by the earthquakes that have displaced over 50,000 children from their homes, Save the Children reported.

“For millions of Syrians, this week marks the beginning of the 13th year of living under the shadow of conflict and displacement, a fate they never chose for themselves,” said Kathryn Achilles, a spokesperson for Save the Children’s Syria response team. “Now the earthquakes have made children afraid of the very ground they walk on, and the fragile walls they used to call home.”

“How much more,” she asked, “can Syrian children be expected to endure?”