Syria: Conflict takes a heavy toll on education

published 2 April 2012 updated 3 April 2012

The continuing conflict in Syria is taking a heavy toll on education, as thousands of Syrian families take their children out of school and flee across the border to seek refuge.

Recognizing their needs, the United Nations and its humanitarian partners launched the Syria Regional Response Plan, one of whose aims is to ensure that refugee children can continue their schooling in host countries. According to UNHCR, the ongoing crisis in Syria has left over 40,000 Syrians, many of whom are women and children, with no other option but to flee the country. The inter-agency response plan is led by UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, which estimates that it will need to support 100,000 refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq in the next six months. That is not counting the internally displaced in Syria. While the rights of refugees are enshrined in the 1951 Refugee Convention, internally displaced people are not protected by such legally binding principles. Accurate numbers of displaced are difficult to ascertain, and it is reported to be difficult for agencies to reach them. Schools have closed and health centres have shut down or become too dangerous for families to reach. The Regional Response Plan, which allocates about 15% of sectorial aid to education, provides for agencies including UNICEF, UNESCO and Save the Children to rent and refurbish schools, train education personnel in dealing with the special needs of refugee children, supply equipment and cover tuition and textbook fees, among other expenses. As UNESCO documented in the 2011 Global Monitoring Report "The hidden crisis: Armed conflict and education", education systems in Syria’s neighbouring countries have already been overstretched by the influx of refugees from the war in Iraq. Jordan has shown exemplary generosity in providing education for Iraqi refugee children, with a 2007 royal decree giving them access to schools on the same basis as nationals, but its education system is now coming under even more pressure. Some of those affected inside Syria are refugees themselves, including many who fled from the war in Iraq. According to UNHCR, Syria “hosts one of the largest urban refugee and asylum-seeker populations in the world,” maintaining “a generous open door policy that allows Iraqi refugees to seek asylum and gain access to basic services such as education and primary health care.” Refugees and internally displaced people face major barriers to education, as UNESCO described in the 2011 Global Monitoring Report. In 2008, only 69% of primary school age refugee children in UNHCR camps were attending primary school. Humanitarian actors often do not see education as a priority during conflict, since it is not viewed as “life-saving,”. But the statistics show how harmful it is to give up on providing education: In conflict-affected poor countries, 28 million children of primary school age are not enrolled in school – 42% of the world’s total number of out-of-school children. In the 2011 Global Monitoring Report, UNESCO found that the average duration of violent conflict was 12 years in poor countries over the decade to 2008. Not prioritizing education can leave a whole generation without even the most basic schooling. The short-term impact can be equally devastating for longer-term education prospects, as children who drop out of school may have limited opportunity to return once peace returns. That is why the UNHCR Education Strategy is so important in recognizing that refugee education should not be seen “as a peripheral stand-alone service but as a core component of UNHCR’s protection and durable solutions mandate.” Refugee families, for their part, often cite education as one of their highest priorities. In the 2011 Global Monitoring Report we quoted a woman who had fled to Chad from Darfur, Sudan: “We had to leave behind all of our possessions. The only thing we could bring with us is what we have in our heads, what we have been taught – our education. Education is the only thing that cannot be taken from us.”

This article first appeared as a contribution by Hans Botnen Eide of the Education for All Global Monitoring Report team to the World Education Blog. All rights reserved, reproduced with permission.