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Four ways to halt Syria’s education crisis

Written by Kevin Watkins

​As if being subjected to appalling acts of violence and forced to flee their homes were not enough, Syria’s refugee children have had to face another peril – the callous indifference of the international community. Nowhere is that indifference more starkly evident than in an education crisis that is robbing refugee children of the chance to rebuild their lives, destroying hope, and forcing parents to undertake the perilous journey to Europe.

This week’s Supporting Syria and the Region conference, co-hosted by the UK, provides an opportunity to change this picture. The aim is to raise over $8 billion for the humanitarian response to the Syria crisis. To his credit, David Cameron has put education for refugees at the top of the agenda. Will the London conference deliver results?

Not if recent history repeats itself. Last year’s donor pledging summit in Kuwait delivered an abundance of promises, but only around half of the UN’s regional appeal was funded. For ‘financing deficit’ read ‘refugee families unable to feed and clothe their children, poor nutrition and rising poverty’. Some 70% of refugees in Jordan and Lebanon are now living at levels below minimum thresholds set by the UN refugee agency.

Child poverty is compounding the crisis in education. Among the refugee population that has fled to neighbouring countries are some 1.3 million school age children. Half of them are currently out of school – and the numbers are rising. Another 2 million are now out of school inside Syria, where the conflict has reduced much of the education infrastructure to rubble.

The scale of this reversal is not widely recognised. In the space of a single primary school generation, enrolment rates in Syria’s education systems have gone from levels comparable to those in Malaysia and rising, to a level closer to Mali and falling. No children have slipped further or faster down the international league table for education than Syria’s children.

Caught in a pincer between household poverty and exclusion from educational opportunity, children are being driven into labour markets. Syrian refugee children who should be in school are picking beans and fruit in the fields of Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, working on construction sites in Amman, and on one estimate providing 400,000 day labourers for Turkey’s informal economy.

Most of these children are working long hours in dangerous conditions for poverty wages. All of them should be in school.

Fixated on the refugee crisis in their own backyard, Europe’s leaders have barely registered the education disaster unfolding in the region. That is a mistake. One of the forces driving migration to Europe is the concern of refugee parents to do what any of us would do in their position: namely, get their kids an education.

So what can be done? There is no shortage of practical examples. Jordan has opened its schools. Lebanon has introduced a ‘double shift’ system that provides education for over 200,000 Syrian refugees after the standard school day has finished. Turkey is expanding refugee access to formal education.

The crisis has also acted as the catalyst for local action. Across the neighbouring countries, refugee groups, local non-government organisations, and international agencies are delivering education, trauma counselling and support to kids beyond the reach of formal systems. In Syria itself, diaspora groups and local communities are working with extraordinary courage to keep learning alive, with classes held in cellars and safe zones.

Unfortunately, none of this is enough. The education systems – and financial resources – of regional governments have been stretched to breaking point. One in every three school age children in Lebanon is now a Syrian refugee. Local communities and NGOs are making a difference. But you can’t build an education system that reaches over 1 million out-of-school Syrian refugees on courage and innovation alone.

That’s why the London conference matters. Once the scripted speeches and big promises are over, the conference needs to get down to business and deliver on four fronts.

First, it is time to raise the bar on ambition. The aim must be to provide universal education for refugee children in the 2016/2017 school year, along with early childhood support and skills development for adolescents.

Second, targets without financial pledges are not worth the paper they are written on. The price tag on universal provision for 5-17 year olds is around $1 billion. Sounds expensive? Think about the cost of depriving a whole generation of young people of hope and opportunity in a region marked by conflict, insecurity and well-financed militia recruiting sergeants.

Third, the summit should deliver a wake-up call to humanitarian agencies. In the Syria crisis, as in other conflicts, there is far too much reliance on delivery through the big UN agencies and international NGOs, and too little emphasis on regional actors and local organisations. We need a more inclusive system.

Fourth, the summit should back the call made by Gordon Brown, the UN’s Special Education Envoy, for the creation of a new global financing facility for education in emergencies. The facility needs to do what agencies like the World Bank and others have conspicuously failed to do in response to the Syria crisis – respond quickly and decisively to kids who need the sense of security, normality and opportunity that education provides.

Three years have now passed since governments signed up for the Syria ‘No lost generation’ initiative. They promised at that time to act decisively on behalf of children affected by the worst humanitarian crisis in over fifty years. Today, in London, they need to restate the promise – and this time they need to keep it.