Ensuring education for Syrian refugee children

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 last week launched the Syria Regional Response Plan, one of whose aims is to ensure that refugee children can continue their schooling in host countries.

We highlighted the global impact of conflict on education – and the need to pay much more attention to the education needs of refugee children – in the 2011 Education for All Global Monitoring Report: The hidden crisis: Armed conflict and education.

According to the Regional Response Plan, 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. A separate appeal for the humanitarian needs inside Syria is expected in the near future from the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

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 we documented in the 2011 Global Monitoring Report, 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 we found 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,” as we noted in an earlier post on this blog. 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, we 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.”

Photo: A young Syrian refugee with his brother in Jordan. The boys fled Syria with their parents. (© UNHCR/S. Malkawi)



  1. Thanks for sharing your blog post, Sadia. The concern about funding being available is also one we raised in the previous EFA Global Monitoring Report, given that only 2% of humanitarian aid is being spent on education. It is reassuring to see that greater emphasis is placed on education in this Syrian Response Plan. Let’s hope the funds are forthcoming.

    1. Hi Pauline

      Yes, I read the 2011 GMR with interest. Agreed, let’s hope funding is forthcoming. However, once again I find myself looking at situations like Syria and the Sahel and wonder – despite my utmost belief in the importance of emergency education – how it will be prioritised in cases where funding in other areas is lacking, which as you’re aware it is.

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