Fixing the Past: Conflict, Displacement and Education in Iraq

By Alison Oswald, author of a background paper on Iraq for the Arab States 2019 GEM Report on migration, displacement and education

IDP and returnee students in Ninewah governorate. Photo: People in Need

Last month four thousand children went to register for the new school year in Hamam al Alil Camp in Iraq, but there weren’t any teachers and classes never started.

While many internally displaced people (IDPs) have returned home, 1,444,500 Iraqis are still displaced, and most internally displaced households report that they do not intend to return to their homes in the coming year.  Evidence indicates that IDPs, especially in camps, are more vulnerable than returnees and remainees and may have been more vulnerable economically or socially even before the conflict. Persistent or multiple displacement and lack of access to education and other critical services further reinforces vulnerability and limits opportunities to recover.

It’s difficult to determine how many displaced children aren’t in school in Iraq, but proxy calculations using population data from the International Organization for Migration and age distribution and enrollment data from the 2019 Multi Cluster Needs Assessment and the 2018 Multi Indicator Cluster Survey indicates a possible figure of 170,000 children.

IDPs are concentrated in specific regions of Iraq; most live in the conflict-affected governorates of Ninewah, Anbar and Salah al Din or in Erbil, Suleymaniyah and Duhok governorates in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI).  School structure, curriculum and languages of instruction in KRI are different than in Federal Government areas, and IDPs attend a poorly funded parallel school system. These governorates, which are the least able to provide education for IDP children, host 81% of IDPs, while the other thirteen provinces of Iraq host only 19%.

There are many push and pull factors influencing the educational participation of displaced children as detailed in the Arab States 2019 GEM Report. As in Hammam al Alil Camp, there are widespread teacher shortages, poor instructional quality and children who have experienced trauma and loss. School conditions are also poor, with damaged classrooms, large class sizes, limited teaching and learning materials and insufficient sanitary facilities and drinking water.

IDPs who do attend school aren’t learning effectively: unpublished assessments by UNESCO, Norwegian Refugee Council and Save the Children show that children’s reading and math skills are significantly below grade level. This makes it difficult for students to cope with academic requirements and increases dropout rates. Family conditions may also keep children from attending school: the inability to pay costs associated with school attendance is the most frequent reason for non-attendance cited by IDP households followed by psychological or physical health problems and children’s lack of interest in education. Girls are especially likely not to attend.

documentsConflict-insensitive education policies are pushing children out of school and making it hard for them to return: children can only register during the first 50 days of the school year, for instance, and schools may refuse to register a child without required identity and school documents. Students who have missed less than two years of school are placed according to age rather than last grade completed, effectively skipping up to two years of instruction without any remedial support and children who have missed more than two years of class cannot return to a regular school. These policies are disastrous for IDP families and there are large numbers of IDP children permanently out of school without any means to return.

What happens to children who don’t participate in education? An unpublished Save the Children labor market survey documents that youth with limited education are more likely to participate in lower paid and higher risk employment and GEM Report and unpublished UNICEF research indicates a correlation between out-of-school status, early marriage and association with armed groups.

Beyond the impact that poor access and educational quality has on children and families, there are larger consequences for Iraq as a nation in addition to those of an undereducated population. Most IDPs are Sunni Muslims from Sunni majority governorates affected by conflict. In the future they will be competing with Shia Muslims from provinces not affected by conflict. As IDP children reach early adulthood and find that they don’t have the same academic and economic opportunities as peers from areas not affected by conflict, existing tension from sectarian conflict and poor governance may be aggravated.

What needs to be done to address the impact of the conflict on access to education?

Iraq can’t afford to continue an approach to education that isn’t working and which increases rather than mitigates the risk of conflict.  A few key recommendations emerge:

  1. Invest in education: Compared to other countries in the region, education spending is low in Iraq. Increasing the proportion of the national budget for education would fund system strengthening to improve quality and access for all children, whether IDPs, returnees, remainees or unaffected by conflict. The current approach to budget allocation doesn’t recognize that IDP children need additional support to fill educational gaps. Enhancing budget allocation to areas impacted by conflict and hosting large numbers of IDPs would help address those inequalities.  This approach to budget allocation would need to be carefully managed to avoid increasing political tensions, but preemptively addresses the risk of conflict.
  2. Develop conflict sensitive education policies: Flexible approaches to documentation, enrollment and provision of remedial support would make it easier for children to enroll and stay in school.  Expanding access to Accelerated Learning Centers and increasing coverage to include both primary and secondary curriculum would provide alternative pathways back to formal education for out of school and overage learners.
  3. Improve teacher placement and training: Ensuring that qualified teachers are available where needed will reduce class size. Training focused on effective pedagogies, especially development of literacy and numeracy skills and psychosocial support techniques for traumatized children would address learning quality and psychological needs.
  4. Operationalize a national EMIS system: UNESCO has already piloted an EMIS system which can be expanded to give decision-makers at all levels information on key indicators of educational efficiency, effectiveness and equity, and enable evidence-based and conflict-sensitive planning and budgeting.
  5. Development of evidence-based advocacy and technical support: UN agencies and NGOs can advocate for the needs of IDP children using data to identify and explain critical needs and provide technical support for planning and monitoring at national and governorate level based on their experience in other emergency and developmental education contexts.



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