By Jen Steele, an education in emergencies specialist, and author of a background paper on IDPs and education in Syria for the Arab States 2019 GEM Report
Internally displaced children (IDP) not only need better funding for education programmes, but also better integrated education programmes that address the unique factors that limit their access to quality education. In Syria (and likely in other conflict-affected contexts), factors outside of education and its administration (such as the opportunity costs of education) are as important as factors internal to it (such as teaching and learning materials). Paying more attention to the more nuanced needs of IDP children (such as their wellbeing) and their families (such as household income constraints) could help the education in emergencies community better prevent future lost generations.
Before her tragic murder by the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2008, Jackie Kirk was a vocal advocate for more thoughtful investment in education for internally displaced persons (IDPs). The Arab States 2019 GEM Report quotes her saying that “… in many ways the situation for IDP children may be more complex than that for refugee children, and access to education even more difficult.”
Although often less spoken about, IDPs outnumber refugees, at 41 million at the end of 2018 compared to 26 million refugees. Providing them with an education is also more challenging, mainly due to complex notions of state sovereignty, neutrality, and impartiality in humanitarian response.
But the tide has turned on Syria’s conflict, if we are to believe recent analysis by senior commentators, including Economist, Howard Shatz, in his recent blog, “The Syrian Civil War Is Coming to an End.” From analysing battlegrounds, discussions now centre more around the costs and political economy of reconstruction. Nevertheless, approximately 6.1 million, or 29%, of Syria’s population remain internally displaced. Fifty-two percent are children. As of June 2018, more IDPs live in areas controlled by the government of Syria (GoS) than in areas of opposition control. As such, donor coordination with the GoS on education sector programming is increasingly critical (and increasingly complex).
Syrian IDPs and children in need – What do we know?
- 9 million children-or 51% of Syria’s people in need-require education services, of whom at least 29% were internally displaced
- More than 1 million children in Syria are out of school, and 1.3 million are at risk of dropping out representing 49% of the estimated school age population
- By 2018, 86% of IDPs were living in urban areas
Who is providing education for Syrian IDPs?
The primary education service providers for Syrian IDPs are the GoS, the Syrian Interim Government (SIG) in the northwest, the Self Administration-affiliated authorities in the northeast, Islamist non-state armed groups, the Turkish government, UNHCR, UNICEF, UNRWA, and (I)NGOs.
My own observations from working there found that cross provider coordination is limited and/or non-existent due to divergent political agendas and security constraints. Aside from donor-sponsored programmes, there are no known initiatives targeted specifically at IDPs amongst other service providers. As a result, IDPs (many of whom are multiply displaced) have limited opportunities for safe and efficient transitions amongst service providers and thus fragmented or dead-end education pathways.
Supply-side access and quality challenges
The type of supply-side challenges that one would expect in a protracted-conflict environment are still in place in Syria. These include but are not limited to:
- Lack of safe learning environments
- Lack of learning materials
- Lack of qualified teachers
- Poor documentation and certification of learning
- A fragmented policy environment
- Insufficient time allocated to active learning (called time on task)
- Limited, compliance-focused, teacher supervision
- Poor teaching skills resulting in inequitable –and sometimes harmful –teaching practices.
The communities working in education in emergencies know these challenges well and are relatively well positioned to respond to (most of) them. Even if data on the education needs remain a challenges in many settings
Demand-side access and quality challenges
The demand-side challenges that make internally displaced children of school age all the more vulnerable in these contexts are nuanced and difficult to address. More focused attention is needed to effectively meet their needs.
- Multiple forced displacements: IDPs, many of whom might have been displaced multiple times, have compromised coping systems and resilience. As a result, they are less likely to be able to cope with insecurity and more likely to suffer emotionally, affecting their capacity to learn. A 2015 report by the REACH Initiative found that 50% of Syrian IDPs had experienced multiple displacements.
- Negative coping strategies resulting from the economic downturn: The Syrian economy has all but collapsed, with negative practical implications for increasingly impoverished families trying to invest in education while also meeting their priorities for food and shelter. By 2019, Moody’s Analytics estimated that the Syrian economy had contracted by 70%. As a result, socioeconomic norms and negative coping strategies such as child labour and early marriage keep IDP children out of school.
- Poor child wellbeing: Reports from 2018 found that 13% of children require specialized psychosocial support in the classroom to facilitate learning and wellbeing.
Addressing issues such as limited household resources for investing in education, and the learning implications of children with psychosocial needs, requires cross-sectoral collaboration—namely with livelihoods and child protection sectors. It also requires long-term education sector investment to build the technical resources needed to provide “soft” interventions.
In an era of increasingly protracted crises, where school-age IDP children outnumber their refugee counterparts, it is incumbent upon the community working on education in emergencies (and donors in particular) to prioritize resources to help tailor traditional response packages for more demand-side, IDP-focused support.
 As of March 2019, education authorities in each of the five major ZoC oversaw their own education service delivery.