As world leaders gather for US President Barack Obama’s Leaders’ Summit on Refugees on September 20, they should urgently address how to get the more than 3.5 million refugee children around the world who aren’t getting an education back to school.
All children have a legal right to an education. But too often, children forced to flee their home end up missing out on schooling – a double blow with dire consequences for their future. Parents trying to shield their children from the horrors of war should not have to watch them grow up without an education.
These children are often desperate to learn. Bara’a, a 10-year-old Syrian girl I met in an informal refugee camp in Lebanon, wasn’t able to enrol in school when she first arrived. So she propped a blackboard against a tree and started teaching children in the camp what she remembered from first grade.
Parents have gone to extraordinary lengths to try to keep their children in school, with some even returning to Syria. But too often, the children I meet have been out of school for years. Some have never set foot inside a classroom.
Failure to educate
One of the goals for Obama’s Leaders’ Summit is to provide access for another million refugee children to education. But that number is less than a third of the refugee children currently missing out on school. In setting such a low goal, world leaders guarantee that we will fail millions of children even if they meet their target.
Patting ourselves on the back for meeting low benchmarks is just not good enough. With the average length of a refugee crisis now pushing 20 years, some youngsters can spend their entire childhood displaced (PDF).
There are currently 21.3 million refugees in the world – more than half of them children (PDF). When they are finally able to return to their homes, it is crucial for them to have the skills to rebuild their war-ravaged countries. Full enrolment for refugee children is feasible – but will require bold, decisive action.
Without immediate action and sustained support, there is a real danger that recent progress in enrolling refugee children will erode instead of expanding.
Over the past two years, we have documented the barriers keeping nearly 750,000 Syrian refugee children out of school in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. We found that there are concrete steps donor and host countries can take to make sure refugee children can go to school.
It is crucial for donors to step up with sustained, multi-year funding, and release that money on time to make planning for each school year possible.
With 86 percent of refugees living in developing countries, refugee children’s education often depends on foreign aid. But donors can be slow to fulfil pledges and rarely meet the full need.
Failure to commit
In February, donors pledged more than $10bn at a London conference for Syria and neighbouring host countries – the largest amount ever pledged in a single day in response to a humanitarian crisis.
But more than seven months later it is unclear how much of that money has materialised. An August report by the children’s charity Theirworld found that “donors have failed to meet even the most basic criteria for transparency”.
It is particularly important for donors to address the education needs of high-risk populations such as secondary school age children and children with disabilities. In Lebanon, only 5 percent of Syrian refugees aged between 15 and 18 enrolled in secondary school last year. Children with disabilities are often completely left behind.
But it is not enough to fund places in schools – donor countries also need to help tackle the barriers keeping refugee children out of school in the first place.
Donor countries should pressure hosts to amend counterproductive policies that restrict access to education. Lebanon’s harsh residency regulations effectively bar many refugees from maintaining legal status – driving an estimated two-thirds of Syrians there underground and making it difficult for them work or enrol their children in school (PDF).
In Turkey, refugees face months-long delays in obtaining the identification cards required to enrol children in school. Donors should exercise their leverage to ensure that these policies are reversed.
Donors should also invest in jobs programmes and partner with the private sector to ensure that refugees, the vast majority of whom live in poverty, can make a living wage and afford to send their children to school.
Many families are unable to afford basic school-related costs like transportation or rely on income from child labour to survive.
Host countries, concerned about job security for their citizens, often restrict refugees’ access to work. But such measures make it harder for refugee parents to send their children to school. Jobs programmes can bolster the economy, preserve stability and ensure that children can get an education.
Without immediate action and sustained support, there is a real danger that recent progress in enrolling refugee children will erode rather than expand.
This summit is an opportunity to focus the world’s attention on refugee children and to make real changes that ensure they can realise their right to an education.
The costs of failure – child labour, early marriage, and a lost generation – are just too high.
Bassam Khawaja is the Lebanon researcher at Human Rights Watch and the author of a recent report, Growing Up Without an Education: Barriers to Education for Syrian Refugee Children in Lebanon.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.