At the World Humanitarian Summit, we must ensure all children have access to vital education

by Lord Jack McConnell, Unicef UK Vice-President, former First Minister of Scotland and UK Special Representative for Peacebuilding | UNICEF
Monday, 23 May 2016 14:38 GMT

In this file October 18, 2015 photo, students attend the first day of the new school term in Baghdad. REUTERS/Ahmed Saad

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The impact of conflict, violence and displacement on education in Iraq has been nothing short of devastating

Leicester City’s unlikely triumph has been celebrated across the country as a classic underdog story, but their impact has gone far beyond the UK. In Harsham camp for internally displaced Iraqis, on the outskirts of Erbil in Kurdistan, the teenage boys I met earlier this month were cheered by Leicester’s incredible achievement. Algerian midfielder Riyad Mahrez has become a new hero in their lives.

Whilst ‘The Foxes’ may not overtake Barcelona or Real Madrid in the boys affections, Leicester’s glory in the face of incredible odds has given them some hope for the future.

The boys I met in Harsham were all from Mosul in northern Iraq, currently a Daesh stronghold and likely to become the centre of the battle for northern Iraq between the Iraqi government forces and the so-called ‘Islamic State’.

Across Iraq, the continuing violence means huge numbers of children – whether Syrian refugees or displaced Iraqi children living in host communities and camps – are experiencing significant disruptions to their education. 70 per cent of displaced children have already missed an entire year of schooling, putting the future of a generation of children at risk.

There are 250,000 Syrian refugees registered in Iraq, but there are 3.4 million Iraqis, almost half of whom are children, who have been internally displaced as a result of violence within the country. 1.8 million of the displaced have fled to Kurdistan, an autonomous region with a population of 5 million – not unlike Scotland. People in Kurdistan have welcomed those seeking safety, but the influx has had a huge impact on the community. Outside the camps, local schools and services are stretched to breaking point.

The impact of conflict, violence and displacement on education in Iraq has been nothing short of devastating, but thanks to Unicef and its partners, the children I met are now able to attend school in the camp. However, there are still so many more refugee and displaced children in danger of missing out on an education. Up to half of children in camps in Iraq are unable to attend school, putting them at risk of becoming involved in child labour or as is the case for many girls, getting married early.

In Harsham, the small classrooms use two shifts to deliver classes to primary school age children in the morning and secondary school age children in the afternoon, but the teachers often go without pay.

Youth workers in the camp have made a special effort to provide group activities targeting teenage girls, who were previously almost invisible in the camp. The activities may not be as boisterous as the boys playing basketball and football on any spare scrap of ground, but they are encouraging socialisation and the development of skills for groups of girls who could be so very vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.

At the World Humanitarian Summit this week in Istanbul, it’s vital that ensuring access to education and protection for all children affected by conflict, whether refugees or internally displaced, is on the agenda.

All of the children and parents that I met in Harsham want to return home to Mosul, despite the destruction there. Even if they are able to return in the future, it’s likely that they will still be displaced for a few more years. Therefore it’s vitally important that organisations like Unicef are able to continue and build upon the work they are doing providing education and protection to these children.

At the World Humanitarian Summit, the first of its kind, Unicef and partners are launching a new fund - Education Cannot Wait- to ensure that children affected by emergencies such as conflict or natural disasters are able to access education. They are also calling on governments to sign the safe schools declaration, sending a clear message to the world that schools must not be attacked or occupied for military purposes.

For the boys I met in Harsham, the opportunity to go to school provides that same sense of hope as Leicester’s title triumph. For them, education really cannot wait.

Lord Jack McConnell is the Unicef UK Vice-President, and former First Minister of Scotland and UK Special Representative for Peacebuilding.