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OPINION: Broken promises: The forgotten children of the Syrian crisis

Friday, 19 June 2020 19:26 GMT

Saher al-Ali's family members stand inside their damaged house in the rebel-held town of Nairab, Idlib region, Syria April 17, 2020. Picture taken April 17, 2020. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

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

This World Refugee Day, we’re reminded of yet another group of people who are suffering as a result of broken promises: Syrian refugees

The combination of a global pandemic, economic upheaval and growing support for the Black Lives Matter Movement has placed a spotlight on multiple systemic issues plaguing our society. This World Refugee Day, we’re reminded of yet another group of people who are suffering as a result of broken promises from the international community: Syrian refugees – especially children of the conflict.

Early in the Syrian crisis, under the banner of “No Lost Generation”, the international community rallied together for the young people of Syria and the region. These efforts culminated in 2016, when the leaders of Germany, Britain, Norway and Kuwait held what was thought to be a groundbreaking conference, promising to provide education for all Syrian children by the end of the 2016-17 school year. Sadly, 2020 marks the fourth year of a failure by world leaders to honor their promise to protect and educate the most marginalized and vulnerable victims of the Syrian conflict.

During the first few months of 2020, innocent civilians, especially children, have faced untold hardship and suffering. An Idlib offensive by Syrian government forces led to the largest refugee exodus since the start of the war, with nearly one million people displaced.  Bombings of civilian targets, including schools, by government forces have served as a chilling reminder of the empty promises to protect and educate Syrian children.

Today, more than 800,000 refugee children are still out of school and now face a crisis within a crisis amidst the devastating impacts of COVID-19 to both their health and education. Although, there was substantial progress between 2013-2016 by the five main host countries of Syrian refugees, recent reports are showing that progress is now moving in reverse; the numbers of children out of education are rising rather than declining, and funding commitments are falling far short of what is needed.

Inside Syria today, there are more than six million displaced people. And in the surrounding area, there are more than two million are school-aged children and youth.

The current situation stands in stark contrast to pre-crisis Syria, a country with near universal education. Today, at the age of 15 years, a child born five years into the conflict has a four in 10 chance of being out of school in neighboring Turkey, Jordan or Lebanon. Once a child is out of school for more than a year, the chance of returning is cut in half.

Some countries that have risen to the challenge. For example, the number of refugees enrolled in Lebanese public schools rival the number of locals and in Turkey, nearly 700,000 refugees had access to school in 2019.

The benefits of investing in education as well as the consequences if governments fail to do so seem obvious. So why then does the international community continue to fail in its responsibility to provide even basic access to education for the most vulnerable?

It’s not a money issue. The average cost of education for a refugee in a neighboring middle-income country is only around $500 annually, significantly less than in a high-income country in Europe or North America.

We often hear about the issue of “donor fatigue” as international community loses interest. But refugees are the ones who are truly fatigued from displacement and their host communities are equally fatigued and in need of resources.

An investment in refugee education is an investment in hope, potential, peace and security. Providing young people who have had to overcome every possible obstacle at an early age with the means to develop their skills and talents to become contributing members of society and the economy can only be a net positive.

We have plans. We have expertise in the countries. What we lack is willpower, funding and global political leadership.

This month, leaders will once again come together for a Syria donor conference to address the ongoing crisis. This gathering represents a critical opportunity to revive the ‘no lost generation’ commitment and fulfill the promises made in 2016. Syrian refugees haven’t given up on hope, but only time will tell if this gathering finally spurs nations to act or if it will simply serve as a forum for continued broken promises. 

Justin van Fleet is the President of the global children’s charity Theirworld and the Executive Director of the Global Business Coalition for Education.


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