Loss of a Generation: The Education of Syria’s Refugee Children

With so many layers of tragedy that have unfolded in Syria since the protests of 2011, which led to an ongoing civil war that has killed over 380,000 people, including 22,000 children, the full humanitarian toll is difficult to fathom. Hundreds of thousands have been injured, many permanently, and untold millions more live with mental trauma and distress. Estimates in 2018 by the United Nations found that the physical destruction alone, excluding the economic cost of the death and displacement, added up to about $400 billion. It is important to note that this estimate is incomplete because the Syrian war is ongoing, with the Syrian regime planning to subdue the last bastion of opposition in Idlib province in the northwest.

Yet one of the most worrying challenges for the future of the country is the lost human capital: Syrians constituting more than half the prewar population have fled their homes, with approximately 6.7 million internally displaced within Syria and another 5.5 million refugees who fled to nearby countries. Many of these countries are themselves fragile or had already been hosting large refugee populations from other conflicts, thus their resources were already strained. Most Syrian refugees are living in poverty either in Syria or in their host nations and half of them are children who would have grown up to be the future of Syria. Today, the return of many of them presents serious difficulties, making repatriation and the rebuilding of Syrian society a slow and agonizing process.

A Lost Generation

In 2017, the International Rescue Committee conducted a unique survey about the state of Syrian children’s education. Although such a study is routine in normal states, by this time Syrians had endured six years of one of the most deadly and destructive wars in modern times. Unfortunately, the educational attainment of Syria’s children reflected this destruction and trauma. Half of Syrian middle school-aged children were unable to read at a second grade level; an average of 59 percent of these middle school students could not do a second grade math problem. One third of Syria’s children are out of school completely, at least in part because a third of the country’s schools were destroyed or damaged. In general, the education of the children who are left in Syria lags up to six years behind that of their global peers.

One third of Syria’s children are out of school completely, at least in part because a third of the country’s schools were destroyed or damaged. In general, the education of the children who are left in Syria lags up to six years behind that of their global peers.

Yet for many of the refugee children of Syria, access to even this subpar education system would be better than what they are offered away from their homes. The inability to meet the basic needs of some of the world’s most vulnerable children has led experts and analysts to worry about the “lost generation” of Syria’s children who have been out of school since the beginning of the war nearly a decade ago. Save the Children has estimated that this lost education will cost Syria up to 5.4 percent of GDP annually in any postwar economy, and the war does not appear to be nearing its end.

Article 22 of the 1951 Refugee Convention, which serves as the foundation of the recognized human rights of displaced people, mandates the right to education for all refugees. This was reiterated in the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child and the 2016 New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants. In addition, refugee children were given special attention in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 4, which calls to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all” by 2030. When children do not go to school when they are young, they are less likely to go to school at all, significantly reducing their employment opportunities as adults. Educating refugee children leads to better health outcomes, better social outcomes, and more stable families and communities. What happens to a population without educated children? Moreover, what is the future of a state whose children—millions of them— have left it completely?

Prior to 2011, Syria was a middle-income country with slowly improving health and education outcomes. In fact, it was itself a destination for refugees, including Palestinians and Iraqis. Government expenditure on education for the years 2006-2009 averaged 19.55 percent, which helped maintain a literacy rate over 90 percent among males and females. Primary school enrollment was near 100 percent for boys and girls by the early 2000s.

The civil war that began in 2011 has had a devastating impact on education. The brutality of the war did not spare children; those who survive lost family members and many became orphaned or were forced to undergo child labor or child marriage, arrest, detainment, or even torture. Even their schools were targeted, with 145 attacks on schools in 2019 alone. It is then no surprise that thousands of Syrian children flee their homes or the country nearly every day.

Where Are Syria’s Refugee Children Today?

Since 2014, Syria has been the world’s largest producer of refugees. Recent data suggest that by the end of 2018, there were 6.7 million Syrian refugees spread across 127 host countries, although 85 percent of them remain in nearby states. Turkey hosts almost half of these refugees (3.5 million), by far the largest host country, with Lebanon hosting nearly 1 million, Jordan about 675,000, and Iraq more than 250,000. Outside of the Middle East, Germany is home to more than half a million Syrian refugees, and tens of thousands more are spread throughout Europe, including Sweden, Austria, and the Netherlands. Sudan, itself a fragile state, hosts close to 100,000 Syrian refugees. While in the beginning women and children made up about half of refugees, data from the most recent Syrian displacements show that closer to 80 percent are women and children. Many have been displaced several times after initially leaving their homes.  More than 15 percent are under four years of age, and another 30 percent are of school age (5-17 years old); these are evenly split between genders. Although many refugees are undocumented and many students are out of school entirely, UNICEF estimates that the agency enrolled 1.2 million Syrian refugee children in school in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan alone in 2018.

Recent data suggest that by the end of 2018, there were 6.7 million Syrian refugees spread across 127 host countries, although 85 percent of them remain in nearby states. 

Despite the attention given to refugee camps, less than 7 percent of Syrian refugees actually live in camps, most of which are administered by the United Nations Higher Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) or other UN agencies with host country governments. Most refugees live in urban settings within their host countries, making service provision more difficult, and many of them still depend on humanitarian agencies for support as the poverty rate for Syrian refugees is over 60 percent. Additionally, not all host situations are the same. Despite the fact that the European Union gave Turkey billions of dollars for taking in Syrian refugees, for example, 80 percent of Syrian refugee children in Turkey did not attend school in 2016. Many refugees are unable to register for government services, and millions live in crowded camps meant to house only a few hundred thousand. Some families live on the streets. Several of the camps in Turkey, Iraq, and Syria are administered by Kurdish organizations, including the al-Hol camp that hosts thousands of women and children related to combatants of the Islamic State (IS). In 2020, UNICEF estimated that 40,000 children from 60 countries are currently living in the camp, many of whom were fathered by former IS fighters. Jordan hosts one of the oldest and the largest Syrian refugee camps, Zaatari, which is home to nearly 80,000 refugees. Children represent a quarter of this population and they are enrolled in 32 schools.

The lackadaisical state response is reflected in the treatment of refugees by some in host countries. Bullying, violence, and discrimination are commonly experienced by Syrian refugees. For example, girls from the Zaatari refugee camp recount that teachers made statements to them such as “you have ruined your country” and criticize their presence in Jordan. Parents, themselves in highly vulnerable situations, may not report such incidents for fear of drawing attention.

Actions like forbidding Syrian refugees to own businesses or making it difficult to attend school are bolstered by general anti-refugee sentiment that is encouraged by nationalist political groups. Although international law forbids host countries from forcibly returning refugees and asylum-seekers to situations of personal danger, many host states, like Lebanon and Denmark, are attempting to do just that. They argue that some parts of Syria are in fact safe for return, despite calls by the United Nations and humanitarian groups for refugee protections to continue. This leaves refugees with an uncertain status that is then reflected in state policy that trickles into education; for example, Turkey had been teaching some Syrian children in temporary education centers, taught by Syrian refugee teachers following a Syrian curriculum. However, as it becomes less likely that many refugees will return home to Syria, Turkey has started phasing out these programs to prioritize integration, sparking worry in Syrian families who do not speak Turkish and fear discrimination. It also threatens the position of Syrian teachers (some of whom were engineers or lawyers in Syria), who are already paid less than Turkish janitors. Some may be integrated into the Turkish public school system while many others will lose their jobs.

Educational Attainment of Syrian Refugees

In 2016, a pivotal conference in London focusing on Syrian refugee education presented sobering findings: education was substantially underfunded in humanitarian aid packages, and millions of children were out of school or otherwise were in need of educational assistance. They called for renewed attention to improving education and learning, emphasizing the role of youth in leading a cohesive postwar Syria. In fact, the conference results promised that “all refugee children and vulnerable children in host communities will be in quality education” by 2017. Aid pledges, however, have only decreased in subsequent conferences, and many states that are still providing financial support for Syrian refugees do not highlight education in their donations.

In August 2019, UNICEF estimated that two million children within Syria and 800,000 refugee children in host countries were out of school completely. In Jordan, distance from the school, lack of space in schools, the cost of sending a child to school, and bullying of the child were the main reasons that children were not enrolled. Other barriers include the need for the child to work instead of attending school, issues with enrollment, and language barriers. Human Rights Watch found that disabled children and children of secondary school age are at particular risk of being out of school.

Human Rights Watch found that disabled children and children of secondary school age are at particular risk of being out of school.

The lockdowns from the COVID-19 pandemic have been especially detrimental for refugee children. Nearly a quarter of Syrian refugees in Jordan, for example, had no internet access, which was a necessity for the digital resources schools and the government were disseminating for children stuck at home. As a result, almost half of Syrian refugee families surveyed in late spring 2020 reported that their children were not able to access the online learning resources provided by the Jordanian government.

Despite the heavy push for primary education, more than 75 percent of Syrian refugee children drop out of school before reaching the secondary level. Additionally, while primary and secondary education are prioritized for refugees, higher education is usually not a mandate for humanitarian agencies. Compared to nearly 40 percent of the global population, only one percent of refugee youth pursue higher education. Syrian refugees of college age must overcome barriers like unfamiliar entrance exams, difficulties in retrieving transcripts or other documentation left in Syria, inability to transfer course credits to host country universities, language barriers, lack of funds, and perceptions that they are taking opportunities from the citizens of the host country. Further, they must contend with decisions about their own trajectory: should they pursue an education and career to make a living outside of Syria, or choose a path that will help to rebuild their homeland?

Recommendations

Analysts have incorrectly predicted the end of the Syrian war for years. Indeed, the violence that leads to mass displacement continues, with more than half a million Syrians leaving their homes just earlier this year. While picturing the future of Syria may be difficult today, it is impossible to visualize a functional Syrian state without the energy, education, and presence of Syria’s youth. Unfortunately, many of those young people have been forced to make a home elsewhere, usually in precarious situations. Some refugee children have lived in their host country for nearly their entire lives, complicating the decision of families who may hope eventually to return to Syria. While the end of the conflict and the existence of governments that prioritize human security are the only long-term solutions for Syria’s refugees, there are tangible steps that stakeholders could take to mitigate or improve outcomes in these challenging circumstances.

While the end of the conflict and the existence of governments that prioritize human security are the only long-term solutions for Syria’s refugees, there are tangible steps that stakeholders could take to mitigate or improve outcomes in these challenging circumstances.

Host countries where refugees live are left to shoulder most of the burden. However, with adequate support for refugees, the host countries’ own citizens could benefit from the talents and skills of the refugee community, if they allow the refugees to thrive. The most important condition for children to pursue a successful educational experience is a stable home; thus, a crucial recommendation is to support their parents who wish to rent or buy homes, work, or pursue tertiary education to prepare for new careers. Recent research on Syrian refugee children in Jordan found that poverty, more than war-related trauma, reduced the children’s cognitive functioning and ability to learn. To ameliorate this situation, host countries could standardize refugee work and education permit procedures, offer language and integration classes, and promote access to government services; this way, refugees could more easily stabilize, recover, and work to build new lives rather than be treated as second class citizens who must remain dependent on aid. Stable households would then be more able to send their children to school and support them in their studies. To further such an effort, host countries could work to integrate an educational infrastructure with the human capital that refugees bring as teachers, interpreters, social workers, and other supportive roles for vulnerable children.

To learn, children themselves require mental health support, language classes, internet and technology access, and a sense of safety and stability. More than post-traumatic stress disorder, a doctor working with Syrian children instead characterized their experience as “human devastation syndrome” due to the continuing toxic stress of war, poverty, displacement, physical injuries, and forced labor and exploitation. It is imperative that host countries crack down on child labor and sex trafficking, with children often recruited from refugee camps, and all activities that harm children and take them out of school. Schools that host refugee children must ensure all students are treated equally; in addition, they must promote anti-bullying and anti-discrimination policies. These schools should also include remedial programming for children who have been out of school for many years and for children without supportive homes or technology access.

These needs require money, and it is not realistic to expect host countries to manage refugee flows with fluctuating donor support. That said, humanitarian aid allocated for host countries should be predicated not just on the number of refugees, but on measurable outcomes regarding refugee attainment of housing, employment, and education. While refugee aid contributions are massive—in 2019 alone, UNHCR’s annual budget was $8.6 billion—they are not sufficient given the quantity and quality of today’s conflicts. The UNHCR’s latest Syria factsheet in June 2019 had called for $624.4 million, but only 16 percent of that request was funded. Further, what is provided is not allocated in ways that echo stated goals for refugees, including a guaranteed education. While external stakeholders cannot mandate the end of a conflict, they can push for conflict resolution while working with host countries on interventions that maximize a refugee’s ability to thrive.

Yara M. Asi, PhD, is a Lecturer of Health Management and Informatics at the University of Central Florida.