Syrian children in Lebanon without classrooms this year

Syrian children in Lebanon without classrooms this year
Comment: Education is a fundamental right, and Lebanese politicians need to make better-informed decisions to avoid condemning thousands of children to desperate fates, writes Mat Nashed.
6 min read
15 Sep, 2016
Despite a relatively effective ministerial educational plan for Syrian children, funding commitments remain vague [Anadolu]

Promises are as reliable as the people who make them, and Syrian children are learning that lesson the hard way.

Nearly half of those eligible to go to school in Lebanon - up to 250,000 children - won't see a classroom this year. But that doesn't seem to alarm international donors or local politicians as much as they claim it does.

On February 4, the global community came together to discuss how they could better support Syrians trapped in the war and in countries neighbouring their homeland. Part of the incentive, though some may say otherwise, was to limit migration to Europe by trying to make life as bearable as possible for refugees.

Life remains a living hell for most of them; the lack of access to education being a major reason why.      

A RACE against time

Lebanese politicians say that adopting a long-term approach to the refugee crisis could pave the way for the naturalisation of Syrian refugees. Such a thought - no matter how unfounded - frightens most religious sects who fear that the country's confessional balance could tip in favour of Sunni Muslims.  

The government has consequently passed a number of measures to make life as brutal for Syrians as possible. Aid agencies have found it difficult to manoeuvre around these barriers. The dilemma summarises their schizophrenic relationship with the government perfectly; donors want Syrians to stay in the country while Lebanese politicians unanimously want them to go.  

The Ministry of Education is somewhat of an exception. It has designed a five-year plan named RACE - Reaching All Children with Education - that strives to enroll as many Syrian children in public schools as possible.

Although far from perfect, RACE has experienced some success. Two years ago, four out of five Syrian children didn't have access to education. After stepping up their efforts, the ministry managed to put half of school age children in class the following year.

What the global community is witnessing is an emergency

Hoping to build off their success, the ministry recently launched RACE II. Yet Jessica Bryant, international media manager for TheirWorld, said that funding commitments remain opaque and unpredictable, resulting in an annual risk that some Syrian children might need to be taken out of school - while others may simply fall too far behind to recover.

What the global community is witnessing is an emergency. Donors must ensure that they can deliver the money they promised over a multi-year span. That way, earlier steps can be taken to improve Lebanon's public education system and get more children in school.

A system overburdened

Syrian families have tried to ensure their children have access to education. According to a report by Human Rights Watch, parents have moved closer to schools while building up debt to pay for their children’s documents, school supplies, and transportation.

The Ministry of Education has tried to alleviate the burden. The RACE program allows Syrians under the age of 15 to go to school without having to show proof of legal residency or pay school enrollment fees.

However, these measures remain inadequate. Even far before the Syrian uprising, only 30 percent of Lebanese students went to public schools, which recorded high dropout and repetition rates.

Now, with the system completely overstrained, many schools aren't complying with the ministry's regulations. Some have turned Syrian children away unless their parents provide proof of legal status, while others have openly discriminated against Syrian children in classrooms. Many children are also reluctant to go to school due to fears of corporal punishment and bullying at the hands of their Lebanese peers.

The ministry has to monitor schools across the country to make sure their regulations are being enforced. But while stronger oversight would definitely help, access to education will remain limited until a more comprehensive response to the refugee crisis is adopted.  

Poverty and legal status - the root of the issue

Poverty and insecure legal status are some of the biggest factors that restrict a child's access to education in practically every country in the world. Lebanon is no different when examining the situation of refugees.

Due to expensive and complicated residency renewal procedures, two thirds of Syrians are unable to reside legally in the country. Worst still, those who try to work are either exploited in the black market or detained by security forces. 

Some families have resorted to desperate measures to survive

More than 70 percent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon also live below the World Food Program's defined poverty line, meaning most families can't afford school-related fees such as transportation and class supplies. 

Some families have resorted to desperate measures to survive. Many have pushed their boys to perform some of the worst forms of child labour, since they are least likely to be detained when traversing through checkpoints.

Girls as young as ten risk being married off by their family so that they can collect her Muqaddam - a sort of dowry that the groom gives to the bride's family.

Unless international donors and local politicians mend their differences, thousands more children may endure a similar fate.

The Lebanese government could, for starters, support the Ministry of Education by easing residency requirements and enabling Syrians to work. Families who can't afford to send their children to school won't be able to take full advantage of other policies designed to help them.

Expanding the public school system should also be a major priority. Creating programmes that reach out to youth would be a good start.  Human Rights Watch revealed that only three percent of Syrians aged 15-18 enrolled in school last year.

The Ministry of Education could begin by waiving the requirement to see proof of residency from children entering secondary school. 

The Norwegian Refugee Council noted that it is "virtually impossible" for children over the age of 15 to renew their residency. That's because children older than 15 must show their own passport which they can only obtain from the Syrian embassy - a building that many are reluctant to enter due to fear of arrest and military conscription. 

It's time Lebanese politicians make an honest choice. Those who value the well-being of children, and the security of the nation, must endorse policies that stop pushing youth towards a world of street life, poverty, and crime. There is no debate that education is a fundamental right. If only politicians had a little more of it then maybe children would be better off.

Mat Nashed is a Lebanon-based journalist covering displacement and exile. Follow him on Twitter: @matnashed

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.