Education could be the most powerful change agent for a lasting peace in war-torn Syria. Of the 4.9 million Syrian refugees and 6.5 million internally displaced persons (IDPs), over half of them are children, and one of the most important things stripped from them in this conflict is their access to schooling. It is imperative to reverse this trend, as education is crucial not only for the wellbeing of individuals, but as a tool for peace as well. While the prospect of solving many aspects of the conflict in Syria may seem impossible in the near future, improving access to education is a tangible, positive change that is within grasp.

State governments—as well as the international community—all have an obligation and a part to play in ensuring children have access to their human right of education. However, the questions of whose responsibility it is to allocate how many necessary resources to this cause at which stages become thornier in the cases of displaced persons, particularly in conflict-zone areas.

Where Are They?

As of May 2, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) declared almost 4.9 million Syrians to be registered refugees. Nearly all of these refugees have fled Syria to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq (which already has almost 4 million IDPs of its own), and Egypt. Of these refugees, roughly 80 percent live outside of camps. Furthermore, another 6.6 million are internally displaced within Syria; and over half of all those Syrians who have been forced to flee their homes are children. The challenge of repatriating this population will be made even more difficult if this large contingent of Syrian youth remains without education.

What’s at Stake by Failing to Properly Educate Young Refugees?

The most likely obstacle barring children from school is violence: of the 58 million children (6–11 years) and 63 million adolescents (12–15 years) who do not have access to education worldwide, a third of them live in conflict-afflicted states. Furthermore, of refugees worldwide, only 50 percent of children are enrolled in school and only 25 percent of adolescents—the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and UNHCR found in a May 2016 joint report that these refugees are five times more likely than all children to be out-of-school. Though Syria had a near-perfect school attendance rate prior to 2011, 6 million Syrian children are now denied their education—just 30 percent of Syrian IDPs are in school, with enrollment in Aleppo as low as 6 percent.

The loss of time spent in schooling confronts these children with social and academic integration disadvantages once they are ultimately placed in schools. Furthermore, UNESCO predicts that if these trends continue, then 43 percent of out-of-school children (this means 15 million girls and 10 million boys worldwide) will likely never enroll in school. Children are put directly in harm’s way by not being in school, which makes them more susceptible to child labor, marriages, poverty, sexual exploitation and trafficking.

The reality of increased out-of-school children in conflict areas, heightened by the present refugee crisis, holds tremendous implications for prospects of peace. Not only do children out of school lack access to lessons about peace in history and current events—which may aid in their understanding of the conflict at hand—but also as uneducated, idle youth in conflict zones, they are much more susceptible to violence and/or extremist recruitment efforts.

Syrian refugee students attend a class in an accelerated learning programme at public school in Kamed Al Louz in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon. Source: Flickr, UNHCR/Photo by Shawn Baldwin
Syrian refugee students attend a class in an accelerated learning programm at public school in Kamed Al Louz in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon. Source: Flickr, UNHCR/Photo by Shawn Baldwin.

But, in seeking education for refugee children, we must also be wary. Authoritarian governments throughout the world (such as Nazi Germany and Iran since the 1979 revolution) have a common history of using biased education in attempts to indoctrinate impressionable youth in schools. As Alan Smith states, “Education can be part of the problem as well as part of the solution. Policies and practice at all levels within the education system need to be analysed in terms of their potential to aggravate or ameliorate conflict.” Ultimately, we must be willing to take these risks in efforts reach every child and bring them access to legitimate curricula that can mitigate the repetition of conflicts they have suffered from—all the while maintaining diligent consciousness of the impacts of biased education.

Who’s Stepping Up and What’s Working?

In order to prescribe recommendations for action in the face of this refugee and education crisis, we must take stock of the efforts to guarantee refugee children their right to education by different players on the word stage, across sectors.

The United Nations

The UN—primarily the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) with support from UNHCR and UNESCO—is the main international entity implementing educational change alongside both government bodies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). UNICEF has notably pioneered the “Makani” approach in Jordan, utilizing over 200 existent community centers and organizations as drop-in learning centers of sorts, including “alternative education services, pyschosocial support and life skills training.”

State Governments

Projects using a similar approaches to the “Makani” initiative receive funding from Canada, the European Union, Germany, Korea, the Netherlands, and UKAid.

Turkey currently holds the most Syrian refugees and most refugees, generally speaking, in the world. In 2014, the Turkish government commendably changed the law requiring a child to hold a Turkish residency permit in order to attend public schools, therefore allowing Syrian children (with a government-issued ID) to attend their schools. They also introduced a system of temporary education centers that offer Syrian students a school curriculum taught in Arabic (as the language barrier made learning extremely difficult for those children that manage to attend Turkish schools). As of late 2015 in Turkey, as reported by Human Rights Watch, 90 percent of Syrian refugee children living in camps were attending school; but just a quarter of the Syrian children living outside of camps could say the same.

Alongside UNICEF, the Jordanian Ministry of Education—supported by the European Commission—operates five schools in their refugee camps, as well as approximately 100 public schools that run on double shifts to as to accommodate Syrian students in addition to Jordanians. Similarly to other host countries, Jordan still sees a huge number of Syrian children outside of school (90,000). UNESCO and UNHCR found in May 2016 that the numbers worsen for Syrians living outside of camps (83 percent of Syrian refugees in Jordan), with over 50 percent of them out-of-school.


NGOs play a huge role in both funding and facilitating education for refugees on the ground. In the Za’atari Refugee Camp in Jordan, Save the Children International and UNICEF run three drop-in learning centers for Syrian refugees.

 Alia and Basma* (right), both aged 12, tackle a maths question at a temporary school in northern Lebanon, set up by UNICEF and Lebanese NGO Beyond Association with the help of UK aid. Source: Flickr, Russell Watkins/Department for International Development.

Two girls, both aged 12, tackle a maths question at a temporary school in northern Lebanon, set up by UNICEF and Lebanese NGO Beyond Association with the help of UK aid. Source: Flickr, Russell Watkins/Department for International Development.

Edinburgh DirectAid works to deliver school supplies to 11,000 Syrian children attending schools in Arsal, Lebanon. The International Rescue Committee (IRC) conducts similar work in Northern Lebanon and the Bekka Valley, and also operates classrooms for Syrian children. IRC’s curriculums cover math, English, and Arabic, as well as the creative arts and extracurricular activities to help children recover from trauma and keep them occupied; the organization additionally operates women’s centers.

FilmAid International’s partnership with Malala Fund, Participant Media, Fox Searchlight Pictures, Participant Media, Fox Searchlight Pictures, National Geographic and Image Nation Abu Dhabi screens Davis Guggenheim’s He Named Me Malala documentary and operates mentorship workshops lead by outreach facilitators who are refugees themselves. This program—which began in Kenyan camps and just expanded to Jordan—builds on FilmAid’s existent “Girls First” program, which features educational films produced by refugees centering around topics such as sexual and reproductive health and hygiene, prevention against sexual violence, and the importance of access to schooling; its mission is to provide the most at-risk refugee population of adolescent refugee girls with critical information and peace education as well as to expose them to and involve them in film as a means of self-expression. As FilmAid Director of Global Partnerships Kristen Tymeson says, “These girls often don’t get listened to, so giving them the tools to tell their stories is incredibly valuable.” FilmAid also conducts pop-up screenings at “Makani” centers to reach refugees living outside of camps.

What Needs to Happen Next?

UN agencies and NGOs often bear the brunt of responsibility for ensuring refugee children access to education as state governments worldwide have failed to seriously respond to the growing crisis. Host countries specifically must further forge ahead in playing their part through means such as policy changes; and in the interest of peace, the international community must stand behind all of these entities with regards to funding, resources, and political support. Here are some highlighted specific actions players can take:

  • Host state governments—if they have not already—should make the necessary policy changes to allow and integrate refugee children into their national public educational systems. As signatories to multiple UN treaties that support refugee access to education, such integration is their obligation under international law, and may actually ultimately be in their best interests in terms of regional security as well.
  • State governments around the world and the international community as a whole must work to better establish emergency education funding to address and invest in enhanced, long-term schooling of refugees—as we know, the average refugee or IDP is displaced for nearly two decades.
    • UNICEF has called for nearly USD$90 million in aid specifically for the education needs of Syrians. The United States should lead by example in expanding funding to meet this goal so as to adequately support Syria’s neighbors, the UN, and NGOs in their execution of it on the ground.
    • Such funding should be implemented in consultation with host state governments, UNICEF, and NGOs on the ground to ensure resources will be adequately distributed to address issues of potentially biased curricula, language barriers, overcrowding, the employment and training of teachers, physical school space, and—particularly in rural areas—transportation to schools.

Cover Photo: Flickr, Russell Watkins/Department for International Development