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The toll of war on learning for a generation

Published online 7 September 2014

The Syrian civil war is creating an uneducated generation — burdening social systems in countries of refuge, and forcing children into illegal labour.

Sophie Cousins

head home after a day of classes at Derik Secondary School in Domiz Camp,

Students head home after a day of classes at Derik Secondary School in Domiz Camp, Kurdistan 

© Kira Walker 
“I speak with a heavy heart because I want my child to go to school but if he doesn’t work, we will starve,” says a Syrian woman from Aleppo of her nine-year-old son Mohamed. 

Mohamed sat a few metres away on the side of the road, in a stained singlet and no shoes, selling cigarettes to passers-by. He is one of thousands of Syrian refugee children forced out of school and into labour to support their struggling families. 

The Syrian lady, who refused to be named, had fled the civil war in Syria to take refuge in Antakya, a picturesque town in southern Turkey, 20 kilometres from the Syrian border.

“We estimate that inside and outside Syria, there are about 2.7 million Syrian children who are not able to go to school on a regular basis,” says Juliette Touma, a spokeswoman for UNICEF.

Before the civil war in Syria started, literacy levels in the country were quite high, estimated at 97% among primary-age school children. But, the war has taken a heavy toll on the education system. A 2013 report by Save the Children says an estimated 3,900 schools in Syria had been destroyed or closed down during the first two years of the war. By April 2013, “22% of the country's 22,000 schools [were] rendered unusable."

According to a separate December 2013 report by UNICEF, UNHCR, World Vision and Save the Children, school enrolment rates among Syrian refugee children stand at just 34% region-wide. This is lower than rates in Afghanistan, a country with a much longer history of conflict and poverty.  

Working conditions

Around 10% of approximately 1.5 million Syrian refugee children living in host countries including Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq, are forced to work, according to UNICEF. 

In Jordan, where 80% of the 600,000 refugees based there are living in host communities, child labour has doubled since the beginning of the Syrian conflict – and the trend is not waning, according to Johanna Mitscherlich, regional emergency communications coordinator at CARE International.

“A lot of parents that I’ve talked to said it really was the very last resort because they want their children to go to school,” says Mitscherlich. “But they feel that this is the only way for them to survive.” 

Mitscherlich said that the children are working menial jobs in coffee shops and construction in harsh conditions, often up to 16 hours a day, earning no more than a few dollars for their day’s labour.

Education burden in host countries

In Jordan child labour has doubled since the beginning of the Syrian conflict.

In Lebanon, home to more than one million Syrian refugees, a similar picture has emerged, with only 30% of children attending school, according to a CARE International report.   

A major barrier to providing education to such children is that they are not gathered in any formal camps, but are scattered across the country. Both Jordanian and Lebanese governments began to allow double shifts in some state primary schools to give refugee children a chance to attend the second shift in some schools, but it is not enough. 

“[Families] don’t have money for transportation to get to school, to buy clothes for the children or to buy books,” Mitscherlich explains. “The schools are overcrowded, with sometimes 150 children in one class, and it’s difficult for the children who have missed school for months or years.” 

Misty Buswell from Save the Children says that some parents appreciate the value of sending their children to school, even at a price, but are unsure if their schooling is going to be recognized back home.

Touma says UNICEF was helping Lebanese schools increase learning spaces, recruit more teachers and provide the necessary supplies, but funding was significantly short.

Keeping children in schools

CARE is one organization that provides conditional financial assistance to families in Jordan through a pilot programme, and plans to extend that programme to Lebanon to encourage parents to keep their children in school. 

In Turkey, the refugees face a language barrier that makes it hard for them to join state-run schools. “Outside the camps, the schools are run largely by Syrian refugees,” says Xanthe Ackerman, education expert and former associate director of the Centre for Universal Education. 

“Those refugees are trying to raise money from wherever they can and when the money runs out, the subsidies that they offer the children also dry up,” she says. “The students are paying 100TL [US$50] a month or more plus 100TL or more for the bus. That’s why there is such a huge number of children out of school.”

Ackerman estimates there may be as many as 250,000 Syrian children out of school in Turkey. She advocates CARE’s idea of conditional cash transfers, which she says is the most direct way to help put children in school. 

“It doesn’t have to be for a lot, it has to be for the amount of money the children are earning when they go out to work for the day. There’s also a need to address the poverty in the host areas as well,” she says. 

A key challenge for the humanitarian, development and national communities is the question of alternatives for these children, says Nick Grisewood, member of the Labour Task Force of the Global Child Protection Working Group. “Even if alternatives were available, would they be acceptable to the children and their families?” 

“All countries hosting Syrian refugees appear to be experiencing similar issues, I think a regional meeting on the issue involving governments, relevant agencies and donors would have be an important place to start,” he says. “Better knowledge management is required.”