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What We Owe Refugee Children

BEIRUT – Last year, images of desperate refugees, many of them children, stirred our collective conscience and prompted world leaders to take action. But a year of political upheaval has diverted media attention from refugees’ plight. Against the backdrop of Brexit, terrorist attacks, and national elections in the United States, France, and Britain, we have lost sight of the fact that the refugee crisis is getting worse.

Today, on World Refugee Day, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is launching its #WithRefugees petition, to remind governments that they must work together to end the crisis. Indeed, a renewed sense of urgency is needed.

All refugees and asylum-seekers need help, but children are especially vulnerable. One of the best ways to mitigate their plight is to provide them with an education. And yet host countries, which are often near war zones, have struggled to integrate refugee children into their education systems. Among UNHCR-registered refugees, including those fleeing from Afghanistan and Somalia, 3.75 million children – 900,000 of them Syrian – are not in school. All told, the chance that a refugee child will be deprived of schooling is five times higher than the global average.

This is a stain on the international community. It is crucial that refugee children receive an education, so that they can someday return to their home countries with the skills and knowledge needed to create functioning states. One young refugee girl I met wants to do just that. When I asked her about her future plans, she told me that her dream is to become an engineer so that she can rebuild her country.

Education is also a vital instrument for combating violent extremism, which can capture the minds of young people with no hope for the future. And school attendance is essential for children’s welfare, because it gives them access to basic health-care services and protects them from the horrors of child labor and prostitution.

Fortunately, countries such as Greece, which is on the front line of the refugee crisis in Europe, are now adding more permanent education provisions to their refugee-care model. But, in Lebanon, we have had to resort to creative thinking to accommodate the influx of refugees from Syria.

When Syrian refugees first arrived, Lebanon’s education system was already in need of repair and reform. Now, Lebanon is host to some two million migrants, including 1.5 million Syrian refugees, in addition to its population of 3.75 million. With one refugee for every two citizens, Lebanon is dealing with a massive increase in demand for public services such as health care and education.

In addition to the 250,000 Lebanese students in the state school system, the Lebanese government has had to find a way to educate 450,000 Syrian children. To help meet this need, we have created the Reaching all Children with Education (RACE) initiative, focused on improving access to formal education for Syrian refugees and underprivileged Lebanese.

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Because it is crucial that we provide an education for all children, we have had to stretch our resources as far as possible. Today, many school-age Syrian refugees are studying under the same teachers as their Lebanese peers, and many of our schools are running double shifts in mornings and afternoons to accommodate refugees.

So far, Lebanon has already accommodated around 40% of all UNHCR-registered school-age refugee children. Annually, this outlay costs approximately $343 for a Syrian child studying in the morning shift, and $550 for a child in the afternoon shift. It is neither fair nor sustainable for Lebanon to shoulder this burden alone.

Although the 2016 Supporting Syria and the Region Conference in London garnered aid pledges totaling $12 billion, many of these funds have been severely delayed or have never materialized. A recent study from the children’s charity Theirworld finds that just $400 million of the $1.4 billion pledged for education has been delivered.

It is difficult to confirm if individual governments are meeting their pledges, but it has become abundantly clear that the international community overall is moving far too slowly. We cannot keep starting and stopping children’s schooling while waiting for funding. The longer children are out of school, the harder it becomes to get them back in the classroom and on track to complete their studies.

Beyond meeting its funding commitments, the international community needs to increase its investment in mobile and scalable education technologies. For example, remote-learning tools would be especially useful for educating children in refugee communities. One good teacher would be able to reach anywhere that has satellite technology, solar-powered computer hardware, and an interactive live feed.

This is the idea behind Teach to Reach Remote Classrooms, a UNHCR-funded distance-learning program overseen by the Varkey Foundation. With TRC, a teacher in a studio in Ghana’s capital, Accra, can live-stream lessons to around 300 school-age refugee children, many of whom have fled conflict in Côte d’Ivoire and now attend a primary school in the Ampain Refugee Camp in western Ghana. These displaced children are now catching up on their basic education, while also learning the language of their host country. And they will be well positioned to pursue secondary or higher education in the future.

TRC shows what governments, charities, and the private sector can accomplish through creative collaboration. But politicians must step up and take action. Leaders around the world, especially those who have been recently elected, should put responding to the global refugee crisis at the top of their agendas.

To that end, I was proud to join the Atlantis Group as a founding member. After launching at the Global Education & Skills Forum this year, we are bringing together former education ministers and heads of state from around the world to advise governments and policymakers on tackling the major issues of our time, not least refugee education.

The world cannot expect a small group of countries on the borders of war zones to bear sole responsibility for displaced people. To solve the refugee crisis, countries that are fortunate enough to have peace and security must do their part.

Elias Bou Saab is a former Lebanese education minister.

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