What can be done for Syria's refugees?

The lesson of the Marshall Plan is one we must re-learn today.

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Today, at the ‘Supporting Syria and the Region’ conference in London, leaders pledged billions in aid to alleviate the suffering of Syrian refugees. This is welcome news at a critical time. Worldwide migration is reaching new highs—and lows. The UNHCR estimates nearly 60 million individuals are fleeing their homes due to war, persecution and violence. Refugees from Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan could on average be displaced for 20 years. For millions of children, this means that their education is makeshift or, worse, on hold. 

Right now, education comprises only about two per cent of all humanitarian aid. We can do better. While we wholeheartedly welcome the news of additional pledges of aid, we urge those participants, and those meeting at the first World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul in May to follow the lead of the EU in doubling education resources to four per cent of their humanitarian budget.

Syria is one example of failure. Before the conflict, 93 percent of all eligible childrenwere enrolled in primary education and 67% in secondary education. Today,one third of Syria’s 6.4 million school-aged children are not in school, have never been inside a school, or lost more than four years of an education.Almost five years into the conflict, there are an estimated 7.6 million internally displaced people and more than 4.6 million refugees—30 per cent of them children—who are barely surviving in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.

Syria’s already overwhelmed neighbours can’t be expected to shoulder the refugee crisis alone. Since the war began, there have been significant funding gaps for the UN inter-agency Syria regional refugee response. Today’s announcements of increased funding at the London Supporting Syria and the Region conference are very welcome, but if leaders are truly determined to protect the most vulnerable, they will not only raise the money needed but also hold themselves accountable to their pledges, realise that the humanitarian to development continuum is critical to a durable solution, and work together to turn future peace and economic prosperity into reality by investing in education in the Middle East.

If swift action following today’s increased spending is not forthcoming, the challenges will move closer to home. So far, only one tenth of those who have fled the Syrian conflict have sought asylum in Europe or in the United States. Yet, already panic in both the EU and the US is palpable.

A similar, if smaller crisis, unfolding in Burundi points to the same need for a swifter, more coordinated global response. This central African nation already ranked 184 of 188 countries on the UN Human Development Index beforeconflict began anew last year. While the net enrolment rate in primary schools is 94 per cent, only three of five children complete primary school and only two of five make it to secondary school. And 60% of the 238,200 individuals who have fled Burundi to Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo are children. Here, the UN Regional Refugee Response will need to work with host country governments to dismantle language and curriculum barriers that keep refugee children out of mainstream education systems. Even then, crying needs for shelter, water, sanitation and health care will strain already inadequate donor funding.

As its African neighbors try to support the education of Burundian refugees, the lessons learned from failure in Syria must be front of mind. People need access to basic necessities to survive, but especially during lengthy displacement, education is critical to ensuring the wellbeing of individuals, future peace, and the stability and economic growth of war-torn communities. Making education part of relief from the start of a crisis and keeping it a priority as part of peacebuilding will help countries like Burundi avoid a future of frustrated youth with limited skills disengaging from their communities instead of re-building them. This need is amplified considering that globally, one in every 122 humans is now either a refugee, internally displaced, or seeking asylum.

The Marshall Plan recognised and addressed the basic needs and rights of refugees everywhere. The assumption, proven correct by Europe’s postwar rebirth, was that some things cannot wait a generation. Access to education for children displaced by today’s conflicts ranks highest among these.

Susy Ndaruhutse is head of international development and education, Education Development Trust. Amy R. West is senior international program manager at the American Institutes for Research (AIR) in Washington, D.C.

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