Education is as important as shelter and clean water for child refugees

Education and the hope that it brings must become central to the humanitarian work of all – realising the right of every child to be safe, to learn, and to fulfil their aspirations.

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Ahmed rose from the back of the classroom. He took a deep breath and said that he had no house, no work, no school, nothing back in his home town, but that he was determined that he and his family would return to Syria someday.

I had begun my discussion with the boys in Kawergosk Refugee camp, in Northern Iraq, by asking about their science lessons, their favourite football teams and of course the rise of Leicester City. But now I had delicately asked how they felt about the future.

I asked Ahmed about his aspirations, personally, for the future; and he explained that he wanted to be a geological engineer. In the face of such destruction, his ambition was inspiring.

I experienced a number of similar moments during my time with UNICEF in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. I spoke to dozens of children who had been and were living in displacement camps in northern Iraq – both children from Syria but also from elsewhere in Iraq, who had been forced to leave their homes as a result of the conflict.

I heard tales of schools closed or occupied by fleeing populations, driving the children away from their classrooms; dire stories about teachers’ salaries unpaid, demotivating teachers when they were most needed. But through it all, there remained in children a hunger for learning and even hope for a brighter future.

To meet this demand, and the sheer number of children, the schools in the camps work in shifts. There are 250,000 refugees from Syria and 1.8 million Iraqis who have fled violence elsewhere in the country now living in Kurdistan. This is a greater than the total number of refugees arriving in Europe last year – but in a region the size of Switzerland, with a resident Kurdish population roughly equivalent to that of Scotland.

In the camps, UNICEF and others do all they can with the resources available. The make-shift school classrooms operate two shifts a day, the morning for primary and afternoon for secondary.

Special efforts are made to ensure girls are included both in the classroom and in sports and activities. But more displaced Iraqis keep coming, and over half of them are under the age of eighteen.

There is the threat of child labour and child marriage, without forgetting the trauma that many of these children have already experienced. And all of these children worry endlessly about those they have had to leave behind.

We can all watch these scenes on the television, we can read about the situation, but it’s only when you are there with them that you feel the impact. Even then, the scale remains hard to comprehend. New figures released by UNICEF this week show that twenty-five percent of the world’s school-age children are now living in crisis situations.

For the many children like Ahmed, who are fighting for their futures, we owe the next generation an opportunity to realise their hopes and ambitions. That is why the World Humanitarian Summit at the end of May must look towards a new way of dealing with the scale of humanitarian crises, putting children’s needs, priorities and futures at the heart of global emergency response.

The international humanitarian system is stretched to breaking point – dealing with the impact of conflict, displacement, migration, instability and violence; on top of climate-related hazards like typhoons, and geophysical hazards like earthquakes that drive people from their homes.

We need to ensure the system is capable of supporting those who are internally displaced, as so many conflicts are now occurring within one country rather than between countries. And while of course shelter, clean water and food are essential in any humanitarian crisis, surely we must elevate the provision of good quality education and immediate action on child protection to the first rank of actions required in a humanitarian emergency.

Children of all ages, including those born in the camps, can now spend the majority of their childhood displaced from their homes and living in supposedly temporary accommodation. Without education, whole generations of children are in danger of being lost. With this recognition, we can understand that the schooling they receive is not only vital for them, for their families and for their countries’ future, but it is vital for us too.

Education and the hope that it brings must become central to the humanitarian work of all – realising the right of every child to be safe, to learn, and to fulfil their aspirations.

The World Humanitarian Summit is more than just an opportunity to formally recognise the role of education in emergencies. It’s an opportunity for the world’s community of geological engineers to gain an inspiring young mind.

Lord Jack McConnell was First Minister of Scotland 2001-2007, UK Special Representative for Peacebuilding 2008-2010 and is currently Vice-President of UNICEF UK