Yesterday I flew back from visiting refugee camps in the Lebanon.There I saw for myself the issue that Save the Children is highlighting today, the need for greater international commitment to ensure child refugees remain in school. The NGO is arguing that no child should be out of school for more than a month. It is an ambitious target, but it matches the scale of the problem. Currently less than 2 per cent of humanitarian funding goes on education. But there is increasing agreement that education should not be an optional extra in meeting humanitarian need. Instead it should be seen as a key humanitarian provision alongside food, water & shelter.
Lebanon exemplifies the issue. While Western Europe wails about the “refugee crisis” in actuality counties in the region host the majority of Syrian refugees. Lebanon in particular hosts nearly one and a half million Syrian refugees in addition to half a million Palestinian refugees. By some calculations 35 per cent of Lebanon’s population are refugees. At least 400,000 are child Syrian refugees. This is a huge burden for a country ravaged down the decades by civil war and repeated incursions by Israel.
Unsurprisingly most of the refugee children I met, in the camps that I visited with the development and relief charity Human Appeal, in Lebanon’s Bekaa valley, were not in school. But education for their children was one of the main aspirations of the refugee parents I met. In particular they wanted what they described as “certificated” education, that is education which led to real qualifications and access to the jobs market. These aspirations are not unreasonable.
On my trip to Lebanon I also visited institutions like the Insani High School for Syrian Refugee children and a vocational training centre for boys. On the walls of the training centre were big banners featuring photographs of former pupils who have achieved top marks in their subjects in the whole of Lebanon. But the majority of the funding has come from Qatar and private Syrian or Lebanese individual. Sadly the funding is now running out.
Even where schools are provided and funding for fees is available, refuges often cannot afford the transportation costs to attend the school. This might seem like just a problem for the children and families involved. But we can see worldwide the consequences for social cohesion when generations of children grow up in refugee camps without access to education. Today we learnt that Kenya is trying to close the world’s biggest refugee camp Dadaab near Somalia. The Kenyan authorities claim that the 25 year old camp, where thousands of children have grown up without proper access to education, has become a recruitment centre for the regional terrorist organisation Al Shabaab. And plight of Palestinians trapped in camps is well known.
The situation can only get worse. The average time people now spend as refugees is seventeen years. And the number of refugees returning to their countries of origin is the lowest for decades. So we face lost generations of refugee children in some of the world’s worst trouble spots. The implications for global security are obvious. Spending more on education for child refugees in Lebanon, and elsewhere, will be costly. But the price the world will pay for failing to provide a proper education for refugee children is infinitely higher.