On the 5th anniversary of the Syrian Crisis, we take stock of the realities on the ground for Syrian children and Canada’s role in helping to prevent a lost generation of children.
Over the past few months, Canadians have welcomed thousands of Syrian children and their families into our lives and if we are are honest, into our hearts. But today’s anniversary is a sobering reminder of where they have come from and how far we as a global community still have to go to help address this crisis. Today our televisions, newspapers and radios will include the images, sounds and stories of a civil war that continues to rage—5 years on. By many accounts, the war was triggered by a series of events that followed on from a small group of teenagers who painted revolutionary slogans on a school wall. Gives one pause.
Today, on the fifth anniversary of the war in Syria, more than three million children and youth are out of school in the Syria region. An entire generation is at risk of exploitation and their future threatened by a conflict with no end in sight.
Education across Syria is under attack. There have been more than 4,000 attacks on schools since the war began, from the bombing and shelling of buildings to armed groups taking over classrooms for use as military bases and detention centres. The UN estimates that 1 in 4 schools in Syria have been attacked. School enrolment—close to 100% in many areas before the war—has plummeted, with more than 2 million children in Syria now out of school. Decades of educational progress has been reversed in a few years with dire consequences in the immediate and long term.
Education has a catalytic effect on children’s well-being, development and future prospects as well as on a country’s peace, stability and economic development. Many worry the window of opportunity for getting children, and Syria, back on track is closing… and fast.
“I am in the third grade of preparatory school but have to do my exams in a city which is far away from my village. There is only one route to get there and that is very risky because it is targeted by all sides. I am not afraid about my exams as much as I’m afraid from dying on the way there.”
Samar, 15, Syria
The Economic Argument for Education
Education plays an integral role as a driver of economic growth. Access to good quality education is critical for helping people rise out of their circumstances—higher levels of education lead to higher wages. Economists estimate that for every additional year of schooling, an individual’s potential income increases by 10%. Conversely, low quality, or lack of, education leaves young people facing unemployment or low-paid jobs, which in turn can make them vulnerable to recruitment by armed groups who offer them a source of income and prestige. There is strong evidence showing that education, and in particular secondary education, reduces the likelihood of conflict by increasing the income opportunities and life choices for young people.
In Syria, the cost of lost education opportunities are staggering.
- A recent study on the cost of the impact of the Syria crisis estimates losses of US$ 10.7 billion, or 17.7% of Syrian GDP due to children and youth dropping out of school.
- Syrian children who do not complete primary school education are likely to earn 32% less in their first job than Syrian children who completed secondary school and 56% less than Syrian children who completed university.
- The direct cost of replacing damaged, destroyed or occupied schools, lost school equipment and training replacement teachers could be $3.2 billion and at this rate, climbing.
“Right now you can ask any child about the different types of weapons and they would be able to name all of them for you; they remember weapons more than lessons.”
Hanan, 44, teacher, Syria
Canada’s Role Abroad
Canada has been active abroad and at home in addressing the education needs of Syrian children and youth, but we can do better. Beyond a doubt, the way Canadians have welcomed Syrian newcomers into their homes and communities and taken an active role as citizens to complement the government support is remarkable. But we should not lose sight of the bigger picture—a sustainable solution to the problem begins in Syria. A truly robust response to the crisis will have to include a cease fire that holds and significant financial allocation in support of ongoing humanitarian efforts in the region. That investment should prioritize education.
Canada is taking a leadership role in a few initiatives to support children in the Syria crisis and those affected by humanitarian crises more broadly, to access quality education.
In October 2013, the No Lost Generation (NLG) initiative was launched backed by partners from UN agencies, NGOs, donors, and governments—including Canada, which contributed $50 million in January 2014, and $8 million in funding specifically for NLG in Iraq in October 2014. The overarching strategy that supports the NLG initiative is focused on quality education, child protection, and adolescent and youth engagement activities both inside Syria and its five neighbouring countries (Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Egypt and Turkey). It underlines that strategic investments in these areas can provide children with the skills and sense of civic responsibility to help rebuild their society.
The fourth international pledging conference for the Syria crisis took place in London last month. It called for US$ 1.4 billion per year in pledges for the education sector to provide schooling for 1.7 million children and youth in host countries, and schooling for 2.1 million within Syria. Total pledges amounted to over US$ 11 billion, and at least US$ 600 million for education in 2016. By far the most prominent donor for EiE was Norway, which announced that 15% of its contributions to the pledging conference will focus on education.
Canada has been acting in a leadership role in global efforts to reform aid architecture and address the financing gap for education in emergencies. It is co-chairing the Technical Strategy Group looking to establish a new Common Platform. More information on the discussions can be found here. Consultations in Canada have taken place in Toronto (June 2015), and in Ottawa last month (report forthcoming).
Hope… and Hard Work
There is still a great deal of hope for this generation of children despite the staggering numbers. We also see glimpses of their strength and resilience—but that hope is finite. There is a compelling and immediate need to work toward a peaceful solution to this war while at the same time increase strategic investments in education and protection for affected children. Education actors globally are calling on donor countries to fund and provide support for the following:
- Ensure parties to the conflict cease all attacks on schools, hospitals, and other critical civilian infrastructure and that their obligations to protect civilians are met.
- Support education in besieged areas by training teachers and school personnel in conflict-sensitive approaches to education, including how to keep children safe while in school.
- Work across sectors to address the wider vulnerabilities that keep children out of school.
- Push for and support a dramatic increase in the numbers of refugee children in neighbouring countries able to access quality education and employment
- Invest in measures that build greater social cohesion among refugee and host communities by supporting both groups’ needs equitably.
- Provide funding that reflects the needs on the ground. Deliver long-term, predictable funding for a comprehensive plan for education both inside Syria and across the region while at the same time being more flexible with funding, since partners often need to respond quickly to unexpected opportunities or constraints, as situations change rapidly and sieges tighten and loosen.
Syrian children, who have lived through 5 years of conflict, will one day be responsible for shaping and leading their own nation as doctors, teachers, engineers, lawyers and parents. We can all do more, including our government. Doing our part to prevent a lost generation of Syrian children and youth is in our hands.
Mercy Corps – Adolescents Inside Syria: No one Hears Us https://www.mercycorps.org/research-resources/adolescents-inside-syria-no-one-hears-us
Save the Children – Childhood Under Siege http://www.savethechildren.org/site/c.8rKLIXMGIpI4E/b.7998857/k.D075/Syria.htm
Save the Children – The Cost of War http://www.savethechildren.org.uk/resources/online-library/cost-war
Save the Children – Futures Under Threat http://www.savethechildren.org.uk/resources/online-library/futures-under-threat
UNICEF – Education Under Fire: How Conflict in the Middle East is Depriving Children of their Schooling http://www.unicef.org/mena/Education_Under_Fire.pdf
UNICEF – Education Under Seige http://www.unicef.org/publications/files/Under_Siege_March_2014.pdf
UNICEF –Economic Loss from School Dropout due to the Syria Crisis: A cost-benefit analysis of the impact of the Syria Crisis on the education sector http://learningforpeace.unicef.org/resources/technical-resources/economic-loss-from-school-dropout-due-to-the-syria-crisis/
UNOCHA – 2016 Humanitarian Needs Overview, October 2015 https://www.humanitarianresponse.info/en/system/files/documents/files/2016_hno_syrian_arab_republic.pdf
Photo credit: Save the Children. All names have been changed.