Millions of displaced children are being deprived of a basic education, according to a startling report from the United Nation’s (UN) children’s agency, Unicef, which adds how the hopes of an entire generation are at stake unless the international community acts.
Surging conflict and political turmoil across the Middle East and North Africa is preventing 13.4 million young people from going to school, according to the charity’s latest report, Education Under Fire.
Just a few years ago, Unicef says the region had goal of universal education well within its reach. Today, however, the charity has been forced to highlight what it calls a “disastrous situation” involving nine countries which are being affected – either directly or indirectly – by armed conflict.
Attacks on schools and education infrastructure – sometimes deliberate –is one key reason why many children do not attend classes, and in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya alone, almost 9,000 schools are out of use because they have been damaged, destroyed, are being used to shelter displaced civilians, or have been taken over by parties to the conflict.
Regional director for Unicef in the Middle East and North Africa, Peter Salama, highlighted how the destructive impact of conflict is being felt by children right across the region and said: “It’s not just the physical damage being done to schools, but the despair felt by a generation of schoolchildren who see their hopes and futures shattered.”
The findings highlight how the conflict in Syria has displaced 7.6 million people inside the country and has driven more than four million refugees abroad – mainly to Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan.
Families from Syria and Iraq have featured strongly among the desperate migrants arriving in Europe in recent months – and among those who perished in the attempt.
Hostilities in the Gaza Strip last summer caused massive destruction to infrastructure including schools, and left deep scars in the psyche of children and their caregivers, says Unicef.
In Yemen, the intensification of violence since March 2014 “is bringing an already fragile country to the verge of collapse,” the report adds. As of August 2015, thousands of schools have closed and at least 1.8 million children have been without an education. This number is in addition to more than 1.6 million who were out of school before the conflict escalated.
Unicef has also issued a reminder of the “less-noticed”, but just as devastating for children, area Sudan where some 2.9 million people are estimated to have been displaced.
“Conflicts wipe out years of investment and achievements in education and can cripple the development of education systems.
“The effect of violence and insecurity in Iraq and Yemen is clear, as educational achievements for children have fallen steadily,” says the report.
One teenager, 13-year-old Rand from Idlib in Syria, told Unicef how he was forced to flee to Turkey: “Life was too difficult, so we had to leave Syria. There was no electricity and we had to use candles. We were really afraid, it was so dark.”
Another Syrian girl, fourth-grade student Rasha, remembered how she barely escaped with her life after her school in Homs was bombed: “I heard the noise, everyone was running. I saw my mother waiting at the corner. We ran together. I was happy to be home. This is all what I can remember.”
As well as children, the report highlights how teachers are being dragged into the firing line “time and again,” with some having been detained, intimidated, injured – and sometimes even killed – forcing them to abandon their jobs and flee for their lives.
Mr Salama has said Unicef needs an additional $300m (£197m) this year to try to improve access to education in the region, of which the charity has, so far, managed to accumulate $140m (£91.7m).
In order to deal with the situation, the report is calling on the international community, host governments, policy makers, and the private sector to:
Reduce the number of children out of school through the expansion of informal education services, especially for vulnerable children
Provide more support to national education systems in conflict-hit countries and host communities to expand learning spaces, recruit and train teachers, and provide learning materials
Advocate for the recognition and certification of non-formal education services in countries affected by the Syrian crisis
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