Enduring conflicts and political upheaval across the Middle East and North Africa are stopping almost 14 million children from going to school and shattering “the hopes and dreams” of a generation, according to a new report from the UN children’s agency, Unicef. The study says the education systems in nine states – Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, the Palestinian territories, Sudan, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey – are now either directly or indirectly affected by violence. Of the 13.7 million children currently out of school in the region, 2.7 million are Syrian, 3 million Iraqi, 2 million Libyan, 3.1 million Sudanese and 2.9 million Yemeni. Nearly 9,000 schools in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya can no longer offer classes, some because they have been damaged or destroyed, others because they are being used to house displaced civilians or have been commandeered by warring parties. With schools sometimes deliberately targeted, thousands of teachers have fled and parents are too scared to send their children to continue their education.
The report, entitled Education Under Fire, says that almost a quarter of Syria’s teaching professionals – or about 52,200 teachers and 523 school counsellors – have left their posts since the crisis erupted in 2011. Over four years of conflict in Syria have also driven more than 4 million people – roughly a sixth of the population – to seek sanctuary in neighbouring countries, where their presence is placing huge strains on resources. Advertisement More than 700,000 refugee children in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey cannot go to school in their host countries because the national education infrastructure simply cannot cope with the increased student population. Unicef estimates that in Yemen, where six months of fighting have left the country on the verge of collapse, 2.9 million children are not going to school – many of whom were not in education even before the conflict escalated in March. More than 3,500 schools – about a quarter of the total – have been shut down and 600,000 children have not been able to sit their exams. The ongoing violence in Libya, meanwhile, has left more than 434,000 people internally displaced and disrupted basic services including education. In the eastern city of Benghazi, enrolment rates have halved and only 65 of the city’s 239 schools are functioning. Unicef also says that last summer’s war in Gaza has caused “massive destruction to infrastructure including schools – and left deep scars in the psyche of children and their caregivers”. According to the UN, 281 schools suffered damage during the 51-day conflict and eight were completely destroyed. The destruction meant that nearly half a million children were unable to resume their education for several weeks when the 2014-15 school year began. War denying millions of children an education Read more Equally devastating, if less well covered, is the long-running conflict in Sudan, which has displaced 2.9 million people and left 1.2 million children under the age of five acutely malnourished. The country has also taken in approximately 50,000 refugee children from South Sudan who have fled the violence that has raged in their homeland for the past 20 months. “The destructive impact of conflict is being felt by children right across the region,” said Peter Salama, regional director for Unicef in the Middle East and North Africa. Advertisement “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.” Unicef has repeatedly warned that Syrian children risk becoming a “lost generation” who will be denied the education and opportunities needed to help them rebuild the country if and when the fighting ends. Children and parents caught up in conflict “overwhelmingly” say that education is their number one priority, according to Unicef.
The report urges the international community to increase its funding to enable children in the region to continue their education, arguing that through self-learning, informal education and expanded learning spaces, “children learn even in the most desperate of circumstances”. The study also calls on host governments, policymakers, the private sector and other partners to help strengthen the national education systems in conflict-hit countries and host communities by expanding learning spaces, recruiting and training teachers and providing learning materials. Last month, the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) warned that the impact of the Yemen conflict was already comparable to that of the much longer-running war in Syria. “This is not Syria, which had been a middle-income country five years ago,” said Peter Maurer. “Yemen was poor even before the conflict started. “From the outside, Yemen after five months of armed conflict looks like Syria after five years of conflict, and this is a very worrying signal.” On Wednesday, the ICRC said that warring parties in the city of Aleppo were using water and electricity as “weapons of war” and deliberately cutting supplies to its 2 million inhabitants. “Vital services for the people, such as the water supply, must be kept away from the politics of the Syrian conflict,” said the head of the ICRC delegation in Syria, Marianne Gasser.