Is Education a Dead End for Syrian Refugees?

Syrian and Iraqi refugees attend a UNESCO-sponsored school project. Arbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, May 13, 2015 (Safin Hahmed/AFP/Getty Images)

Do Syrian refugees need education? The response from the vast majority of humanitarian and development experts would be a resounding “yes.” Not only is education considered fundamental to development and economic growth, it is also an internationally recognized human right. But what good is education if further pathways to societal and personal improvement are categorically blocked?

Education was first acknowledged as a human right in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. It was reconfirmed in the United Nations Convention on the Right of the Child, in 1990. As these documents outlined, education is not only a prerequisite for a society’s development, but also for individuals to grow and reach their potential. In other words, education is essential to living a life of dignity.

Economic analyses often highlight education as an investment in the future, because it will increase productivity and generate economic growth. It will reduce poverty since educated people tend to earn higher incomes. It can also produce better adaptation to new technology and improved ability to cope with economic shocks. Education can thus suggest a path out of poverty.

Beyond these benefits, research by the World Bank has proved that higher levels of education in a population will improve indicators for health, including lowering the risks associated with early marriage and large families. Educated people know more about things like nutrition, hygiene, and immunization programs, which not only improves their own health, but also that of their children for generations to come. For these reasons, education has become a priority focus in the development policies of countries like Norway.

The general value of education is thus uncontested. In conflict settings such as Syria and its surroundings, however, education acquires an additional value. Conflict has a severe impact on education because people are displaced and learning facilities are destroyed or used for other purposes. Children and youth become vulnerable, not only to the violent effects of war, but also to exploitation such as child labor, early marriage, and recruitment to armed groups. Education thus becomes an important protection mechanism, as well as a strategy for healing and the establishment of normality through daily school routines. Within a framework of ordinary learning, trauma can be healed and young students can establish a new purpose in life.

Working with other international education agencies, UNICEF has recognized these benefits of education for conflict-affected Syrian youth and children, launching the “No Lost Generation” initiative. The strategy aims to provide secure education to help these individuals build a future. It must overcome a number of significant challenges it is to be successful.

Although Jordan has generously opened its public schools to accommodate large numbers of new students from among the Syrian refugees, there is a tendency to focus on younger children only. While the government has opened about 100 schools for second shifts to accommodate Syrians, none of these are secondary schools. International donors likewise give priority to primary education and tend to neglect older students. Although many humanitarian organizations have expressed the need for education, vocational training, and other skills development for older Syrian youth, the policies of the Jordanian government prevents implementation. One international education expert I met on a recent research trip to Jordan explained: “They do not want the Syrians to get trained … They are afraid of competition [for jobs] with domestic youth.”

A holistic view on youth and the purpose of education is lacking. The question of what happens when education is completed—the transition from schooling to work—is not being addressed. Are we educating these youth for the sake of education only, as a way to keep children busy, to stay away from the street, and do no harm? Or are we assuming that the war in Syria will be over when this young generation is graduating and that they will be able to return and use their talents in a peaceful country full of opportunities, where they can become full members of society and contribute their skills and knowledge?

Furthermore, if only the youngest refugee children have access to education, what happens to adolescents and youth? How can they find a meaningful life in which they can pursue their personal and professional dreams and ambitions when denied access to continued learning and decent jobs? How can they stay out of harm’s way? These older youth are the ones sent out to find illegal work, to be married off too young, or to be recruited by violent groups. So why is there less focus on their vulnerabilities in education programs and priorities? These youths came from a Syrian society that offered education, including university, free of charge for all qualifying students. Shattered dreams can create unpredictable frustrations.

Even if refugee youth are put on a track to secondary and higher education, what is next in store is unclear. How are they expected to live self-reliant lives in dignity—lives where they can find meaningful work and afford to establish their own families? Educated young people with unfulfilled ambitions have also proven volatile. It was educated but frustrated youth that could not find jobs and dignity, exemplified with the self-immolation of a young street vendor in Tunisia, that set off the so-called “Arab Spring.” Recruitment to jihadism in Syria has also appealed to fairly well-educated youth that somehow experienced exclusion in their native communities.

Syrian refugees have temporary protection status in Jordan, as in Lebanon and Turkey. This implies limited rights, including restricted ability to work legally. Further, the emergency response towards the refugees has been inadequately funded to provide for their most basic needs. In the summer of 2015, the World Food Program had to implement dramatic cuts in food rations to the already vulnerable refugees due to this lack of resources. Yet refugee families could barely survive on their rations before these cuts and had to find odd jobs in the informal sector to supplement their income.

Working is not a problem for most refugees, as long as it is legal. It is the illicit nature of most available jobs that puts them at risk of exploitation, or worse: deportation back to Syria. In this desperate situation, many refugees even defy the dangers and return to Syria voluntarily to be united with family and property, seeking a more dignified life than they can currently find as refugees in Jordan. Others, meanwhile, return only briefly, selling off their property to finance travels on to Europe.

So, let me ask a new question: Do the Syrian refugees really need education when it only seems to contribute to their increased awareness of the opportunities they lack? Do they need skills and training when it only generates frustration and diminishes their hopes for the future? Do we want to educate a new generation that becomes so desperate that they risk their lives to pursue a future elsewhere? The thousands of refugees and asylum seekers marching to Europe are only doing what any of us would do if we found ourselves or our loved ones at risk: try to make the best of a situation in which our dignity and purpose are at stake.

Education alone cannot solve the challenges of today’s world, and neither can it solve the problems of Syrian refugees. While they need opportunities at all phases of the education cycle, they also need a way of transitioning to work. This means targeted education that prepares youth for a complex and competitive labor market. As long as Jordan and other host countries do not recognize this challenge, they will risk jeopardizing the stability they are striving to preserve. Without a policy for education and transition to work, refugees and even domestic Jordanian youth will increasingly compete for scarce resources and job opportunities. The worst-case scenario would be radicalization within both communities, while Europe might have only witnessed the beginning of this century’s mass movement of people in search a better life.

Mona Christophersen is a researcher at Fafo and a Senior Adviser at the International Peace Institute. This article was based on a more extensive report on educating Syrian refugees, published by the International Peace Institute.