TRIPOLI/QALAMOUN, Lebanon: Even if the United Nations reaches its target of enrolling 100,000 Syrian refugee children in Lebanese public schools this year, double that number could remain outside the country’s formal education system, UNHCR resident representative Ninette Kelley told European ambassadors and senior diplomats Thursday.
Addressing the group outside Qalamoun School in north Lebanon, Kelley frankly admitted that the U.N. “faces an enormous challenge this year” as the organization aims to more than triple its public school enrollment. Last year just 30,000 Syrians were enrolled in public schools, according to official figures.
Noting that the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees expects 300,000 school-age Syrian children in Lebanon by the end of the year, Kelley was clear that even if the target was successfully met, some 200,000 could be excluded from public schools.
Children who remain out of school become more vulnerable to exploitation, such a child labor and early marriage, Kelley said.
The UNHCR and its partner agencies run a number of educational support programs for non-school-going Syrian refugees.
Ambassadors from the European Union, Belgium Cyprus, Denmark, Germany, Poland, Sweden and Switzerland, as well as senior diplomats from Austria, the Czech Republic, Finland and Spain, listened attentively to Kelley’s remarks. Later they would meet and speak with students attending the Norwegian Refugee Council-run accelerated learning programs at the Qalamoun School. The children hope to enroll in regular classes with their Lebanese peers later this month.
When Kelley mentioned that only 40 percent of Lebanese children attend public schools, German Ambassador Christian Clages interjected, asking if private schools could not also accept Syrian students.
The UNHCR representative replied that this had been proposed, but was “not sustainable over time.”
“We don’t have sufficient resources to even support the number that could be accommodated in the public system,” she said, emphasizing that only 27 percent of the UNHCR’s $1.7 billion funding appeal for the fallout of the Syrian crisis in Lebanon had materialized.
In the education sector funds are needed to pay for the teachers and equipment necessary to increase the capacity of the Lebanese public school system to meet the additional Syrian students’ needs.
At Qalamoun, smiling envoys – several of them only recently appointed – were entertained by youngsters shyly but enthusiastically inquiring after their favorite foods, colors and clothes.
Exiting the school, Angelina Eichhorst, head of the EU Delegation to Lebanon, commented that the group had seen children fortunate enough to attend school. Eichhorst paused to reflect on “all those who can’t.”
The European diplomats had begun the morning in Tripoli at the UNHCR’s largest registration center in Lebanon. Some 1,000 Syrians from five districts in north Lebanon register daily at the location.
UNHCR external relations officer Bathoul Ahmad said arrival rates at the center had remained steady over the past several months apart from a small increase in May as Syrian regime forces and rebels fought for control of Qusair just 10 km across Lebanon’s border.
But Ahmad noted that a lot of people now registering at the center say they have entered Lebanon through the Masnaa crossing in the Bekaa rather than through the northern crossing points.
According to Ahmad, refugees report it is easier to access the country as a family at Masnaa although the reasons why this is so remain unclear.
The UNHCR has no permanent presence at any of Lebanon’s border crossings, although the agency does monitor the borders and regularly communicates with General Security at each.
Kelley later said the UNHCR was making efforts to put in place “more advanced border protection mechanisms” and “advanced technology that helps monitor [traffic].”
Such measures would help keep better track of the number of refugees on Lebanese territory. More than 748,000 refugees have identified themselves to the UNHCR, while the government estimates there are 1.2 million Syrians in the country.
The diplomats rounded out the day with a visit to the Forum of the Handicapped in Tripoli. The Lebanese nongovernmental organization is working with the Danish Refugee Council to run integrated vocational training programs for Syrian refugees and the Lebanese who attend the center.
To date the EU has donated more than 1.289 billion euros ($1.745 billion) to the response to the crisis in Syria and its neighboring states.