BEIRUT: Lebanon deserves to be thanked for keeping its public schools open to Syrian refugees, but the country needs assistance to ensure the system doesn’t collapse, United Nations special envoy for children and armed conflict Leila Zerrougui said Thursday. “In other places they [refugees] don’t have access to the public schools, so Lebanon I think deserves to be thanked,” Zerrougui said, but added that the international community must help the Lebanese government and the education system absorb the newcomers.
“That’s what’s important for Lebanon,” she said, “to help ensure ... that this system will not collapse, that all the children coming from outside have access.”
However, although the U.N. refugee agency has previously placed the number of school-aged children at approximately 150,000, only 30,000 enrolled in education in the last school year, and many of those failed to complete the year, the Education Ministry told The Daily Star this week.
But by the end of 2013, the UNHCR expects some 450,000 school-aged refugees to be living in Lebanon.
According to the agency, Lebanon is officially hosting more than 610,000 Syrian refugees.
Zerrougui also emphasized the high rate of dropouts among displaced Syrians, estimating that some 70 percent leave school for a variety of reasons, including the challenges of following a new and foreign curriculum.
Zerrougui’s remarks came as she met with journalists in Beirut Thursday, having arrived in the country on the final leg of a trip that included stops in Jordan, Iraq, Turkey and most recently Syria. The envoy used her time in these countries to meet with refugees and U.N. and government officials.
While in Damascus, Zerrougui pushed the government to improve access for humanitarian assistance across the country as well as to guarantee protection for all children under 18.
“Access was the priority. We insisted that it is very ... important for the United Nations to have access to provide the support [and] the humanitarian [aid]. ... We pushed very hard so that they understand that first of all those who are on the other side [of the conflict] are also civilians, are [also] their people, and we cannot agree with collective punishment,” the special envoy said.
The U.N. and its partners struggle to reach civilians in rebel-held areas of the conflict-ridden state.
“They agreed that they will do their best,” Zerrougui said of the regime’s reaction to her request.
On the issue of protecting children, Zerrougui said the officials she met with were in agreement with her that all “children under 18, even those used by the other side, are victims.”
Zerrougui also said that she shared with government representatives concerns that when the Syrian army issues a pre-assault warning for civilians to leave an area, youths aged between 15 and 18 often remain behind for fear they will be associated with armed groups, arrested, tortured or even killed if they make use of the exit offered by the regime.
“So I said let us together with UNICEF, with other partners, work with you to have a public sensitization campaign to say ‘go out, nobody will touch you, nobody will harm you, you are victims,’” she explained.
“If they implement it, it will help us to encourage the other side to get the children out and to ensure they are taken care of and reintegrated,” she added.
The special envoy also called on rebel groups to halt the use of children in conflict and to protect minors.
Returning to her concerns about education, the special envoy asked the regime to adopt a clear and well-publicized policy saying the state does not condone the targeting of schools or their use for military purposes.
However, she also noted that according to the Syrian government’s own data some 4,000 schools in the country have already been destroyed.
When the war ends, she said, “[Syria] will have to face a generation that have lost childhood, [that have] a lot of hate and a lot of suffering, but also an illiterate generation.”
On the ground in refugee shelters and camps across the region, Zerrougui observed the repercussions caused by the interruption to children’s educations.
“Many ... are not used to not sending their children to school, so this is the suffering. The anxiety is so high because these are people that used to have their houses, to have their schools, to have hope for their children. They themselves are not illiterate, so it’s so hard to just have the perspective that your child will be illiterate,” she said.