As the world marks Universal Children's Day, Abu Dhabi event told of need to ensure a generation's education is not lost
Children's education a casualty of war as conflicts interrupt studies for years
From Yemen to Syria, children are being caught in the line of fire, causing them to lose out on essential education and raising the dangerous spectre of a lost generation.
As the world marked Universal Children’s Day yesterday, experts gathered at the Emirates Diplomatic Academy in Abu Dhabi to discuss the immense educational challenges facing children in conflict-stricken countries and prospective solutions to help address them.
“In Yemen, teachers have not been paid for the best part of the year,” said Mark Lowcock, United Nations Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator.
“So they are not going to work and therefore children have not been to school in a year. What do we think they will be like as adults? What will their societies be like if we cannot avoid this risk of a lost generation? It’s about what is good, not just for the country they are in but also for the neighbours in their region.”
He was addressing a group of young Emirati students, studying to become future diplomats who will potentially have to deal with such issues.
“Ensuring all children get a quality education is one of the things at the absolute heart of the 2030 agenda of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals,” he said.
“Giving children access to a quality education isn’t just something that we have a moral responsibility to do for every child, it’s also absolutely in the fundamental national, social and economic interest of every country as well.”
Although 91 per cent of children are enrolled in schools globally, those that are least likely to go to school are those caught up in crises, conflicts and other humanitarian disasters, with 260 million children and youth out of school today.
“Protracted crises and forced displacement don’t just run the risk of causing a generation of children which don’t get an education but it also holds back whole societies from moving and developing in a way they should,” Mr Lowcock said.
“Children who don’t go to school are more likely to be trapped in extreme poverty, take a poorly paid job and pass on their deprivation to their own children.
"Globally, only half of the world’s child refugees are enrolled in primary school and only a quarter of those of relevant age are enrolled in secondary school.”
Finance is a major issue with only 3.6 per cent of the humanitarian aid budget earmarked to education.
The world will need to spend about three trillion dollars by 2030, up from today’s 1.2 trillion, towards those goals.
“We’re not even halfway there yet,” he added.
“The real challenge is how we finance education for children in countries where governments won’t or can’t finance it themselves and that’s where the international community needs to step in.”
Refugee displacement has surged in recent years, with 65 million people displaced, 51 per cent of them children.
“You can’t treat these [humanitarian emergencies] as a short-term quick-fix relief,” said Toby Harward, head of the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in Abu Dhabi.
“It’s not enough to respond with a tent, camp or bedding, you have to include education for children, life skills and employment issues as a response.”
With more than five million refugees outside of Syria, the UNHCR works with governments and organisations such as UN Children’s Fund to provide education to the 15 percent that are in camps in Jordan and the 85 percent living in urban areas.
“We must integrate refugee children into local systems that exist,” he said.
“It’s not a wise idea to put them in parallel schools, they should follow the curriculum of that school to enable them to continue their education as far and as undisturbed as possible. Accelerated and flexible learning systems to ensure children who have been out of school for some time can catch up as quick as possible is vital.”
In Palestine, the UN Relief and Works Agency is today under the threat of having to close schools within the next few weeks due to the shortfalls they face in their budgets.
The lack of a proper education leaves a dangerous vacuum.
“It will be filled by something else,” said Maqsoud Kruse, executive director of the Abu Dhabi counter-extremism organisation Hedayah.
“The number one threat I see is radicalisation. They’re angry and they’ve lost their place which can be a fantastic opportunity for extremist groups to feed on this and build on it.”
According to Abdullah Al Mouallimi, permanent representative of Saudi Arabia to the UN, the savagery of modern warfare and the long life of conflicts are major challenges.
“The absence of the respect for laws of war in the minds of those who are engaged in them is an issue,” he said.
“Children are being deprived of the opportunity of education or under the threat of losing that education.”
The International Committee of the Red Cross has been working with detainees and child soldiers to give them access to education once they are released.
“Education may not be the first priority of authorities,” said Sophie Barbey, head of the ICRC UAE.
“In many countries, we are facing a reality where children don’t access school anymore for years which creates a real lost generation.”