As of November 2015, two-thirds of Syrian refugee children in Turkey are receiving no formal education, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW). Although Turkey has been generous in its efforts to accommodate refugees during this crisis, Turkey has struggled to ensure that Syrian school children have the access to education they are entitled to under international law. Shaza Bakart, founder of a Syrian temporary education center in Istanbul, states that “If a child doesn’t go to school, it will create big problems in the future—they will end up on the streets, or go back to Syria to die fighting, or be radicalized into extremists, or die in the ocean trying to reach Europe.” Turkey hosts more than two million Syrian refugees, including 708,000 school-aged children. More than 400,000 do not receive any formal education. AFAD, the Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency of Turkey, has spearheaded efforts to meet the needs of Syrian refugees, the majority of whom are women and children. Of the 200,000 refugees in Turkish camps, 60% are children.
Prior to the conflict, the primary school enrollment rate in Syria was 99 percent and lower secondary school enrollment was 82 percent, with high gender parity. In Turkey’s government-run refugee camps, approximately 90 percent of school-aged Syrian children regularly attend schools. However, these children represent just 13 percent of Syrian refugee school-aged population in Turkey. The vast majority of Syrian children in Turkey live outside refugee camps in towns and cities, where their school enrollment rate is much lower—in 2014-2015 only 25 percent of them attended school.
One of the immediate challenges is physically establishing the schools. In Islahiye camp, the government erected large tents in a former warehouse, with concrete walls blocking the sun and heat, and electric lights to compensate for the darker locations. Attempting to sanction and recognize camp schools has only exacerbated the problem, leading to a lack of licensed Turkish teachers in camps. Camps instead rely heavily on volunteers from among the refugees themselves. As volunteers, they are not bound by set schedules or any particular curriculum, so their time and instruction with the children is often inconsistent. One of the principal challenges has been the lack of Syrians who speak Turkish, and Turks who speak Arabic, which directly affects the assigned curriculum. Not only do the camp schools lack structure, but they also lack resources needed to keep up with Turkish schools. Furthermore, Syria will not accept the language and curriculum of the camp schools.
In order to remedy these issues, according to the HRW, Turkey has taken several steps to meet its legal obligations by lifting legal barriers to Syrian children’s access to formal education. In 2014, for example, the government lifted restrictions requiring Syrians to produce Turkish residency permit in order to enroll in public schools, instead making the public school system available to all Syrian children with a government-issued ID. In addition, Turkey has begun to accredit a parallel system of temporary education centers that offer an Arabic language curriculum approved by the education ministry of the Syrian Interim Government. However, for all its efforts, Turkey has not yet succeeded in making education available to most Syrian refugee children, especially those living outside the camps.
Turkey is a party to numerous international treaties guaranteeing the right to access to education, including International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC),the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The CRC states that “state parties shall take appropriate measures to ensure that a child who is seeking refugee status or who is considered a refugee in accordance with applicable international or domestic law and procedures shall . . . receive appropriate protection and humanitarian assistance in the enjoyment of applicable rights set forth in the present Convention and in other international human rights or humanitarian instruments to which the said States are Parties.” Based on the difficulty in receiving an education faced by school-aged Syrian refugees, Turkey may be falling short of its obligations under international law.