“Education is the first block in building a strong society, and without it there will be no doctors, teachers, or engineers to help rebuild Syria.”

Alaa, Syrian student at Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan

Now in its sixth year, the Syrian conflict has displaced roughly 4.8 million refugees into the surrounding nations of Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt. Due to this influx, host countries have struggled to provide adequate services to refugees in need.

In Lebanon, the Syrian population makes up about twenty percent of the total population. While Lebanon and the international community has continued efforts and funding to enroll more Syrian refugee children in school, many children are still not getting the education they need. The impact of being denied a proper education will likely be exacerbated in children who are still dealing with the impacts of trauma. Children not enrolled in school are more likely to be at risk of child labor, child marriage, exploitation, and recruitment into violent extremist organizations.

In Lebanon, an estimated 250,000 Syrian children are not enrolled in formal education, including at least ninety-five percent of children aged fifteen through eighteen. Lebanon’s Ministry of Education and Higher Education (MEHE) initiated a program called Reaching all Children with Education (RACE) in 2013 to facilitate access to education for both Syrian children and low-income Lebanese children. RACE has achieved some success, contributing to a significant increase in enrollment of Syrian children in public education, from 18,780 children to 141,722. The World Bank has recently approved a loan to Lebanon of 100 million USD for the RACE program, alongside a grant of 120 million USD from the Lebanon Syrian Crisis Trust Fund and 4 million from a trust fund financed by Norway, Germany, and the U.S.

Still, a significant number of Syrian children are not getting the education owed to them in Lebanon as enshrined by international law. Human Rights Watch documented local schools’ noncompliance with Lebanon’s policy requiring the enrollment of children regardless of if they possess citizenship documents. One mother who was interviewed by Human Rights Watch recounted, “I tried to explain that UNICEF said I could enroll my kids. She told me to ‘go boil the [documentation] paper and drink it with UNICEF’ [and] then she kicked me out and called the police.”

Additionally, the Lebanese Ministry of Education published a decree in 2015 implementing population ratios that required the number of Syrian children in school not to exceed the number of Lebanese children.  This has resulted in many areas with a significant concentration of Syrian refugees having schools that have rejected any more Syrian enrollment.  This has conflicted with the inclusive policy introduced by the RACE program.  Often, the cost of transportation to schools is prohibitive when combined with the initial fees for enrollment, and some Syrian students reported facing violence and harassment during their commute. Other students reported that teachers would not allow Syrian students to use the sanitation facilities, which poses a particular barrier to girls during menstruation, highlighting the issue of gender discrimination. Many Lebanese schools do not offer classes for older Syrian students because the number of enrolled students needs to reach a certain threshold to meet the quota established by the Ministry of Education in its Decree No. 719/M/2015. Lastly, Lebanese classes are typically taught in either English or French, thus significant language barriers cause many students to drop out.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) guarantees an individual’s right to both asylum and education (Articles 14 and 26), and Lebanon has incorporated its responsibility to abide by the UDHR into its own constitution. Lebanon also has ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) without reservations. Article 28 of the CRC recognizes the right of the child to education, including secondary education, while Article 29 explains a state’s obligation to respect the child’s language and values. The ICESCR lists almost identical obligations in Articles 2 and 13. Article 2 of CEDAW demands that state parties “adopt all appropriate legislative and other measures . . . prohibiting all discrimination against women” and “take all appropriate measures . . . to modify or abolish existing laws, regulations, customs[,] and practices which constitute discrimination against women.” While the ICCPR explains that in times of “public emergency which threatens the life of the nation” state parties may take measures to “derogate from . . . obligations . . . to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation,” the ICCPR explains that the state of emergency must be “officially proclaimed.”

Lebanon and the international community are obligated to uphold their responsibility to provide education for Syrian refugees during emergencies. While Lebanon has made impressive progress towards implementing the required education is accessible to Syrian children, more improvement is needed if Lebanon hopes to meet its international obligations. Currently, children who live in areas concentrated with a large refugee population can be denied an education due to the quota protocol. Children who require transportation may not be able to attend school if their parents cannot afford to pay for it. Children without the proper documentation can be denied entry by schools that are not following RACE protocol.

Lebanon should ensure the cost of enrollment and transportation are not prohibitive, schools are following the policies laid out under the RACE, and that schools are providing adequate sanitation facilities to Syrian students. Syrian children should either have classes taught in a familiar language or receive adequate resources to enable their full participation in classes. Lastly, the international community should uphold its funding obligation to ensure resources are available to refugees. These concrete steps will greatly improve Syrian refugee children’s ability to receive adequate education guaranteed to them under international law.