ISTANBUL – More than 400,000 Syrian refugee children living in Turkey are not attending school, Human Rights Watch said in a report released over the weekend. While the Turkish government has been generous in its response to the Syrian refugee crisis, Turkey has struggled to ensure that Syrian schoolchildren have the access to education to which they are entitled under international law.
The 62-page report, “‘When I Picture My Future, I See Nothing’: Barriers to Education for Syrian Refugee Children in Turkey,” documents the major obstacles that prevent Syrian refugee children from getting formal education in Turkey, which hosts more than 2 million refugees from the Syrian conflict that began in 2011. The government adopted an important policy in September 2014 that formally grants Syrian children access to public schools, but key obstacles, including a language barrier, social integration issues, economic hardship and lack of information about the policy, remain one year later, Human Rights Watch found.
“Failing to provide Syrian children with education puts an entire generation at risk,” said Stephanie Gee, Bernstein fellow in the refugee rights program at Human Rights Watch. “With no real hope for a better future, desperate Syrian refugees may end up putting their lives on the line to return to Syria or take dangerous journeys to Europe.”
The Turkish government and international partners need to work quickly to make sure that Syrian children in the country can go to school, Human Rights Watch said. Securing these children’s education will reduce the risks of early marriage and military recruitment by armed groups. Instead, it will stabilize their economic future by increasing their earning potential, and ensure that they will be better equipped to confront uncertain futures.
Of the Syrian refugees living in Turkey, 708,000 are school-age children. In 2014-2015, just over 212,000 were enrolled in formal education at the primary and secondary levels, based on data from the Ministry of National Education. While the enrollment rate inside refugee camps was nearly 90 percent, most refugees live outside camps, where only 25 percent of school-age children were enrolled in school. Overall, more than two-thirds of Syrian children are receiving no formal education in Turkey.
In June 2015, Human Rights Watch interviewed 136 Syrian refugee children and relatives living outside camps. Many of these children first faced disruptions to their education in Syria when their schools were damaged during the conflict or overtaken by armed groups. Some had lost up to four years of schooling and remained unable to attend school in Turkey.
Eleven-year-old Radwan, who was in fourth grade in Syria when he stopped attending school, told Human Rights Watch that he works more than 12 hours per day, seven days a week in a garment workshop in order to support his widowed mother and his younger siblings in the southeastern city of Gaziantep. He said, “I loved school. I liked to study math, and I miss going to school very much.”
In September 2014, the Ministry of National Education issued a policy that offered all registered Syrian refugees access to the public school system. The ministry also began accrediting Syrian “temporary education centers” – a system of schools operated by charitable organizations and local communities that offer an Arabic-language curriculum.
However, for many Syrian families, practical obstacles remain. Many Syrian children are unable to attend Turkish public schools because of the language barrier and lack of Turkish language support for non-native speakers. Others face bullying and social integration difficulties that lead students to drop out or that discourage them from enrolling. Some Syrian families lack accurate information on enrollment procedures. Human Rights Watch documented cases of school administrators improperly turning away Syrian families who attempted to enroll their children in local public schools.
Temporary education centers are not widely available in areas hosting Syrian refugees in Turkey, nor do the existing centers have the capacity to serve the large number of Syrian schoolchildren who need education. Many of the centers charge tuition or additional transportation fees that put them out of reach of struggling Syrian families.
Economic hardship is a major barrier to education for many Syrian families in Turkey in other ways. Syrian refugees are not permitted to work legally in the country. Parents are often unable to provide for their families on the minimal income they make in the informal labor market, and as a result, child labor is rampant among the Syrian refugee population.
Prior to the conflict, the primary school enrollment rate in Syria was 99 percent, and lower secondary school enrollment – grades 7 to 9 – was 82 percent. Today, nearly three million Syrian children inside and outside the country are out of school, according to UNICEF estimates – demolishing Syria’s pre-war achievement of near-universal primary education.
Turkey says it has already spent over $7 billion on its response to the Syrian refugee crisis since 2011, and $252 million on Syrian refugee education in 2014-2015 alone. The international community should provide urgent financial and technical support for initiatives to provide Syrian refugees with greater access to education. Turkey should also grant Syrian refugees lawful access to employment, in line with international human rights standards, which could reduce the assistance they need to survive and to ensure that their children are in school.
The Ministry of National Education announced on October 2 that it aims to have 270,000 Syrian children in school by January 2016, and 370,000 by the end of the 2015-2016 school year. Addressing the barriers identified in the report will be crucial to meeting that stated goal, Human Rights Watch said.
The Turkish government should ensure that all provinces and public schools comply with the national regulation guaranteeing Syrian children’s access to the public school system, provide language support and training for teachers in the unique challenges of educating a refugee population, and disseminate accurate information to Syrian refugees about school enrollment. It should also provide widespread access to work permits and the possibility of steady minimum-wage work to mitigate the high rate of child labor among refugee children.
“Refugees’ rights should be respected not only when they first cross a border seeking safety, but also throughout their experience of being displaced, and that includes their right to education,” Gee said. “Donors and the Turkish government should ensure that Syrian children are in school to provide them with stability now as well as to safeguard their futures in the long run.”
“When I Picture My Future, I See Nothing” is the first of a three-part series addressing the urgent issue of access to education for Syrian refugee children in Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon.
This article was originally published by Human Rights Watch and is reprinted here with permission.
Top image: Syrian refugee children pass time in Istanbul on Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2015. (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)