With their hopes of returning home fading fast, the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Jan Egeland says that Syrian youth and children must be helped no matter where they are. They must be educated even if in transition. They must be given access to schools when waiting for asylum in Europe. Most importantly, the majority living in countries neighboring Syria must not suffer years of gaps in formal schooling.
The Syrian conflict and the resulting displacement of close to 7 million people inside the country, and close to 5 million refugees who have fled across borders to countries surrounding Syria, are foremost on the agenda of Egeland, the council’s secretary-general and a senior adviser to the U.N. special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura.
While the most salable narrative for mainstream media outlets at the moment appears to be that of refugees “on the move,” hurriedly crossing the Mediterranean – “the worst deluge in living memory” – Egeland points to the difference between the number of refugees stranded in countries neighboring Syria with the number that arrived in Europe over 2015: 4.8 million versus 500,000. This asymmetry, he says, should serve as a reality check for European leaders.
Meanwhile, the lives of over 1.2 million registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon, who hoped to return to their homes once fighting subsided, have come to standstill. According to recent reports, Lebanon’s “regressive” policies that restrict both their residency and employment opportunities have further deteriorated their conditions.
The physical and psychological stagnation is most acute among children and teenagers. Many of them have not attended school in more than three years, and the younger ones, who were born amid conflict, may never have been in a classroom. A vast majority of the close to 400,000 Syrian minors in Lebanon do not attend school, according to U.N. agencies.
The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), which has been providing “catch-up classes” to help Syrian children transition to formal schooling, says as many as 50,000 stateless children were born in Lebanon alone. These unregistered children have trouble attaining even the most basic rights.
Egeland, a vociferous proponent of reforming the international humanitarian system, spoke to News Deeply about the NRC’s work to help Syrian children enter Lebanese classrooms, as well as the failure of the U.N. Refugee Agency’s (UNHCR) resettlement conference in Geneva in March, among other things.
News Deeply: Let’s start with the first major conference of the year in relation to refugees – the resettlement conference in Geneva where the U.N. hoped to gain more funding and places for Syrian refugees, especially from Europe.
Jan Egeland: The whole purpose of that conference was, of course, to give hope to more Syrians that they could be able to get protection and a new beginning – short term, interim or permanent – out of the region. The hope was that Europe, as a neighboring region to the Middle East, would be able to step up. We didn’t, simply because we got scared that during one year we got as many migrants [not just Syrians, but all nations] to Europe as Lebanon on its own. It is a black chapter in our history that we didn’t do more to meet this historic challenge – the Syrian war.
News Deeply: Isn’t this apathy counterproductive as the increased flows are partly because Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan are not getting enough support, for example for education. Aren’t Europeans making the connection?
Egeland: Probably not, although the buzzword now in Europe is “let us help them in their own neighborhood.” On one level they’re right. It’s always been a golden principle in refugee work to help people as close as possible to their original homes, preferably prevent them from having to flee within their country if possible and provide safe areas so it’s easy to return and then to help them within the region, which may be culturally and linguistically closer than far away places.
But resettlement in third regions for the particularly vulnerable, to alleviate the pressures on the regional host communities, should be part of the solution. It is crystal clear that Lebanon, Jordan, parts of Iraq and parts of Turkey are now overextended and therefore the rest of the world has to step up to the challenge as well. We are failing on both fronts now.
News Deeply: You mentioned host countries being overextended. Let’s talk about education for example, especially in the Lebanese context. I was told by U.N. agencies that even if all the aid came through, which it seldom does, only 33 percent of children in Lebanon would receive education. NRC has been working on providing education in the interim phase, to prevent children from falling behind, but this does not guarantee them a place in a Lebanese classroom. Have you found that to be frustrating?
Egeland: There are really two things that can provide hope for the future of a family, beyond covering the immediate needs of survival. Survival means medicine, food and shelter. But the hope for a future means education for children and jobs for parents. It is interesting to see that when families, and especially Syrians who generally value and understand the importance of education and had decent opportunities in their country before the war, see that the children are not going to have access to education, it becomes an incentive to flee across the Mediterranean. This is why we’ve prioritized education since the beginning of our work within the region.
A major problem was that this massive of influx of children and youth into Lebanon overwhelmed the system. Though they all speak Arabic, it’s not the same system. For example, in Lebanese schools, French is a prerequisite on many levels but not in Syria. So we invented the catch-up classes so that a 12-year-old did not have to start in a class of 9-year-olds. The catch-up classes have been created in a way that they can be integrated into the normal system. But the capacity of Lebanese schools has been overextended. So, now we are doing both catch-up classes and a second shift in many schools. In Tyre and other places, we employed Lebanese teachers for a second shift. We have provided formal education for tens of thousands of Syrian youth and children altogether, but we are way behind. The need is on a tremendous scale.
News Deeply: How can we push host governments to prioritize education?
Egeland: Well, the U.N. is certainly stretched thin and they have the problem of dealing with a government in Lebanon that is really weak in pushing through reforms. We did help contribute a bit towards support at the London Conference, where Norway and other countries insisted that education should be a key issue and that one of the results should be that a million Syrian children are put in school immediately. There was an agreement with Lebanon in London that the government would step up the reforms to be able to enable education for all Syrian children. How has the carry through been? I fear it’s going slower than expected.
News Deeply: Can you think of cases of success, particularly with education, that you would like to expand upon?
Egeland: Well, one program I am very proud of – and it’s been successful in many places, including difficult areas to work in, like Afghanistan, South Sudan, Pakistan, Yemen, as well as in all of the countries with Syrian refugees – is something we call the Youth Education Program (YEP). This is for the youth and it involves vocational and functional training and life skills to help those between the age of 15 to 25 to become electricians, carpenters, tailors, beauticians, hairdressers and so on. So we’ve been making a lot of youth, especially those who had no formal education no certificates, employable. It’s been a very successful program. I’ve been to Afghanistan in the countryside and witnessed the dramatic change for youth – to get a new start with jobs. These jobs also provide “life skills” for many whose early memories are filled with turmoil, fleeing and destitution. So, just getting up in the morning, going to work, being reliable, etc. is a bit of a skill, and that’s part of what we want to achieve.
News Deeply: As you just mentioned, many of the youth and the children bury the unresolved issues of having grown up amid conflict. Is there an idea of making this an integral part of your education? Where you somehow provide them with psychosocial support?
Egeland: Indeed. You’re absolutely right that very many are traumatized to some degree and have painful memories. It’s hard and expensive to get real professional counseling. But we try to have people from their own communities speak to them, to be their “grown-up” contacts, and to care for them. Compassion is very important for these young people and children. So yes, this is very much part of our program and also our teacher education. We train hundreds of trainers and educators, teachers in these areas.
News Deeply: Taking it back to the European context, with the number of refugees in the E.U., education is going to be a challenge there as well, especially due to the language barriers. Do you have any programs there? What are the main challenges given the large numbers that are simply waiting to claim asylum?
Egeland: In Europe we only run programs in Greece on the islands and now also on the mainland. To some extent we’ve worked in the Balkans, but it’s been mostly migrants and refugees who are on the move. Now we’re debating whether to fully or partially withdraw from any of the programs on the islands because of the poor standards of detention centers and the terms of the Turkey-Europe deal of return of migrants. We are not currently undertaking educational activities in Europe because we’re really a field-based organization. Should we do it? Well if it gets really bad we will also start work in Europe. We are now in Greece because it’s really bad. The needs are similar to what they are in the Middle East.
What will be the main problem in Europe? It is the waiting period that you implied. In my country, Norway, one of the places with a lot of unaccompanied minors and also in Sweden, the children are in reception centers waiting for their cases to be resolved and their asylum status to be determined. Meanwhile, their lives are on hold and it is frustrating, to put it mildly. There is a need for much quicker and coherent asylum application procedures, where they are given a stay permit coupled with real education.
News Deeply: And that right to education should still be a right while they’re waiting, correct? If the asylum process takes three years and the child misses school during this period, it sounds incredibly harmful for their future.
Egeland: It should be. But of course if you’re in this limbo, it’s not a big incentive to be a good pupil, so it’s very important that they get a status determination quickly as an incentive, for instance, to really learn the language,
News Deeply: So, the idea is that these so-called “lost generations” are able to go home some day. How do you see NRC and other humanitarian organizations preparing the younger, more disconnected generations so that they’re able to go back to Syria when the conditions permit and become part of rebuilding the country?
Egeland: Part of our mandate is to help people return home, facilitate the process and prepare them for it. It depends on where you are and how long you’ve been away. Today, we are helping youth from Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya back to Somali, that were born in Dadaab 15, 16,17 years ago. But we have to be realistic. Many of those who have left Syria do not really plan to go home. They wouldn’t rule it out, but they see their future being elsewhere for now. The war has been so horrific. There are so many scars, so many bad memories. Meanwhile, there are perhaps 6 million internally displaced. I see them being the first ones who should be helped home. Then I see the people in Lebanon and the camps in Jordan being the second wave going home someday. I wonder how many of the Syrians who are in Norway will go home – maybe some.