Mahmoud Zayyat / AFP / Getty Images

‘Lost generation’ of 15 million children out of school in Middle East

UN says 1 in 4 children shut out of formal education, civil war undoing work to improve standards

Nearly 1 in 4 children in the Middle East and North Africa is either out of school or at risk of dropping out, the United Nations said Wednesday in a report highlighting the disruptive impact of war on a region where education rates had been steadily improving for years.

More then 15 million children are currently out of school, and another 6 million are believed to be “at high risk” of dropping out, UNICEF and UNESCO said in a joint study on education in 20 countries across the Middle East and North Africa. The 15 million figure includes the more than 3 million Syrian and Iraqi children who are out of school as a direct result of the violence roiling their countries.

“As the violence expands, millions more are at risk of becoming a ‘lost generation,’ deprived of the knowledge and skills needed to be successful adults,” the report said.

Over the past decade, Middle Eastern governments have managed to slash out-of-school rates by over 40 percent. Regional education ministries and international organizations have invested heavily to improve the quality of secondary education — to discourage teenagers from dropping out — and made strides in closing the gender gap.

That progress, however, has markedly slowed in recent years, the report found. Part of the explanation is that certain factors, including poverty and conservative attitudes toward women, are persistent. Girls are still 25 percent more likely to be deprived of schooling than boys, the report found. And fertility rates, while tapering slightly, continue to outpace countries’ abilities to build schools, provide transportation to schools and properly train teachers.

But the spate of armed conflicts engulfing Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen have severely complicated government efforts. In Syria, which once had one of the highest enrollment rates in the Middle East, nearly half the people have been displaced from their homes. The obstacles facing children in such a chaotic environment are manifold.

“You have child refugees, children displaced within their country and another group who are in their own homes but don’t have access to their school because it’s been bombed or destroyed,” said Juliette Touma, a spokeswoman for UNICEF in Beirut.

Those who have registered with the U.N. as refugees — mostly in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey — are supposed to receive free schooling. But that isn’t always the reality. Roughly 75 percent of Syrian refugees live outside U.N. camps, where children attend makeshift schools. Unable to work regular jobs under local laws, many Syrian parents send their children into the streets to beg. At the same time, already impoverished host communities have been overwhelmed by the number of refugees, with some residents resenting that their schools and welfare programs have been inundated by refugees who aren’t paying taxes. Increasingly, refugees say, schools have closed their doors to Syrian children.

“So we need to support not only Syrians but also communities in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Egypt that have been strained for over four years,” Touma said.

However, the outlook is not hopeless. The flow of refugees and destruction of schools will not come to a stop until the region’s wars do, but “numerous experiences show that even in very challenging environments, flexible and innovative measures can keep education going,” the U.N. report said.

“Low levels of funding emerge as the most critical bottleneck for reaching conflict-affected children with education,” the report concluded. In 2012, for example, only 1.3 million children targeted by emergency response programs in the Palestinian territories, Sudan, Syria and Yemen received educational support. Funding shortfalls, due in part to unfulfilled promises from donor governments, prevented the U.N. from reaching another 2.2 million.

“Unless we tackle this problem, through prioritizing investment in education, we might come to a point where we have lost a generation not just in Syria and Iraq but all over the region,” Touma said.

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