Forty percent of children from five conflict-scarred Middle Eastern countries are not attending school, the United Nations agency for children said Thursday, warning that losing this generation will lead to more violence, migration and a dim future for the region.
An estimated 13.7 million school-age children from Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya and Sudan are not in school, out of a total of 34 million in the area, UNICEF said in a report titled “Education Under Fire.”
"It's no coincidence in that what we see in terms of our TV pictures — the tragic pictures of people crossing on boats to Greece and Italy — very much comes back to the Syrian conflict and [to] the Iraqi conflict, to a lesser extent," UNICEF regional director Peter Salama said. The dropout rate could increase to 50 percent in coming months as conflicts intensify, he said.
"We are on the verge of losing a generation of children in this region," he said. "We must act now or we will certainly regret the consequences."
He said UNICEF needs an additional $300 million this year to make a dent in the numbers and give more children access to education. The agency so far has received $140 million, or 40 percent of its 2015 appeal, for the education of displaced Syrians.
Thursday's report is an attempt to show the scope of the regional education crisis, Salama said. The report said that education is increasingly being disrupted by fighting and the displacement of millions of people.
Close to 9,000 schools in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya have been destroyed in fighting, turned into shelters for displaced people or commandeered by fighters, UNICEF said. In the Gaza conflict that began in July 2014, which killed at least 551 Palestinian children, eight schools were destroyed, and at least 281 were damaged, according to the report.
In Syria and Yemen, 1 in 4 schools can no longer be used for education, the report said. In Syria, 50,000 teachers no longer report to work, and thousands of children have to cross front lines to take attend classes.
Syrian refugees have reported the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has taken over schools in some areas it has occupied.
"The forces that are crushing individual lives and futures are also destroying the prospects for an entire region," the report said.
Salama said he believes lack of access to education is helping drive the increasingly desperate attempts by Middle Eastern asylum seekers to reach Europe. Also, children who are not going to school are more vulnerable to recruitment by radical groups, he said. He said that UNICEF has seen a rise in recruitment attempts, in parallel with the drop in school enrollment.
The agency called for greater efforts to educate children in conflict zones, including through self-learning kits and an e-learning program, Sahabati (Arabic for "my cloud"). The program would teach Arabic, English, math and science, with a system of online assessments and certification, the report said. It's not clear when it will be rolled out.
The report also called for increased investment in education in humanitarian emergencies. More money should be spent, among other things, on school systems in countries hosting refugees, including more than 4 million Syrians who fled civil war, UNICEF said. More than half the Syrian refugee children, or 700,000, are not in school, the report said.
In 2010, 7 million to 8 million school-age children in Syria, Libya, Iraq, Yemen and Sudan were not in school, said Juliette Touma, a UNICEF spokeswoman. Reasons include ongoing conflicts, such as in Sudan and Iraq, as well as poverty.
Since then, new conflicts have erupted in Syria, Libya and Yemen, and fighting in Iraq has intensified after land grabs by ISIL there last year.
The 13.7 million children estimated to be out of school comprises 2.7 million Syrians, 3 million Iraqis, 2 million Libyans, 3.1 million Sudanese and 2.9 million Yemenis.
The number of dropouts and children who have never been to school is bound to increase. In the next few months, with the situation expected to worsen, "up to half ... of school-age children will be out of school," Salama said.
A study released in April by UNICEF and UNESCO, the U.N. agency the deals with education, estimated that 15 million — or 1 in 4 — children in the Middle East and North Africa are not receiving an education.
Al Jazeera and wire services