Half of Syrian child refugees deprived of education, says UNHCR's Guterres

UN refugee agency’s chief urges the international community to invest in Syria’s refugee children

Just one of every two Syrian children taking refuge in the country’s neighbouring nations is receiving an education and many of those fail to meet international standards, the UN refugee agency’s chief said Wednesday.

Antonio Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), urged the international community to invest in Syria’s refugee children. Not doing so would be an “enormous mistake” that would ultimately hold back development, he said.

The UN refugee chief was addressing delegates at the opening of a two-day conference in Sharjah, UAE, to discuss protecting refugee children in the Middle East and North Africa region. The region hosts some 2.6 million refugee children and adolescents, an estimated 1.1 million of which are Syrian.

The UN agency estimates some 75 per cent of Syrian refugee children are under the age of 12. The plight of Syrian children loomed large at the conference.

“Their playgrounds have become places for injustice,” said Queen Rania Al Abdullah of Jordan. “The most precious thing we can provide is education… Education is the tool for them to rebuild themselves and reconstruct their homeland.”

The influx of Syrian refugees to Jordan was a significant challenge for her country, said Queen Rania. Jordan hosts some 1 million Syrian refugees.

More needs to be invested in quality education, psychosocial support and birth registration, said Guterres. He stressed that supporting the children’s families and their local host communities as those best equipped to protect them was equally important.

The conference comes at a time when the UNHCR is facing multiple refugee crises across the region and faces a severe funding crisis. Of the $3bn though necessary by the UN for host countries to support refugees in 2014, only 50 per cent had been forthcoming so far, said Queen Rania.

One year ago, the UN children’s agency launched its No Lost Generation campaign for Syria’s children. Just 34 per cent of the $885m requested had been funded by August 2014.

The conference was jointly hosted by UNHCR and The Big Heart campaign, an initiative for Syria’s children by Sheikha Jawaher bint Mohammed Al Qasimi. The Big Heart has provided healthcare, emergency supplies and education to Syrians.

The number of refugees worldwide has reached a record high. By end-2013, the number of people forced to flee their homes exceeded 50 million for the first time since World War II, according to the agency. Children now make up half of the world's refugees, the highest proportion in more than a decade.