The Arab lost generation
The recently released UNICEF report Education under Fire draws a disturbing picture of “how conflict in the Middle East is depriving children of their schooling”.
According to the report, no fewer than 13 million children are unable to attend school as a result of armed conflict in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Sudan. Nearly 9,000 schools in Syria, Yemen and Libya are unusable, either damaged or destroyed, or being used as shelters by displaced populations or warring factions.
In Syria, 2 million children are out of school and 446,000 are at risk of dropping out. In Yemen, 1.8 million children have had their access to school interrupted by war and more than 3,500 schools have been shut down. School enrolment has dropped by 50% in Libya’s second city Benghazi where only one in four schools is functioning. The same story is replayed in Iraq where 3 million have been displaced and nearly 1 million children have had their schooling disrupted; 1,200 Iraqi schools have been transformed into shelters.
Commuting to school has become perilous for children in war zones. Crossing checkpoints is not safe for anyone at any age. Schools are not immune to armed violence. Public transportation in the war-torn nations has come to a virtual standstill.
In 2014, 214 schools in the region were attacked. In one 2015 incident, in Yemen’s Amran governorate, 13 teachers and four children were killed. In Iraq, 700 children have been killed and another 500 injured. In Gaza, 551 children were killed and 281 schools were damaged during the Israeli assault in the summer of 2014.
Even when physically safe, going to school often is useless considering the shortage of teachers and supplies.
The result is that in many parts of the Middle East and North Africa, children are unable to get an education and therefore will be ill-prepared for a future society where no rebuilding is possible if the next generation is not well-trained or well-educated.
It is hardly a surprise that entire families are trying to migrate to Europe. Many simply want their children to get an education and have a real chance at achievement.
For refugee populations displaced outside their borders, conditions for proper educational training are not guaranteed in the region’s host countries. The UNICEF report states that 53% of Syrian refugee children in neighbouring countries do not attend school. This is unconscionable, given that the host countries in question are not experiencing conflict. Of course, budget-challenged states such as Jordan and Lebanon cannot be expected to provide an education for thousands of refugee children. But where are regional and international organisations?
For those children who cannot migrate anywhere, the odds are that they will end up exploited and poor, assuming they can escape death and injury. Destitution and despair will make them an easy prey to recruitment by extremist groups or criminal organisations.
The collective tragedy that has befallen the Arab world has more manifestations than one can keep count of. But the plight of the region’s children is perhaps the most devastating.
While other regions of the world — China, South Asia, Africa — are investing in their children’s future, the governments and militias of the Middle East and North Africa are focused on winning bloody civil wars.
We are in the process of creating a lost generation. Millions of children will grow up uneducated, unproductive and only trained to suffer and hate.