(Amman) – Jordan should address policies that restrict Syrian refugee children’s access to school to meet ambitious goals of increased enrollment when the 2016-2017 school year begins in September, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. More than one-third of school-aged Syrian children registered with the United Nations refugee agency in Jordan – over 80,000 out of 226,000 children – were not in formal education during the last school year.

Syrian children attend class in a school in the Zaatari refugee camp in northern Jordan, October 20, 2015. The school taught Syrian girls in the morning and boys in the afternoon, but lacked electricity, heating, and running water. 

© 2016 Bill Van Esveld/Human Rights Watch

The 97-page report, “We’re Afraid For Their Future": Barriers to Education for Syrian Refugee Children in Jordan,” describes Jordan’s generous efforts to enroll Syrian children in its public school system, which was struggling with capacity and quality issues even before refugees began to arrive from Syria. But Human Rights Watch also documented barriers to education, including asylum seeker registration requirements that many Syrians cannot meet; punishments for refugees working without permits that contribute to poverty, child labor, and school dropouts; and a bar on enrollment for children who have been out of school for three or more years. Jordan has eased some restrictions, but authorities should expand efforts to realize the fundamental right to education for all Syrian children, Human Rights Watch said.

More than one-third of school-aged Syrian children registered with the United Nations refugee agency in Jordan – over 80,000 out of 226,000 children – were not in formal education during the last school year.

“Jordan has taken difficult, noteworthy steps to get Syrian refugee children in school, but many who fled the horror of Syria’s war are still missing out on an education and the future it offers,” said Bill Van Esveld, senior children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Donors who are stepping up support urgently need to work with Jordan to remove policy barriers that are keeping children and youth out of school.”

Jordan has taken difficult, noteworthy steps to get Syrian refugee children in school, but many who fled the horror of Syria’s war are still missing out on an education and the future it offers.

Bill Van Esveld

Senior children’s rights researcher

Since 2011, Jordan has opened schools in refugee camps and instituted “double shifts” to create more spaces for Syrian children. A donor-funded plan would add spaces and new programs for up to 75,000 more children in the 2016-2017 school year.

Human Rights Watch interviewed 105 refugees in host communities and refugee camps, reviewed government policies and findings of the UN and other groups, met teachers and administrators, and visited schools.

Of the roughly 650,000 Syrians registered as asylum seekers with the UN refugee agency in Jordan, around 520,000 have left the refugee camps to live in host communities, according to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR. Syrians described harsh conditions in the camps, including schools without electricity, running water, heating, or windows. Jordan requires Syrian refugees in host communities to present “service cards,” issued by the Interior Ministry, to enroll in public schools. But refugees who left camps informally after July 2014, without a Jordanian relative over 35 years old as a guarantor, are ineligible for the cards. While the number of these cases is unknown, it is likely in the tens of thousands.

Syrian children leave school in the Emirati Jordanian refugee camp, in northern Jordan, October 21, 2015. Jordan’s Education Ministry staffs schools in refugee camps with teachers and administrators. 

© 2016 Bill Van Esveld/Human Rights Watch

The cards are only valid in the district where they were issued, with delays of up to eight months to re-register if families move, causing children to lose up to a year of school. Families also need to present birth certificates to obtain the cards, but UN agencies and nongovernmental groups estimate that 30 percent or more of the Syrian children in Jordan do not have them.

Pre-existing Jordanian regulations also bar children who have been out of school for three or more years from re-enrolling. The donor-supported program would allow up to 25,000 of those children to re-enroll if they are ages 8 to 12, but not older children. Jordan has accredited one group to teach children 13 and older, in a program that is also being expanded, but it has reached only a few thousand Syrian children.

More than 86 percent of Syrian asylum seekers in Jordan live in poverty, a major driver of drop-outs, with many families unable to pay for transportation. In one case, “Haya” and “Noor,” sisters ages 10 and 11, miss school two days a week to work with their father as agricultural laborers, to help pay for the microbus that takes them and their younger siblings to school.

International humanitarian assistance, while crucial for refugees’ survival, is often insufficient, yet Jordanian authorities arrest and transfer refugees to camps if they are caught working without permits, which are hard to obtain. Child labor has increased four-fold among Syrian children in Jordan since the Syrian conflict began, as children are seen as less at risk of arrest for informal work. Every child worker Human Rights Watch interviewed described long hours, hazardous conditions, or work by very young children that violated Jordanian and international labor laws. One of them, “Mohamad,” 8, sells nuts in the street in Mafraq, for seven hours every day.

The pressure on children to work increases as they grow older. Only about 5,500 of an estimated 25,000 or more secondary school-age Syrian children were enrolled in formal education last year. The lack of access to education disproportionately affects adolescents. Jordan should relax requirements that Syrian students present original certificates from secondary schools in Syria to enroll in universities and encourage nongovernmental groups to provide vocational training opportunities, which have been restricted.

Child marriage has ballooned from 12 percent to at least 32 percent for Syrian marriages registered in Jordan since 2011. Girls face additional obstacles to education, as parents worry about older girls’ safety on the way to school.

Jordanian authorities recently gave Syrian refugees a grace period and eased rules, resulting in the issuance of more than 20,000 work permits, though up to 100,000 Syrians are estimated to be ineligible. The Council of the EU has agreed to give free-trade treatment to goods made in designated “development zones,” which could create up to 200,000 jobs for which Syrians would be eligible but will take years to bear fruit. In the meantime, Jordan should indefinitely extend its eased work permit rules, and donors should support further income-generation opportunities.

Added disincentives include widespread reports of corporal punishment, which Jordan prohibits but inadequately enforces. In addition, UNICEF estimates that 1,600 Syrian children per year drop out due to harassment by other children. Human Rights Watch also interviewed Jordanian teachers who had no training and faced classrooms of up to 50 students, including some who were visibly traumatized and needed psychosocial support.

Donors committed US$71.5 million for education in Jordan in 2015, but some funds were not disbursed until the fourth quarter, too late for the beginning of the school year in September. On May 26, 2016, five donors pledged 57.7 million Jordanian dinars (around $81.3 million) for the 2016-2017 school year. As of August 2, 2016, Jordan reported, donors had disbursed $41.7 million for education projects that would benefit Jordanians as well as Syrian refugees. Jordan’s “Syria Response Plan” budgeted additional costs for education at $249.6 million in 2016. The World Bank estimated that the Syria conflict cost Jordan $2.5 billion annually.

Jordan should establish flexible enrollment requirements so that schools will not turn away children who lack valid documents, waive the three-year rule, and allow any children who cannot enroll in accredited “catch up” programs to take grade-placement tests. Donors should ensure sustained, adequate, and timely funding, including for teacher training; support for school-related costs like transportation; and target support for secondary school-aged children and children with disabilities. Jordan and donors should work together to improve the quality of education for all children, which will help reduce intercommunal tensions.

“Jordanian policymakers have recognized it is in the country’s own best interest to ensure that Syrian children receive an education,” Van Esveld said. “A ‘lost generation’ of Syrian children and youth is a slow-burning disaster for human rights and the region’s future.”