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Jordan: Secondary School Gap for Syrian Refugee Kids

Brussels Friends of Syria Conference Should Address Massive Dropouts

(Brussels) – The majority of Syrian refugee children in Jordan don’t have the chance to go to secondary school, close to a decade after Syrian refugees began arriving, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. International donors and humanitarian agencies should work with Jordan and other countries hosting Syrian refugees at this year’s Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region conference on June 30, 2020 to urgently improve access to quality, secondary education for Syrian refugee children.

The 61-page report, “‘I Want to Continue to Study’: Barriers to Secondary Education for Syrian Refugee Children in Jordan,” documents increasingly difficult obstacles to education the further Syrian refugee children progress in school, with enrollment rates collapsing from nearly 90 percent in primary classes to just 25 to 30 percent in secondary school, according to governmental and United Nations data. With UN support, Jordan has created humanitarian education plans for Syrian refugees that aim to increase enrollment overall, but without specific secondary-school enrollment goals. Few foreign donors support secondary education. Informal education programs hosted by nongovernmental groups only reach a tiny fraction of children, Human Rights Watch found. 

“The vast majority of Syrian refugee children lose the chance to study and learn before they even get to high school,” said Breanna Small, children’s rights fellow at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “For years, donors have promised to prevent a lost generation, so at this year’s Brussels conference they need to move beyond pledges and ensure that secondary education is the norm and not the exception for Syrian children.”

Children who do not complete secondary education are more likely to suffer other human rights abuses. Globally, studies find that secondary education pays long-term dividends, as children's income as adults increases by nine percent with each year of education and health outcomes improve, especially for girls, who can prioritize education and defer marriage and pregnancy.

The 233,000 school-age Syrian refugees in Jordan face multiple obstacles to education that are most acute for children ages 12 and older, including poverty-driven child labor and child marriage, lack of affordable school transportation, government policies that limit access to education, and the lack of inclusive education that keeps children with disabilities out of school.

Rukaya, 17, one of the 45 Syrian children whose educational experiences Human Rights Watch documented, taught herself fluent English and hopes to major in mathematics at university. But her family, unable to pay rent, received an eviction notice, and then the UN refugee agency, lacking funds, cut their rental assistance. Rukaya greatly feared that her family’s financial circumstances meant she would have to drop out of secondary school. “I want to continue to study,” she said.

For the majority of children forced to drop out, there is often no way back to formal education. The only pathway for children ages 13 and older is a program certified by the Education Ministry that enables children to complete their compulsory, basic education, study at home for classes 11 and 12, and then take the final secondary-school examinations. But in 2019, just 3,200 Syrian children were enrolled.

Jordan and international donors should dramatically scale up non-formal and informal education programs to reach many more children who are already out of school and support them to complete secondary education, Human Rights Watch said.

Secondary education for refugee children is overlooked and underfunded. Humanitarian education plans do not set secondary-school enrollment targets, and few donors – including the European Union’s Madad Trust Fund, a key source – report funding projects designed specifically for secondary-school-age children, making it virtually impossible to tell how much funding went to secondary education. From 2016 to the end of 2019, donors contributed US$356 million toward the $522 million that Jordan’s response plans budgeted for refugee education, Human Rights Watch calculated.

Access to secondary education is dire for Syrian refugee children throughout the region, according to UN and government data. In Turkey, 27 percent of Syrian children reach upper-secondary school; in Lebanon, fewer than 4 percent do. In May, Human Rights Watch wrote to key donors – including the EU Commission, Germany, the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Norway, and Denmark – asking them to improve access to secondary education for Syrian refugee children in these countries, and Iraq, a key priority at the Brussels conference.

Donors should ensure that their education funds reach children ages 12 and older, and humanitarian education plans need to set clear enrollment, achievement, and other education targets for this age group, Human Rights Watch said. All children – whether migrants, refugees, asylum seekers, or stateless persons – have the right to access quality education without discrimination, including secondary education.

Refugee children’s education opportunities are further harmed by years of declining humanitarian support to Jordan. Even before the coronavirus pandemic increased Jordan’s dependency on foreign aid, nearly 80 percent of Syrian refugees lived below the poverty line of 68 Jordanian dinars per month (around $96). UNICEF has a program that supports families to keep their children in school, but slashed it from 55,000 children in 2018 to 10,000 in 2019 due to budget cuts, leading to dropouts. Syrian families said that children – particularly girls – who could not afford school transportation dropped out due to harassment while walking to school.

“Jordan’s government is rightly proud of getting most Syrian refugee children into primary school, but Jordan needs to ensure they can stay through secondary education, which is indispensable in today’s world,” Small said. “Donors at the Brussels conference should realize that the failure to continue educating Syrian refugee children through secondary school undermines the progress made in primary education.”

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