War and upheaval across parts of the Middle East and North Africa in recent years have driven more than 13 million children from school – 40 percent of the affected area’s school-age population, the United Nations said Wednesday.
A report by UNICEF, the U.N. Children’s Fund, cast a sobering new light on the subtle long-term destructive consequences of violent conflicts that have convulsed a region encompassing all or portions of Syria, Iraq, Lebanon,Jordan, Turkey, Yemen, Libya, Sudan and the Palestinian territories, particularly Gaza.
In some countries – particularly Syria, which once had one of the world’s highest literacy rates – many children who ordinarily would be third or fourth graders by now have rarely if ever been inside a classroom.
“Attacks on schools and education infrastructure – sometimes deliberate – are one key reason many children do not attend classes,” UNICEF said in a summary of the report.
In Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya alone, it said, nearly 9,000 schools are out of use because they have been “damaged, destroyed, are being used to shelter displaced families or have been taken over by parties to the conflict.”
Other reasons, the summary said, include “the fear that drives thousands of teachers to abandon their posts, or keeps parents from sending their children to school because of what might happen to them along the way – or at school itself.”
Dr. Peter Salama, the UNICEF regional director for the Middle East and North Africa, said the report was based on calculations from the combined data for each individual population that have been compiled by the agency over the years.
“We’ve had country-specific numbers in the past, but not the aggregate of major trends in the region,” Salama said in a telephone interview from Amman,Jordan. “For us, it’s actually quite staggering when you aggregate the numbers across these countries.”
Five or 10 years ago, he said, it was unusual to have even 10 percent ofthe school-age populations in the region out of school. “Now it’s 40 percent,”he said.
“Their educational achievements are going to be quite low,” he said. “These are the future professionals in these societies.”
While death, mayhem, hunger and disease are among the most obvious risks to civilians in these conflict zones, the collapse in primary education is another compelling reason for families with young children to flee. This partly explains the increasing surge of migrants into Europe, Salama said.
“Seventy to 80 percent of asylum seekers have been from Syria,” he said.“It’s not coincidental.”In Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, where millions of Syrians have fled since the war in their homeland began in 2011, more than 700,000 refugee children are unable to attend school because the education systems in those countries cannot cope with the extra load, the report said.
Salama said the report highlighted what he called another alarming issue: If children are not in school, they are often working, and exploited in hazardous jobs.
A parallel trend, he said, is increased recruitment of children into military and paramilitary organizations.
“In the past there was child recruitment, but it tended to be older boys in noncombat roles,” Salama said. “That has really changed in the last year or two.”
He said, “We are on the verge of a lost generation of kids.”