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It's Time For a 'New Deal' on Education for Syrian Refugee Children

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You don't have to tell Souriya Maliki, a 14-year-old Syrian refugee from southern Damascus, about the value of education. Her parents took her out of school two years ago after a classmate was killed by a sniper. In 2012 they fled to Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, where they live in a temporary shelter -- and Souriya is still out of school.

"I worry about the cold and about where our next meal will come from" Souriya told me, "but my biggest worry is schooling. Without an education what hope do I have?"

That question is one that should concentrate the minds of the entire international community. The crisis in Syria has placed future of a whole generation of refugee children is in jeopardy. Yet aid donors have systematically failed to respond to the education crisis.

They now have a crucial opportunity to change this picture. Later this week the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon will chair a pledging conference on Syria in Kuwait. UN agencies estimate that $4.2 billion will be needed to respond to the refugee crisis, including $393 million for education. The bad news is that past appeals have been heavily under-funded, with education almost entirely neglected.

There are now almost 1 million school age children in the population that has fled into neighbouring countries. On a conservative estimate, just one-in-every three are in school -- half the level in sub-Saharan Africa. If Syria's refugees were a country, they would have the world's lowest enrolment rates.

Earlier last year I was asked by Gordon Brown, the former British Prime Minister and now UN Special Envoy on Education, to prepare a report on the level of education provision for refugees in Lebanon. The findings were shocking. It wasn't just that fewer than 20 percent of children were in school. Many had been traumatized by violence. Yet they were being denied the support, hope and sense of normality that a return to education might have provided.

That pattern is repeated across the region.

Fewer than 10 percent of Syrian refugee children in Turkey are in school. Half of the children in the sprawling refugee camp of Zaa'tari in Jordan are out of school. Visit the capital city of Amman and you'll see the consequences in the form of children sleeping rough and working as vendors.

Public education systems are coming under huge pressure. The government of Lebanon responded to the crisis by generously opening the country's schools to refugees. But an already over-stretched public education system has now been overwhelmed. Putting all refugee children in the country's public schools would almost double the school intake at a time of mounting pressure on public finance.

For purposes of comparison try imagining London's schools absorbing all of the children from Birmingham and Manchester; or schools in the U.S. accommodating all of Mexico's school-age children, with those from Canada thrown in for good measure.

The international response has been dwarfed by the scale of the challenge. Last year, less than half the funds requested by the UN for the Syria crisis were delivered. No sector was more short-changed than education. Lebanon received just 12 per cent of the funds requested.

It's not just western donors that have failed to respond. Given the potential for wider destabilization, it might have been assumed that governments, the private sector and philanthropists across the region would step up to the plate. Some -- such as Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates -- have financed humanitarian interventions. Yet the overall response has been fragmented, under-funded and driven as much by political rivalry as a concern to address the real problems of refugee children.

Neighboring countries have also created unnecessary barriers to schooling. Lebanon makes eligibility for entry to public schools conditional on Syrian children learning English or French, reflecting the national curriculum. Refugees that arrive in Jordan can only enter public schools if they have not lost more than two years of schooling in Syria. These bureaucratic rules make little sense -- and they should be changed.

With no end of the Syria conflict in sight and refugee numbers projected to rise, it is time to rethink the current piecemeal response. What is needed is an integrated global strategy that galvanises not just the traditional humanitarian agencies, but regional governments, the private sector and non-government organisations across the region.

This week's pledging conference provides an opportunity to make a down-payment. But even if the UN's funding request is met in full it will leave one quarter of refugees out of school.

Such an outcome would be a travesty. Syria's refugee children have suffered enough. They should not be punished twice over, with displacement compounded by a loss of education.

It is time to buttress the current patchwork of initiatives with a global fund for Syrian refugee education. Modeled on the global health funds that have done so much to combat HIV/AIDS and expand access to vaccine, such a facility would provide a mechanism through which western donors, regional governments, philanthropists and private companies can deliver support, with a premium on low cost, innovative, high impact interventions through government, non-government organizations, and private education providers.

At a time when budgets are constrained and other demands on humanitarian aid are mounting, some people will doubtless the wisdom of more spending on Syrian refugee education.

Perhaps they should reflect on the alternatives. Depriving a whole generation of children of children of education will consign them to a future devoid of hope. It will strip Syria of the skills the country will need for reconstruction. And it will fuel underlying social, political and economic tensions.

If you think education is expensive, as the saying goes, try ignorance.