Refugee children stranded on Greek islands need urgent education aid

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Yasmine Sherif, Director of Education Cannot Wait, meets refugee children during a trip to the Greek Aegean islands (ECW)

Children in conflicts, Education Cannot Wait, Education in emergencies, Refugees and internally displaced people, Safe schools

Donors are being asked to fund quality non-formal schools and psychosocial support programmes for thousands of children stuck in overcrowded camps.

When people fleeing countries torn apart by conflict and violence arrive on the Greek island of Kos, their temporary stay at reception centres is meant to last no more than 25 days. 

But many – including traumatised children – can still be in overcrowded and unsafe camps months or even a year later.

At one site on Kos, almost a third of the 800 asylum seekers are children and adolescents. Many of them arrived alone after hazardous boat journeys across the Mediterranean. 

They include Mohamed, who fled from the conflict in Yemen. He is one of 400 young people aged from seven to 18 who have had lessons since April at an informal school on Kos.

“This is my second home,” said the 16-year-old. “I love everything about school.”

In a growing humanitarian crisis, UNHCR says there are currently just under 15,000 refugees and asylum seekers (those who don’t yet have refugee status granted) on the Greek Aegean islands. 

The majority have made it this far from war-torn Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq. More than a third of those who arrived during 2018 were under 18.

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Children wash their hands at a centre on a Greek island, where conditions at many reception centres are poor (ECW)

There is limited access to formal education for the children, who already face often squalid and inadequate conditions in the camps and a lack of support for their trauma and psychological problems. 

Many children on the island of Lesbos – where conditions were deteriorating last year – are self-harming or even attempting suicide, according to a report in September by Medecins sans Frontieres. At the time, the island had 7,000 people crammed into shelters built to accommodate just 2,000.

Yasmine Sherif, Director of Education Cannot Wait (ECW) – the fund set up to provide education in emergencies such as conflicts and natural disasters – visited Kos and Lesbos in October.

She met children, parents and teachers, as well as officials from local government, UN agencies and partner organisations.

“I have seen a lot of human suffering in my work over three decades in Africa, Asia, the Balkans and the Middle East,” Sherif told Their News. 

“While one should not compare suffering, the situation for refugees on the Aegean islands is among the worse I have seen.

The fact that thousands of refugees arriving on the shores of Europe are being locked out of an education is unacceptable. Theirworld President Justin van Fleet

“I felt a strong sense of indignation as I witnessed young human beings who have suffered wars and persecution, risking their lives across the sea, living in such inhumane conditions – in Europe.” 

Education Cannot Wait was established after campaigning by Theirworld and our Global Youth Ambassadors. 

Schools should be safe places where children can learn free from conflict, violence and fear. But Theirworld’s recent report Safe Schools: The Hidden Crisis projected that 620 million girls and boys – nearly 40% of all school-age children worldwide – will live in countries where their education is at risk from environmental threats, war or violence by 2030.

As part of Theirworld’s #WriteTheWrong campaign, our supporters will be working to ensure more funding goes to education in emergencies. 

“All children and young people deserve a safe school to learn in,” said Theirworld President Justin van Fleet. 

“The fact that thousands of refugees arriving on the shores of Europe are being locked out of an education is unacceptable. We must take immediate action to unleash their potential.” 

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Refugee children on the Aegean islands need education and support to deal with their trauma and psychological problems (ECW)

UNHCR and the children’s agency UNICEF have requested support from ECW, which is actively looking for the $3 million of funding needed from donors. 

The UN agencies aim to provide quality non-formal schools and psychosocial support programmes on the Greek Aegean islands of Kos, Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Leros and Rhodes. That would include preparing children to go into public schools on the Greek mainland.

The ECW funding would benefit more than 5,100 children and adolescents, including through pre-primary education programmes.

Sherif said: “I am worried about children and youth, who spend up to 12 months in fear pre-occupied with protecting themselves, lining up for food and living like cattle. What shall become of them? 

“The tireless work of UNHCR, UNICEF and local non-governmental organisations provides relief, recovery, continued learning and development. 

“This is absolutely essential for young refugees in order to get through their ordeal with some sense of dignity and hope. What these UN agencies and NGOs are doing is truly lifesaving work.”

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