June 21, 2019

"Educating refugee children is in all our interests"

A young girl in front of her tent outside the Reception and Identification Centre in Moria in Lesvos. Photo: © UNICEF/UN0274758/Haviv VII Photo

Justin van Fleet

President of Theirworld

Our president explains why we are beginning vital work in overcrowded camps on the Greek islands

At this time of the year holiday makers start arriving in serious numbers at the sand-fringed Greek islands of the eastern Aegean Sea. Most will have made a relatively short flight from their homes in western Europe.  

There will also be a rise in numbers from the other direction, east to west from Turkey. But they will use a very different mode of transportation. For they will be refugees, loaded by traffickers onto small, often treacherously overladen vessels.

Though only 2.5 miles at its shortest point, this stage of their journey to the European Union, the illegal sea crossing from Turkey to territory in Greece, still all too often carries fatal risk. Just last week at least seven migrants, including two children, died and 57 were rescued when their boat capsized near Lesbos.

The migrant crisis in the Mediterranean doesn’t dominate the headlines as it did at its peak in 2015 and 2016. In part, that is because the deal struck between Turkey and the EU has reduced the numbers of migrants reaching Greece and hence other EU states beyond. Under the deal, migrants arriving in Greece are, in theory, sent back to Turkey if they do not apply for asylum or if their claim is rejected. In exchange, Turkey receives billions in subsidies to handle greater numbers of migrants, chiefly from Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and volatile African states such as Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

As we observe World Refugee Day, we should  remember that the crisis has not gone away, that people are still prepared to take enormous risks in search of safety and the chance of a normal life for themselves and their children away from home countries racked by war, destruction and instability.

In the eastern Mediterranean, the crisis is now for the most part contained in overcrowded camps on islands such as Lesbos, Samos and Kos which have been likened to open prisons by Amnesty International. On Samos, a facility for 650 people is now home to an estimated 3,800. There is no electricity and few toilets. Rodents and vermin are rampant. For many, there is no more shelter than cardboard and torn tarpaulin. And as one visitor to the camp recently reported “you would not treat animals in this way – let alone humans”.

People are getting stuck in the Greek islands for a year or more, mostly because the Greek authorities do not have the capacity to process their asylum applications at an acceptable rate. More than a third of the 15,000 people in the camps are children, most forced to entertain themselves as fewer than 15 per cent have any form of education. Several hundred are unaccompanied minors, travelling alone.  

All too often, when conflict or crisis erupts, the educational needs of refugee children and youths are the last consideration – an afterthought following food, water, shelter and protection. The situation in the Greek islands is no exception.

Yet providing education in emergencies is critical. If children are absent from school, entire generations can be lost to child labour, trafficking, child marriage or recruitment into conflict or vulnerable to other life-threatening activities. Educating children contributes towards rebuilding damaged communities but, more importantly provides a sense of hope and opportunity what otherwise appears hopeless situation.

Coping with the global flows of refugees is an unavoidably political issue requiring longer-term solutions, but how we treat refugees, especially innocent children, is a matter for moral courage, without room for any expediency.

Locking children out of education is a sure-fire way to increase instability and inequality, as well as eroding their hope and dreams and betraying what should be our vision of a sharing world. It is in the interests of all countries that may end up resettling refugees in the longer-term that the children are healthy and feel secure.

However, in 2016 only 60% of refugee children, out of a global refugee figure of 22.5 million, were enrolled in primary education and less than 2 per cent of humanitarian aid was dedicated to educational activities. To address this gap in the system, more than 50 leading charities, convened by Theirworld, campaigned to set up Education Cannot Wait (ECW), the first global fund to prioritise education in crises and humanitarian emergencies.

The fund aims to help the hardest-to-reach children and keep a watching brief on all hotspots where children’s education is at risk – in Venezuela, Syria, the Central African Republic, as well as the Greek Aegean islands.

It has already reached 1.3 million youth with education in countries ranging from  Colombia and Ecuador to Syria and Somalia. Within a few weeks, thanks to Theirworld and the Dutch Postcode Lottery, projects will begin in the Greek island camps. These will offer non-formal education to children designed to jumpstart the learning process and restore their self-confidence and mental resilience, bringing a sense of normalcy to an otherwise chaotic environment.  

Coping with the global flows of refugees is an unavoidably political issue requiring longer-term solutions, but how we treat refugees, especially innocent children, is a matter for moral courage, without room for any expediency.

By the time the last of this summer’s peak-season tourists are heading home, we expect to be seeing the first benefits of the work on the ground among the refugee children in Lesbos, Kos and Samos. It is right that we all have a stake in their future.

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