We are failing the children of Syria and Lebanon. This tragedy is avoidable • The Syrian Observatory For Human Rights

We are failing the children of Syria and Lebanon. This tragedy is avoidable

It is shameful that a plan to secure educational facilities for refugee and poor children is threatened because of a shortfall of funds

Valley after valley of snow-covered canvas tents. Temperatures plummeting below zero. A landscape that screams Siberia but a reality that is altogether different. This is Lebanon, and a freak winter is the last thing this nation needs.

The tragedy of a six-year-old Syrian boy who froze to death in last week’s heavy snow highlights the plight of 465,000 Syrian child refugees, who having fled to neighbouring Lebanon remain destitute as plans to give them nutrition and education rapidly fail due to lack of funds.

The boy, from a family party of three, died with his father while crossing from Syria into Lebanon. He perished not because of bullets, but simply because he was too weak to survive a blizzard on the perilous mountain trek. And only four days ago, a 48-year-old Syrian mother of two died of cold inside her unheated tent in Baalbek. Her two young daughters, who survived the extreme temperatures, have already been taken in by a Lebanese family, it was reported. This winter storm, called Zina, is bringing a new form of heartbreak to a country that is all too familiar with human tragedy.

“Children are freezing and hungry,” I was told by desperate Syrian refugee leaders who explained that food rations had been cut, what shelter there is remains makeshift, and the promise of school places for children is evaporating. Incredibly, amid the winter snow many children still wear open sandals and have no proper clothing. No one truly believes this will be their last winter as refugees.

In just four weeks, Unicef and its partners have distributed 70,000 winter kits including clothes to help keep children warm. But due to the most recent snowstorm, key roads and highways were blocked, hindering delivery trucks and mobile medical units from reaching badly affected areas. But a longer-term solution, and the funding of it, is now critical.

An increase of just $7 a week per child – $163m in total – is urgently needed to top up the fund to make sure that each one of the Syrian and Palestinian refugees have school places in Lebanon under the double-shift system and non-formal education plan accepted by the Lebanese government and backed by international organisations. But the plan, which works, has yet to receive the full funding it needs.

Today I will meet the Lebanese education minister whose government has generously offered to provide school places for all Syrian refugees ifthe money can be found to get them to school.

Only $100m of the required $263m has been collected, despite the generosity of many international aid agencies. Very soon we will need more: it is estimated that the number of Syrian refugee children who are between the ages of three and 18 will rise to 655,000. They are joined by more than 50,000 Palestinian refugees looking for school places, and another 40,000 Lebanese children who are currently without schooling.

To make the situation worse, many thousands of children have now been out of school for several years, live in informal settlements, work in the fields, are forced by parents and family to beg, and are at risk from the worst forms of child labour, exploitation and of being drawn into gangs and militant activities.

With 6 million Syrians now displaced, the refugee tragedy is fast joining the list of the world’s biggest humanitarian disasters since 1945, and it is hitting children hard. Nearly half of Syrians registered as refugees with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) are under 18, and they should have their right to access education guaranteed by the convention on the rights of the child.

Often the reason that help is not provided, and suffering not relieved, is that it is impossible to deliver aid in an emergency and the chaos makes co-ordination too difficult. But in the case of humanitarian aid for education, there has been a long-term undervaluing of its importance: it forms only 2% of humanitarian aid budgets. And it is shameful that in the case of the current Syrian crisis in Lebanon there is a plan that can help all exiled children, but we do not have sufficient international aid to deliver it.

The plan commits government and partners to providing 470,000 Syrian school-aged children (aged from three to 18) affected by the Syria crisis, and poor Lebanese children, with access to quality learning opportunities in safe and protective environments by 2016.

But our failure to deliver so far means that children are on the streets – vulnerable, at risk and without hope. Sadly, some have been forced into child labour, some girls have been forced to become child brides and some, tragically, are being recruited into militant organisations. Too many are subject to abuse.

During the 2013-14 school year, 229,000 children out of 619,100 in need received support to help access education, leaving an estimated 390,100 not in school, of whom approximately 300,000 are Syrians registered as refugees with UNHCR. Additionally, 141,000 children were helped to enrol in formal education (90,000 Syrian children registered as refugees by UNHCR were supported through payment of enrolment fees, 44,700 poor Lebanese were supported with parent contributions, and 6,300 Palestine refugees from Syria attended UNRWA-managed schools in Lebanon); 99 schools were renovated in order to increase classroom capacity, improve school conditions and provide wash facilities for boys and girls; 2,500 Lebanese teachers benefited from professional development; and psychosocial support in learning centres and schools was increased to cater for nearly 55,000 children traumatised by the conflict.

Now an official UN survey is poised to show that international efforts mean 45,000 children from Syria have successfully enrolled in the double-shift schools, but 71% of displaced Syrians have never gone to school, and those who do enrol are at primary level, with very few (only about 3,000) going to secondary. Most are still without schools.

So in the next few days it is urgent that we get beyond the $100m pledged so far, and raise the additional $163m that is needed. We will be asking every aid agency and Middle Eastern country to do more. When you see avoidable tragedy it is time to act.



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