Humanitarian Action

How can we give young refugees a future?

Syrian refugee girl Ele Cundi, 5, poses as she sits with her friends in a kindergarten at Midyat refugee camp in Mardin province, Turkey, December 14, 2015.

Syrian refugee girl Ele Cundi, 5, poses as she sits with her friends in a kindergarten at Midyat refugee camp in Mardin province, Turkey Image: REUTERS/Umit Bektas

Gordon Brown
United Nations Special Envoy for Global Education; World Health Organization Ambassador for Global Health Financing, The Office of Gordon and Sarah Brown
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The year 2016 has opened with a record number of men and women – 60 million – displaced from their homes in the wake of 35 separate conflicts and emergencies. With 20 million refugees now exiled from their countries, the world is suffering from the worst humanitarian crisis since 1945.

And nowhere are the threats people face greater or growing faster than in the Syrian civil war. By the end of this year 13 million Syrians are likely to be displaced and, while 800,000 have already left for Europe, almost six times as many (4.7million) are likely to be in temporary camps in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.

"In today’s world, we’re threatened less by evil empires and more by failing states,” said President Barack Obama in his last State of the Union address. “Some of these places may become safe havens for new terrorist networks. Others will just fall victim to ethnic conflict or famine, feeding the next wave of refugees. For even without ISIL, even without Al Qaida, instability will continue for decades in many parts of the world. The Middle East is going through a transformation that will play out for a generation.”

But what is to be the fate of young people, particularly the 200 million young people under 25 who are growing up in the Middle East and North Africa, a number that will grow to 225 million in the next few years? Not only are 47% of 18-25 year-olds in the region either unemployed or underemployed but with widespread access to social media these young people are aware as never before of the gap between the opportunities they crave and the limited opportunities in education, employment and entrepreneurship delivered to them.

Without the chance of education, many will become child labourers, be forced into early marriage or be trafficked. And we know that in war zones like Iraq many have become victims of rape, molestation and abuse.

Without the chance of education, many will fall victim to extremist influences exploiting young people’s discontent.

And without the chance of education many will spend their teenage years denied the one gift that education brings when it offers the chance to prepare and plan for the future - hope.

It is for these reasons that the international community committed itself to universal primary and secondary education for all children by 2030 when it set the Sustainable Development Goals in September last year. And policy makers were very clear that access to education was not enough: if the quality of that schooling left 60% of pupils failing to meet basic standards of attainment then we had to focus on the good teaching, effective school leadership and the rigorous curricula that are all essential to give young people the qualifications they require to succeed.

But while the Sustainable Development Goals set a bold objective, no one was able to show how we could raise the $20 billion plus extra finance needed each year to expand access to quality education. In countries like Nigeria where nearly 10 million children are out of primary school and in Pakistan where 7 million children don’t go to school, only 2% of the national income is spent on education, about half the level of spending essential to ensure universal access to education. And education aid is not rising but falling - by more than 10% in recent years.

That is why this year the International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity has been convened. Leaders including Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg and the presidents of Malawi, Indonesia and Chile will build a modern investment case for education and put forward a blueprint to show how countries can swiftly close a 100-year learning gap. The commission’s membership brings together five former heads of state, five Nobel laureates, former and current ministers of finance, labour and development, civil-society leaders and major CEOs.

The focus will be the needs of the most marginalized and most vulnerable, the 24 million out-of-school children residing in conflict-affected countries. These children are victims of the breakdown of law and order in their communities, many of them now refugees who will never enter a classroom throughout their school-age years. Under current arrangements most of them neither receive emergency help for their schooling from humanitarian funds nor do they benefit from development aid which is not geared towards emergencies.

That is why a new proposal is under discussion in advance of the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul this spring, of a humanitarian platform that could coordinate and finance the provision of education in emergencies. If a fund is agreed, it need not be a traditional public-sector fund but a public-private partnership that can draw on support from business, foundations and philanthropists.

Universal education cannot be a reality until we address the challenges faced by children who are the victims of conflict. And only through a concerted effort across the whole of the world and across public, private and voluntary sectors can we rise to the magnitude of the task ahead.

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Related topics:
Humanitarian ActionEducationDavos AgendaInternational Security
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