Syrian refugees at risk of becoming a lost generation
So what impact have recent developments had on the ability of Syrian refugees in Lebanon to access higher education? Interviews with post-secondary students who have recently dropped out of university due to ongoing political instability, social disruption caused by the pandemic and economic meltdown highlight some of the issues.
Before the Lebanese uprising and the COVID-19 pandemic, many refugee students expressed their concerns about their future, given the problems they faced in a country which was already in chaos. The barriers they face are multiple, but common themes that emerged from the interviews were: discrimination, destitution, uncertainty, insecurity and displacement.
Today, the situation has deteriorated to the extent that refugees cannot afford their basic living needs due to the continuous devaluation of the local currency and the hyper-inflation Lebanon is currently witnessing.
To help Syrian refugees cover their basic needs, Lebanon receives hundreds of millions of dollars in humanitarian aid each year from UN agencies and international NGOs. However, Syrian refugees get monthly payments in the form of vouchers in the local currency which has lost more than 90% of its value since the beginning of the revolution in October 2019.
A recent investigation by Thomson Reuters Foundation found that Lebanese banks have exchanged US$250 million in UN humanitarian aid intended for refugees to local currency at very low rates. Instead of receiving financial support in US dollars, refugees’ purchasing power has declined and they can now buy far less with the local currency they receive from humanitarian aid organisations. Given the free fall of the Lebanese economy, refugees are now living below the extreme poverty line.
In addition to financial insecurity, Syrian refugees have always been the victims of racism and discrimination in their everyday life. In a damning new report published this year, Amnesty International found that Syrian refugees often find themselves arbitrarily detained on suspicion of terrorism-related charges and other false claims.
According to Amnesty International, officials in Lebanon have brutally tortured detainees, violated their right to due process, held them incommunicado and denied them a fair trial. These factors have exacerbated the already impossible living conditions for refugees in Lebanon. With no hope in sight, many refugee students have been forced to drop out of college due to the ongoing political, security and economic crises that have gravely impacted their psychological wellness, health and well-being.
Given the constantly rising living expenses and the devaluation of the Lebanese Lira – or pound – Laila, a Syrian refugee majoring in economics at a private university in Lebanon, said: “I was not able to pay my tuition this year because my family lost its purchasing power. My family business was profitable, but we cannot afford to pay the bills now… I dropped out this semester to work.”
Zaher stated: “I will skip next semester because I am the sole provider for my family now because our income is peanuts today. I used to go to the Lebanese University and now I cannot afford it, although many consider it inexpensive.”
All the interviewees indicated that they have surrendered to despair and emphasised how hard they are trying to emigrate.
In their pursuit of knowledge, Syrian refugee students seem to be desperate to find a place they can call home – a place where they can fulfil their basic rights to education, healthcare and prosperity.
“We are striving to be in a country where equality and security are in place. We want free education with no discrimination… We want to feel like home,” Maram, a sophomore at a private Islamic university, said. Ali echoed those thoughts when he described his situation: “I cannot do anything now but search for an opportunity abroad. I want to live in a country that appreciates my existence. Living in limbo is a killer.”
Other factors that obstruct their education include the arbitrary measures taken against Syrian refugees in Lebanon. The interviewees argued that discrimination against them is systematic in that they are prohibited from integrating into Lebanese society. Not only does this limit refugees’ higher education opportunities, it forces them to drop out of education which could possibly destroy their futures.
Zeinab said: “Syrians in Lebanon are unaware that they are a lost generation. Syria will never rise again if students continue dropping out of college.”
In order to prevent these students becoming a lost generation, the international community should work closely with the Lebanese government to ensure the implementation of the Education for All initiatives and UN Sustainable Development Goal 4. UN agencies and international NGOs are required to allocate sufficient resources to refugee students at K-12 and higher education levels.
As a first step, they could establish a scholarship fund that covers refugee students’ tuition, living expenses and study costs. Given that Lebanon is on the verge of becoming a failed state, funds allocated for this purpose should go directly to affiliated universities rather than the government.
Equally importantly, accreditation bodies should monitor refugee enrolment rates at public and private universities, review existing financial aid policies and examine the extent to which these universities are providing disadvantaged students with work-study opportunities.
Today, more than ever, the international community should ensure equity in public education spending if they are to enhance human progress. Failing to provide equal learning opportunities for refugee students in Lebanon or other host nations will increase illiteracy rates, widen the gap between different social classes and create new lost generations incapable of rebuilding their societies after conflict.
Ibrahim M Karkouti is an assistant professor of educational leadership at the American University in Cairo, Egypt.