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Syria and the Refugee Iceberg

WASHINGTON, DC – If the only refugee crisis that the world faced today were in Syria, it would be challenging and heartbreaking enough. But the tragic truth is that the Syrian crisis is the tip of an enormous – and expanding – iceberg. Many other refugee crises around the world never make it into the international headlines. Indeed, a staggering 86% of the world’s refugees live in developing countries, most of which draw very little media attention.

Chad is one such country. With roughly 13 million people, Chad is situated at the center of immense regional turmoil, conflict, and instability. As a result, it hosts more than 372,000 refugees. These are people who have fled violence in Sudan’s Darfur region to the east of Chad, a shattering civil war in the Central African Republic to its south, and the escalating terror of Boko Haram in Nigeria and neighboring countries to the west.

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As one of the poorest countries in the world, Chad struggles to meet the basic human needs of its own population, let alone the many battered people from beyond its borders. To make matters worse, Chad is in the Sahel region, which has suffered acute famine over the last few years, and declining oil prices have hit the regional economic outlook.

Wherever they are, most refugees face nearly identical depredations: hunger and dehydration, lack of decent shelter, susceptibility to illness, vulnerability to continued threats from combatants and terror groups, the emotional trauma of what’s lost, and anxiety about what lies ahead.

Also, not least, they share the risk that their children might not receive the education they need and deserve – and as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights promises. Indeed, conflict and crisis is one of the biggest, and growing, barriers to educating the world’s children.

Humanitarian emergencies and protracted crises disrupted the education of more than 80 million children and youth in 35 countries in 2015. That’s almost the size of a country like Germany. Failing to provide basic services for these children robs them not only of their childhood, but also of their future.

About four million people in Chad – or about one-third of the country’s population – will need humanitarian assistance in 2016. In the Lake Chad region, which is host to the most recent wave of arrivals, more than 60% of children are out of school. The average class size for those in primary school is 75, and the rate of adult illiteracy is 96% – shocking statistics that no country should have to accept.

That’s why the Global Partnership for Education recently approved Chad’s request for an expedited emergency education grant of about $7 million to benefit both refugee and local children. The money will go toward the construction of classrooms, training for hundreds of teachers, the delivery of thousands of textbooks, and other supplies. It will also fund micronutrients and parasite treatment for all students and the food, water, hygiene, and human care critical to children’s development, especially during times of distress.

Humanitarian responses too often give lower priority – and thus far fewer resources – to education than, say, basic health, shelter, and nutrition. In fact, only about 2% of humanitarian aid goes to education.

What the world needs is a dedicated platform and financing mechanism that mobilizes new resources to secure education for children caught in the maelstrom of severe conflict and protracted crisis. At GPE, we are conscious that at current resource levels we can do only so much. More money and new forms of coordination are needed.

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Against this backdrop, it is heartening to see that global leaders have been engaged for the last year in concerted efforts to establish such a platform, which is expected to be launched in May at the World Humanitarian Summit in Turkey. I have felt privileged to play a role in the Champions’ Group, which has pressed for this change agenda. Gordon Brown, the UN Special Envoy for Global Education, has played and continues to play a galvanizing leadership role.

Conflict and fragility, not only in Syria, but also in many other lesser-known sites of mass misery, are among the most urgent and seemingly intractable global challenges of our time. Our only hope of breaking out of this cycle of violence and poverty is to ensure that every child, including those trapped by crisis, gets quality schooling and the ability to build a brighter future.