North Africa, West Asia

For young Syrian refugees, education and employment cannot remain apolitical

Why is it that despite the huge efforts invested by donors and UN agencies, do young refugees continue to struggle with respect to education and employment?

Maha Shuayb Cathrine Brun
20 November 2020
Students at a public school in Beirut, Lebanon
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Britta Pedersen/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved

One of the lessons the Syrian crisis has brought to the fore is that protracted refugee situations have become the norm. This new reality has called for a shift from a short term humanitarian response focused on saving lives to a developmental one that addresses the long-term needs of both refugees and host communities. Lebanon and Jordan, as countries where the majority of Syrian refugees live outside refugee camps, have been testing grounds for ideas on how to make this transition.

A recent study on young people’s education and employment in displacement-contexts, conducted by the Centre for Lebanese Studies at Lebanese American University, and the Centre for Development and Emergency Practice at Oxford Brookes University, follows the trajectories of 1449 young refugees and nationals in Lebanon and Jordan. The study exposes the challenges faced by refugees in education and the rift between education and employment in both national and humanitarian policies.

Education and employment are two sectors where the response to the Syrian crisis attempted to move from a humanitarian to a development approach. However, after nearly ten years, there is ample evidence both in Lebanon and Jordan that shows the inability of current interventions to create development for both refugees and host populations.

According to a report by the Norwegian Refugee Council, after almost a decade of education interventions, over 40% of Syrian school-aged children are out of school or have never been enrolled in school, less than 2% are enrolled in grade 9, and 4% in grade 12. In Jordan, the numbers are similar according to a report by Investing in the Future.

Similarly, there is limited success in creating relevant employment programmes for refugees, despite the international pressure on making employment available for Syrians in both countries. In Lebanon, for example, around 53% of Syrian refugee households are estimated to have only one working household-member, which is substantially lower than among nationals.

Inherited education inequalities

According to our study, refugees are systematically worse off in the education system compared to nationals in Lebanon. Nationals are almost 20% more likely to achieve higher educational attainment compared to refugees. Refugees in both Lebanon and Jordan, though in Lebanon the situation is worse, were more likely to drop out from education without obtaining a certificate that qualifies them to join the job market.

The differences between refugees and nationals, most prominent in the case of Lebanon, must be understood in the local context where refugees have been accommodated in an education system that suffers from severe inequalities.

the employment markets in both countries exploit both refugees and nationals with low educational outcomes

The public educational system suffers from inherited problems that affect the quality of teaching and learning for refugees. Over 70% of Lebanese pupils are registered in private schools. While strengthening the public system is a step towards a development approach, the current provisions came at the expense of refugee children: Similar to Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon for over 60 years, Syrian refugees in public schools are forced to enrol in a school system that refuses to accommodate their needs.

In both Jordan and Lebanon, the system forces refugees to attend segregated afternoon school shifts which are shorter and of less quality compared to morning shifts dedicated mainly to Lebanese and Jordanian children. Moreover, nationalistic Lebanese and Jordanian curricula leave no space for diversity in the classroom causing refugees to suffer a great deal of acculturation.

A rift between education and employment

Employment for refugees has been a more contentious dimension of national policies. In the course of shifting towards a policy of development, the link between education and employment remains absent in both countries. In our study, the mismatch between the job market and the educational qualifications for both nationals and refugees was evident in the negative relation between education attainment and employment status.

Youth who had primary education qualifications were more likely than those with higher qualifications to find employment, yet they had low employment outcomes with lower job satisfaction, lower income and limited job- and social protection. In other words, the employment markets in both countries exploit both refugees and nationals with low educational outcomes, an insight that requires us to question the purpose and outcomes of humanitarian education for refugees.

Inequality and exploitation

So why is it that despite the huge efforts invested by donors and UN agencies, do young refugees continue to struggle with respect to education and employment?

One of the answers lies in the pre-existing inequalities that the response did not address. In moving from a humanitarian approach towards integrating education and employment for refugees into national response plans and policies, existing inequalities among refugees and hosts continue to be overlooked and weaknesses in the current national systems are not tackled.

Education and employment cannot remain apolitical while being occupied with the technicalities of implementing education and wishfully hoping things turn up for the best

For example, new policies did not address the neo-liberal and free market policies that have resulted in inequalities and the exploitation of the most vulnerable and marginalised groups.

Another answer can be found in how the response and development discourse overlooked the impact of legal status of refugees which strips them from their basic rights to participate economically, socially and politically. This means that whatever development will happen will be predominantly focused on nationals.

Finally, till now, there is a great degree of vagueness about the meaning and objectives of this desired ‘development’ especially in the context of forced migration. However, what is evident from policy documents and response plans, is the adoption of a distributive concept of development which is focused on the minimum access to products and services.

Following a distributive concept of justice that is restricted to only providing access to education and employment without linking it to equality of outcomes, representation and participation will only yield further marginalisation and will strengthen the exploitation of the most vulnerable youth. Education and employment policies and practices need to be perceived and planned in a manner that can help deconstruct unequal structures and relations.

Consequently, education and employment cannot remain apolitical while being occupied with the technicalities of implementing education and wishfully hoping things turn up for the best.

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