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Iraq’s Education Crisis: 2.5 Million Children Are at Risk, Group Warns

Iraq faces an education crisis in areas liberated from the Islamic State’s control, says the Norwegian Refugee Council. More than 2.5 million school-age children need help to access education as a result of a large shortage of teachers, overcrowded classrooms and the lack of adequate funding, the independent humanitarian organisation says in a new report.

“Many of these children have already lost years of schooling,” said Alexandra Saieh, an advocacy manager with the Norwegian Refugee Council in Iraq. “If the Iraqi government does not prioritize providing trained teachers and building schools for children in displacement areas, they risk losing a lot.”

Two years have passed since the defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq, yet about 1.6 million Iraqis are still displaced, only 25 percent of whom live in camps, according to the independent humanitarian group. More than 90 percent of displaced families decline to return to their homes due to the lack of a clear plan to resettle them. The areas where they live lack the most basic humanitarian services and suffer from a severe shortage of school buildings, which caused more than 240,000 children to be deprived of education last year, the council said in its report, published late last month.

The report, titled “Urgent Measures Needed to Stop Iraq’s Displaced Children Being Left Behind,” documents the period in which the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, controlled large areas of Iraq and caused millions of children to lose three years of school or more.

“With hundreds of schools damaged as a result of the military operations, the classrooms are often overcrowded.”

Alexandra Saieh  
An advocacy manager with the Norwegian Refugee Council in Iraq

Some children were forced to study a curriculum imposed by the terrorist group, which banned teaching subjects like history, philosophy and arts and focused instead on military training and teaching the jihadists’ own interpretation of Islamic law. (See a related article, “What Education Is like Under the Islamic State.”)

As a result, many families did not send their children to school.

At the same time, a large number of school buildings were damaged or destroyed in the campaign to reclaim the area from ISIS. In the Nineveh Governorate, there are 1,447 schools now, compared to about 1,870 schools before the extremist group overran the region, according to the report.

Understaffed Schools

Schools in the liberated areas are missing a third of the total number of teachers they need for the current academic year, according to the Iraq Education Cluster Strategy developed by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. In a camp for displaced people in Kirkuk, for example, there are only two teachers on the ministry’s list for more than 1,700 pupils enrolled in two primary schools. In another camp nearby, there are eight teachers for more than 700 pupils in primary schools.

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“Volunteer lecturers,” some of whom receive wages provided by international organizations, help counter the teacher shortages. However, some of these volunteers have not been paid for a long time. In some cases, displaced families have had to raise funds to support the volunteers, according to the council’s report.

Girls sit in a crowded classroom at a school near Mosul. Iraq faces a severe shortage of teachers and needs more school buildings, advocates say (Photo: Tom Peyre-Costa/NRC).
Girls sit in a crowded classroom at a school near Mosul. Iraq faces a severe shortage of teachers and needs more school buildings, advocates say (Photo: Tom Peyre-Costa/NRC).

“There is a great shortage of educational cadres in Mosul as well as in other areas of displacement,” said Harith al-Abbasi, a teacher from Mosul who now works in an Iraqi private school in Istanbul. “The situation of schools in Mosul in general is very poor.”

The Iraqi government has pledged to hire more teachers, according to Saieh. However, no clear timetable has been set for this.

“With hundreds of schools damaged as a result of the military operations, the classrooms are often overcrowded,” she said. “Many children from the surrounding areas and camps are still without education, as enough trained teachers have not been allocated to ensure that children can get a good education.”

‘ISIS Children’: Stigmatized and Deprived

The report also highlights the denial of the right to education to an estimated 45,000 children whose parents are suspected of having been affiliated with the Islamic State. These children, who were born in or lived in areas controlled by ISIS between 2014 and 2017, lack the civil documents required by the Iraqi government to register in schools.

Iraqi Ministry of Education officials have signaled their approval of a plan to allow unregistered children to enroll in schools, but this agreement has not been fully put in place. One in every five Iraqi families reported that their children were denied access to education and other basic rights, according to an earlier study by the Norwegian Refugee Council.

“Denying children their right to education because of something their parents might have done is a grossly misguided form of collective punishment,” said Lama Fakih, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, in a press statement. “It undermines any potential government efforts to counter extremist ideology by pushing these children to the margins of society.”

To alleviate the education crisis confronting Iraqi children today, the Norwegian Refugee Council’s report recommends six urgent measures that the Iraqi government should take. They are:

  • Scale up the number of trained teachers in formal schools, particularly in areas with high numbers of displaced people.
  • Make more school facilities for both primary and secondary education available, and provide government support and staffing for them.
  • Allow children who lack the required civil documents to attend schools, sit for exams and obtain certificates.
  • End any occupation of schools by the military, security forces or other armed groups, in line with the Safe Schools Declaration, an international commitment by governments to protect education during periods of conflict. Iraq is one of more than 100 nations that have endorsed the agreement.
  • Provide support to non-formal education programs in camps for refugees and displaced people, and support accelerated learning programs to help students who have been out of school for years to reintegrate into the education system.
  • Fully fund the education measures called for under the United Nations’ Iraq 2019 Humanitarian Response Plan and ensure that the government allocates adequate support for education.

Saieh, from the Norwegian Refugee Council, stresses the importance of supporting the education of children as an investment in Iraq’s future. “If not, a new generation of Iraqi children will be further deprived,” she said. “This will undermine prospects for a stable and inclusive Iraqi society in the future.”

However, she believes that the Iraqi government cannot afford the cost of such measures on its own.

“The damage left by the military operations against ISIS has been enormous, one the government will not be able to stand alone,” she said. “That is why we are calling on the international community to support displaced Iraqi children to obtain their right to education.”


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