News & Reports

As Refugees’ Plight Worsens, School Becomes a Luxury

Refugee families in Jordan, Lebanon and elsewhere in the Arab world are increasingly being forced to make a hard choice for their children due to Covid-19: schooling or survival.

That’s because these displaced Syrians, Iraqis and others are especially vulnerable to exclusion from the formal labor market, social safety nets and international aid due to the economic, political and logistical impacts of the pandemic, a new report says.

The report, “Locked Down and Left Behind: The Impact of Covid-19 on Refugees’ Economic Inclusion,” by Refugees International, the International Rescue Committee and the Center for Global Development, illustrates how this economic exclusion is often the result of legal and practical barriers for refugees that existed before the pandemic, which is now exacerbating their situation in the face of spiraling inflation and falling employment in host countries.

The report notes that economic contraction is hitting top host countries such as Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey especially hard—as well as those who have taken refuge there.

As a result, schooling is increasingly becoming a luxury many cannot afford.

“Parents are prioritizing basic needs and struggling to meet them because their opportunities to earn have shrunk,” said Martha Guerrero Ble of Refugees International, a co-author of the report, released July 8.

“We’ve seen parents send their children to work instead of school because they’re not earning enough and they need their support to be able to pay the bills, to cover basic needs,” said Ble. “So as parents struggle to keep their jobs, access assistance and just be able to survive the crisis, we expect that some of these negative coping mechanisms like child labor will increase. And these will have effects as well on (children’s) ability to access education.”

“Our life was not good before the coronavirus but now it’s worse, everything is 10 times more expensive.”

Khalid Hussin  
A Syrian former schoolteacher in Lebanon

This situation is starting to play out in Khalid Hussin’s family. Hussin, a 42-year-old schoolteacher, fled his home in Hama, in western Syria, seven years ago, landing in Lebanon with his three young children. He’s running out of money because his informal work stocking warehouses in Tripoli has disappeared due to the closures caused by the Covid-19 lockdown, while the price of food has exploded.

“Our life was not good before the coronavirus but now it’s worse,” he told Al-Fanar. “Everything is 10 times more expensive.”

“My kids are not going to school anymore,” he added. “In the beginning, I tried to teach them at home but after a few weeks, I stopped as I became very stressed. I do not know what to do, I need money to feed them first, then I can teach them.”

From Bad to Worse

Lebanon and 15 other non-Gulf countries in the 22-member Arab League are “low and middle income” countries, which host more than 9 million refugees, the report says. Meanwhile, Lebanon and Jordan rank in the top 10 of “major hosting countries,” along with Turkey—home to almost 4 million refugees.

Many host countries were already struggling to accommodate their refugee populations before the pandemic. Lebanon, with an estimated 1.4 million refugees, has been in economic freefall since last year, and recently saw its currency collapse. The report notes that its economy is expected to contract by 12 percent in 2020.

Jordan, which hosts almost 3 million refugees, is predicted to see its economy contract by almost 4 percent.

In these countries, most refugees like Hussin work in sectors the report deems as “highly impacted” by the pandemic. In Turkey, 74 percent of refugees work in these sectors, which include manufacturing (with the majority in textiles), retail and services, according to the report. In Lebanon and Jordan, more than half do.

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That’s often because of restrictive laws that push refugees to work in specific industries, according to another recent report, by Human Rights Watch, titled “I Want to Continue to Study: Barriers to Secondary Education for Syrian Refugee Children in Jordan.”

For example, Jordan, one of the first countries to implement reforms to expand work opportunities for refugees, designated 37 employment sectors as completely off-limits for foreign nationals and set quotas for the so-called open fields. As a result, refugees mainly work in manufacturing, agriculture, and hospitality. Also, the government only issued about 50,000 active work permits as of 2018, tens of thousands less than it said it would issue and one-sixth of what’s needed, the Human Rights Watch report said.

Two brothers pose by a pickup truck in the Palestinian refugee camp of al-Wehdat, in Jordan. Their work as drivers has been interrupted during Jordan’s coronavirus lockdowns  (Photo: Omar Akour/AP).
Two brothers pose by a pickup truck in the Palestinian refugee camp of al-Wehdat, in Jordan. Their work as drivers has been interrupted during Jordan’s coronavirus lockdowns (Photo: Omar Akour/AP).

Now, those jobs are disappearing. In Jordan, 35 percent of Syrian refugees who were employed before Covid-19 have lost their jobs, compared to 17 percent of Jordanian citizens, according to the Refugees International report. In Lebanon, 60 percent of Syrians have been permanently laid off due to Covid-19, relative to 39 percent of Lebanese citizens. (See a related article, “Little Hope of Jobs for Syrians in Lebanon and Jordan”).

Meanwhile, help from host governments is often out of reach, researchers said, because of identity requirements or regulations that prevent refugees from accessing bank accounts or mobile phone service, often a prerequisite for aid.

At the same time, the pandemic is making it difficult for international donors and nongovernmental organizations to deliver humanitarian assistance, given border closures, disrupted supply chains and social distancing guidelines.

In Jordan, before the coronavirus pandemic, 80 percent of Syrian refugees were living in poverty, Human Rights Watch wrote. And while most Syrian families in Jordan have depended on financial support from humanitarian agencies for survival, the amounts they receive have been cut or substantially reduced in recent years.

Poverty Keeps Kids Out of School

According to Unesco’s most recent Global Education Monitoring Report, for 2020, poverty is one of the main factors in the exclusion of children from education worldwide and in the Arab region. (See a related article, “New Report Details Where Children Are Excluded From Education.”)

Using a measure called the wealth parity index—the ratio of the scores of the most disadvantaged students relative to the least disadvantaged—the report showed that those in the bottom socioeconomic quarter fared significantly worse in learning achievement than those in the top quarter in all countries worldwide, even before the pandemic hit.

In the Arab world, like most regions excluding Europe and North America, adolescents from the richest households were three times as likely to complete lower secondary school as those from the poorest households, the Unesco report said. Among those who completed lower secondary school, students from the richest households are twice as likely to have basic skills as those from the poorest households. And on average, only 18 of the poorest youth complete secondary school for every 100 of the richest youth.

In Jordan, less than 30 of the poorest youth complete secondary school for every 100 of the richest youth, the Unesco report shows, noting that gap is underestimated, since students from lower socioeconomic strata are more likely to leave school before age 15 and not take the high school exit test. That ratio is even lower for Morocco, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia.

In Jordan, Human Rights Watch notes 15 percent of Syrian 16-year-olds and 21 percent of 17-year-olds were enrolled in secondary school, as compared to more than 80 percent of Jordanian children of both ages.

“It’s pretty clear that it’s not going to be easy for families who were already having to make hard choices about which children go to school, and which children work, or for how long their children go to school.”

Adrienne Fricke  
A scholar with the Harvard-affiliated Education in Crisis Project

That’s no surprise to aid officials and researchers, who say the current economic situation faced by refugees will increase this disparity because child labor and child marriage are the most common coping mechanisms Syrian refugee families in Jordan use to survive poverty. Both practices keep children out of school.

“It’s pretty clear that it’s not going to be easy for families who were already having to make hard choices about which children go to school, and which children work, or for how long their children go to school,” said Adrienne Fricke of the Education in Crisis Project, part of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, of the impact of the pandemic. “It’s going to make the calculus even more difficult for those families.”

“Ensuring kids get schooling is going to be really difficult,” she added. “It wasn’t as though there was a high penetration rate before the pandemic and now, that access issue is likely to deepen.” 

Refugee Inclusion and Recovery Efforts 

Covid-19 has spurred both a health and an economic crisis, both of which are likely to increase xenophobia and racism in host countries, while lessening support for refugees and migrants as host countries prioritize their own population’s access to jobs and social services, the Refugees International report notes.

Manar Abbas, 33, a Syrian refugee who is a widow and mother of two children, knows this well. She was working as a salesclerk in a small shop in Beirut. But the shop closed last month without paying her salary.

“I can’t complain (to anyone), I work illegally,” she said. “Life is tough here. We Syrians understand the Lebanese suffering. I am even thinking of going back to Syria, but the border is closed and I do not have a house to go back to.”

The outlook for Syrians in Lebanon is bleak, Abbas says. Many Lebanese assume Syrians are more likely to have the coronavirus because of a presumed a lack of hygiene among the community, especially in crowded refugee camps. “It’s more difficult now to find a job for a Syrian here,” she added. “They are afraid of us.”

Before the pandemic, efforts to facilitate the economic inclusion of refugees were progressing, albeit slowly, says the Refugees International report. The effects of Covid-19 are threatening that progress.

But researchers at Refugees International, Human Rights Watch and other aid organizations say that increasing the economic inclusion of refugees would help the host nation’s economic recovery by capitalizing on the skills, labor, additional economic productivity and tax revenue that refugees can generate, while mitigating their drain on public resources.

And it would also help young people like 17-year-old Rukaya, who dreams of studying math at university, stay in school.

A Syrian refugee in Jordan in the 12th grade, Rukaya told Human Rights Watch last year that her family can’t pay their rent and the U.N. stopped much of its support due to budget constraints.

“I know that at any time, I could be stopped by the circumstances,” she said of attending class. “I want to continue to study but I know it could happen any day.”

Rasha Faek contributed to this report.


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