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Middle East Suffers Largest Share of Attacks on Higher Education

During the past five years, the Middle East has been a hotspot of attacks on higher education, with Yemen suffering the most violence, according to “Education Under Attack 2020,” a new report from the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack.

Yemen suffered 130 attacks on university facilities between 2015 and 2019, “often due to shelling, explosives, or airstrikes,” out of over 300 reports of attacks on higher education facilities in the world, the report said.

Afghanistan and Syria, the next most frequently affected countries, experienced between 20 and 30 such attacks during the five-year period.

In addition, Arab university students and professors have been targeted in a number of countries, typically after they spoke out or protested against government policies. Globally, there were at least 850 cases in which state security forces, or armed groups allied with governments, used excessive force against university students or personnel, killing, injuring or detaining them.

These incidents were reported in 73 countries, with the largest number of incidents in Ethiopia, India, Iran, Palestine, Nicaragua, Sudan, Turkey, and Venezuela.

More Than 11,000 Attacks Globally

When all levels of education are taken into account, more than 22,000 students, teachers, and academics worldwide were injured or killed in more than 11,000 attacks in 93 countries over the last five years. Although the number of attacks was a little lower than the 12,700 registered in the coalition’s previous report, covering the years 2013 to 2017, the number of countries reporting incidents increased from 74 in the earlier period.

Diya Nijhowne, executive director of the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack, said in a statement that “schools and universities should be safe havens, not sites of destruction or fear.” The New York-based coalition brings together United Nations agencies and nongovernmental organizations, and is supported by Norway, Qatar and several foundations.

The targeting of universities has been particularly pronounced in the Arab region. Globally, two-thirds of attacks on campuses and university buildings took place in the Middle East. “Attacks on higher education infrastructure is something we don’t see in other regions,” says Marika Tsolakis, lead researcher for the “Education Under Attack 2020” report.

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In Iraq, the U.N. found 79 schools in the Kirkuk governorate alone that were used for military purposes between 2015 and 2017. “Most of these cases were attributed to ‘ISIL’,” the report said.

“Schools and universities should be safe havens, not sites of destruction or fear.”

Diya Nijhowne  
executive director of the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack

Mosul University, a major, historic institution in Iraq, was badly damaged in the fighting to retake the city from the Islamic State. “This was a big loss for higher education,” says Tsolakis.

After the defeat of the Islamic State in 2017, unexploded ordnance left on educational premises, as well as on roads traveled by students and staff to and from schools, remained a serious problem. An explosive device left in Mosul University, detonated on April 6, 2017, while a group of students was cleaning in the building. The blast killed one student and wounded four others.

Aerial bombing and artillery shelling of universities has been most widely used in the conflicts in Yemen and Syria.

Abeer Pamuk, a Syrian refugee living in New York, started her studies in her hometown at the University of Aleppo in 2011, the year that country’s civil war began, but fled a year later. On January 15, 2013, two blasts, apparently caused by missiles, struck the campus of the University of Aleppo between a group of residency halls and the architecture faculty on the first day of exams, killing more than 80 people.

“That was where I used to sit on campus with my friends,” says Pamuk. “I imagine anyone who was there was killed.”

The University of Aleppo was known as a center of opposition to the government but was in a government-controlled part of the city. Responsibility for the attack was denied by all sides to the conflict. (See a related article, “U. of Aleppo Attack Kills 82.”)

“There is no clear accountability for the perpetrators,” says Mubarak Al Thani, head of global advocacy at the Qatar-based Education Above All foundation. “That is an encouraging factor for attacks on education.”

Progress on Protecting Schools

The new report says that a “significant–and preventable–cause of attacks was the use of schools for military purposes,” such as military bases, arms depots, and for recruiting students as fighters.

As of today, 104 countries have endorsed the 2015 Safe Schools Declaration, which commits governments to protect education from military use during armed conflicts. While the declaration has no enforcement mechanism, it appears to have had some concrete impact.

The Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack found at least 160 reported incidents of military use of schools and universities in 2015, but said the number dropped to at least 80 reported incidents in 2018. In 2017, for example, after the African Union called on its members to respect the Safe Schools Declaration, some 300 Burundian soldiers serving in the African Union peace support force in Somalia abandoned their military base on the Somalia National University campus west of Mogadishu.

“Attacks on higher education infrastructure is something we don’t see in other regions.”

Marika Tsolakis
 lead researcher for the “Education Under Attack 2020” report

Deadly Attacks in Yemen

While it might seem that anybody would support the aim of protecting schools and universities from attack, the issue is often caught up in political controversy.

Some of the worst attacks have taken place in Yemen. On August 9, 2018, for example, students from a religious school in northern Yemen, which is under the control of the rebel Houthi movement, were on a field trip to a religious shrine when their school bus was hit by an airstrike that killed at least 51 people. Under international scrutiny, the Saudi Arabia-led military coalition that is fighting against the Houthi movement, admitted responsibility.

The “Education Under Attack 2020” report says there were just over 2,000 attacks on education in Yemen between 2015 and 2019. “A significant proportion of reported attacks on schools were allegedly the result of airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition; however, ground combat, targeted explosive attacks, and targeted threats also affected schools.”

Yet in his annual report on children and armed conflict, released on June 15, 2020, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres removed Saudi Arabia from the list of parties responsible for grave violations against children, known as the “List of Shame.” Guterres said his decision was based on a “significant decrease” in casualties from Saudi-led bombing. But the move was sharply criticized by Human Rights Watch and other nongovernmental organizations.

The “Education Under Attack 2020” report says that attacks on schools and universities have sometimes been accompanied by sexual violence against students or staff. The report also points to the long-term consequences that attacks on education have on communities.

“Attacks on education not only kill or injure individual students and teachers, they also impact communities for years,” the coalition said in a statement accompanying the report. “With buildings or teaching materials destroyed and students and teachers living in fear, schools and universities close and some students never resume their education, impeding long-term development.”


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