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Syrian Refugees (Schooling)

Volume 575: debated on Thursday 13 February 2014

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Claire Perry.)

If any one of us were to visit the children’s section of the museum commemorating the genocide that happened in Rwanda, we would immediately be drawn to a picture of a young boy called David. The words that describe what happened to that boy are very brief indeed, and the biographical details are sparse, but they say, “David, aged 10; favourite sport, football; pastime, making people laugh; ambition, to be a doctor; death, by torture; last words, ‘The United Nations are coming to help us.’” That young boy, in his idealism and innocence, believed that the world would honour the promise that it had made to help people such as him in times of need and desperate difficulty. His story, and the words that he said to his mother before he tragically died, have influenced me a great deal over the years.

As I look at the situation that is emerging in Syria, those words come back to me, and they did so particularly when I heard a young teenage girl in Syria issuing a plea to the world with the words, “Why have you abandoned us?” That young girl had been made homeless in her city of Homs. Her father, mother and sister—her disabled sister was in a wheelchair—were pushed out on to the streets, and her school had been bombed. She was without shelter, without accommodation, without food and, of course, without a return to schooling. That young girl issued a plea in a letter to me in which she said that she had been a champion at chess, she had been a leader of her youth group, and she had sung with her church choir. Now, she said, she had lost not only her school and her home, but she had lost hope. She said:

“Everything is lost. I feel like I should show you so you will believe me.”

That young girl dreamed of continuing her education despite the chaos, and by good fortune linking her up to a great charity in Britain, she is now studying in a college in the United Kingdom. She dreams that one day she will go back to Syria and use the skills that she is learning in service of her country.

But there are today 3 million girls and boys like her who are now the victims of the civil war in Syria, displaced from their homes in what is now a disaster of biblical proportions. It is officially, as you know, Madam Deputy Speaker, already the biggest humanitarian tragedy since the second world war. Some years from now the world will look back on what happened and wonder why we did so little, faced with a catastrophe that has made more people permanently homeless than the world’s most recent natural disasters, from the Asian tsunami of 2004 to the Haiti earthquake of 2010.

We know that, historically, children are the innocent but often forgotten victims of conflict, and that children need to be able think of a future ahead of them. They need to be able to dream. They need to have hope, and the best way to deliver that hope and to give them the future that is essential for them, is somehow to enable them to return to school: children, like the seven and eight-year-olds whom I have read about and heard of who have never been at school; children who are now in their teens and will never finish their education; young girls who are now being trafficked in Lebanon and in other parts of the region, who dream of a future that is violence free.

In this debate—I am grateful that the Minister is here to reply to it and that he had a meeting with me yesterday about these issues—I do not want to focus on the diplomatic complexities of the region, nor do I want to speculate on the foreign policy considerations that I know are involved. I am not here to do anything other than to acknowledge the Government’s £1 billion contribution to Syrian aid; to appreciate their recent announcement of £100 million of extra aid at the Kuwait pledging conference; to thank the Secretary of State in her absence for the £6 million that has been given to Lebanon for books for Syrian and Lebanese children. But I am here to join 50 international development agencies and departments from around the world, all known for their humanitarian work, which have today made an urgent appeal to Governments about an emergency that can be addressed by a very specific plan that they are asking this Government and other Governments now to support.

Tomorrow, the Minister—to whom we should be grateful —will be able to meet the Prime Minister of Lebanon. He is the Prime Minister of a troubled, divided country, bleeding from the biggest inflow of refugees, who now form one quarter of the population of his country. His plea is not only for more food, more shelter, more medical care for girls and boys and for adults, but, because he knows too that these young children need more than food, more than shelter, more than health care, his is an appeal that their right as children to have an education, even in these troubled times, be upheld, and be upheld during the crisis as long as it lasts.

I want to ask the Government today to accept and to contribute to what I believe is the most innovative plan that has so far been developed, by UNICEF and UNHCR, to provide education, not for a few hundred or a few thousand, but for 435,000 Syrian refugee children who are now located in Lebanon but who now are not at school, and without this plan may never be at school. The plan that I want to address today is one that will support the biggest number of pupils ever helped in an education conflict zone. I believe it could be up and running within weeks and months, not years. I believe I can show that it is cost-effective and affordable, and I believe that it establishes a principle that just as the Red Cross established a right to health care 150 years ago when it moved into war zones and said that health should be a right of people even in these troubled areas, so too the right to education can exist across borders and even when children are located and caught and sometimes trapped in areas of conflict.

Let us look at the figures we are dealing with. Today, of the 3 million children who have been displaced in and from Syria, 1 million have had to flee their country, and almost half of them are in beleaguered Lebanon. Those children are the subject of the call today by the 50 anti-poverty advocacy groups that—this is the slogan—“education cannot wait.” On best estimates, those child refugees are likely to spend at least 10 years away from their homes, in camps, temporary shelters or elsewhere.

However, if we adopted the plan submitted to the Government several weeks ago, which has been compiled by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and UNICEF, as many as 435,000 of those children could get to school, and it could happen quickly, as I have said, because the plan is beautiful in its simplicity. It would put existing Lebanese schools on double shifts, offering one set of classes by day and one set in the evenings. Thus, all the 435,000 refugee children, who are spread across the country in about 1,500 locations, rather than concentrated in one place, could be offered the chance of schooling. Because we would be using existing classrooms and would thus be spared the expense of building new schools, the annual cost would be an astonishing £5 a week per pupil, or $8, which is $400 a year.

The money, as I think the Minister knows, would go to five separate projects that are part of the Education without Borders initiative: 80,000 children would be in the schools; 100,000 would be catered for by non-governmental organisations and the Government in joint projects; 175,000 would be catered for in NGO-led projects—many of the NGOs that have signed the missive to the Government and other Governments are part of that—and at the same time 40,000 children would be in nursery schools, so that they could start school at age three; and 35,000 15 to 18-year-olds, many of whom may have missed out on education over the past three years because of the conflict, would be given skills and the chance to get jobs. It is a figure that offers almost every refugee child in Lebanon the chance to enrol in schooling and the hope of the better future that goes with it.

Proof that the double shift system is working, albeit on a smaller scale, can be found in a north Lebanese village called Akroum. In a unique effort, we have volunteer Syrian teachers, local Lebanese school heads and a small Scottish charity called Edinburgh Direct Aid operating the local school there, in what they call a timeshare, outside normal school hours to give those refugees the chance to be taught, this time in Arabic. Almost immediately, boys and girls who had fled from burnt-down and bombed schools, and who only a few weeks ago had been, in some cases, child labourers and even beggars, have started to recover their lost childhood and now have hope that there is something to live for. What has been achieved on that small scale in that village on the border with Syria can now be achieved at speed for 435,000 Syrian refugees, if we urgently adopt this plan.

My frustration, and the reason I called this debate, with the permission of Mr Speaker, is that that idea was conceived nine months ago. It was negotiated with the Lebanese Prime Minister six months ago—we have met, had talks and agreed the plan. It has been subject to two in-depth reports: one by the respected Overseas Development Institute, a British charity working in that area; and the other by UNICEF, with the UNHCR. It is now sitting on a table awaiting implementation while the problem has worsened and while all this winter children, with few exceptions, are walking the streets, some tragically trafficked into prostitution and some even forced into early marriage as child brides. That is why, for three reasons, I urge the Minister to be positive in his response today and to tell me not only that he supports in principle the plan being put forward by all the different agencies and led by UNICEF, but that the Government will contribute to it in the way that others have done.

First, since we started on this exercise, 300,000 more people have moved into Lebanon. In the past nine months, 150,000 children have been added to the list of those in need, and that number is growing at about 5,000 a week. If we do not act now, the problem will simply get worse. I think the Minister is aware of the politics of Lebanon, where in a divided country there is a huge dispute as to whether—

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Greg Hands.)

After 30 years in this House, Madam Deputy Speaker, there are still procedures that I did not know. It is also very good to speak to a relatively empty House because there is not much opposition to what I say.

I was saying that, first, this is urgent and the Government should act because the problem is getting worse. Secondly, the Lebanese Prime Minister, as the Minister will particularly recognise after he meets him tomorrow, has sold this plan to a divided population, some of whom would want to throw out the Syrian refugees and some of whom would want to deny them any help. The Prime Minister is now asking why so much of the world has yet to support this humanitarian plan. One of the reasons why action is urgent is that his Ministers are risking their lives every day while his Government struggle to hold together around a plan that he has personally championed—and that I believe the Minister will wish to support.

The third reason why I think the Minister will want to respond positively, as I hope he does, is that other countries want to be part of this initiative and want to help. The United States of America, Norway, Denmark, the European Union, the United Arab Emirates and other countries, one or two of which will announce tomorrow that they are giving money, are committed to providing finance for this plan, and a consensus is growing in favour of it. It is money that will not be wasted and, as I can tell the Daily Mail, it is money that will be well spent. Given the International Development Secretary’s own personal commitment to the “no lost generation” plan, which is about helping children in all the different areas of the region, I want her to put her weight behind this plan as part of her own initiative.

I know from my own experience as a father that every single child is precious, every single child is unique, and every single child is special. That means that, if we can do something about it, every single child deserves the chance to fulfil their talents, to make the most of their potential, and to bridge the gap between what they are and what they have it in themselves to become. We have the chance to make that opportunity possible for not just a few but several hundred thousand children in this troubled region.

Given that the Minister and I agree that the Government have made a general commitment to this region and that we both appreciate that the sums announced at Kuwait include money that could be devoted this project, I hope that he will be able specifically to address the UNHCR-UNICEF plan. I think it is common ground that the Government have done a huge amount in this region and that they wish to do more on education for children, particularly for girls. However, what we need to agree on today—I hope the Minister will play his part in contributing to this—is that when we have an innovative plan, when we have the support of the Lebanese Government, who would find it difficult in normal circumstances to finance anything that is now happening with Syrian refugees, and when we have international aid agencies in support of this plan and prepared to unite around it, it would be a mistake for us to delay any longer in providing this urgent support that is needed in an emergency. It is needed for children like the girl I mentioned who are losing hope because, despite all our efforts, they do not feel that we are reaching their needs and those of their fellow children—boys and girls like them. I hope the Minister can respond positively to the desire not just that this plan be supported but that it be properly financed.

May I thank the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) for securing this important debate and for bringing such an important issue to the attention of the House? I commend him for so tirelessly using his influence to champion the needs of Syrian children and for pushing education further up the global agenda. If there is one thing we can all absolutely agree on, it is that what is happening to Syria’s children is intolerable.

In this brutal civil war, children have been shot at, tortured and sexually abused. In parts of Syria today, children are starving. They are also dying from diseases that three years ago could have been easily treated. Indeed, polio has returned to the country 14 years after it was officially declared polio-free.

More than 1 million children have crossed the borders to escape the bloodshed; some have had their families split up and some have seen their parents and friends killed. Away from their home, many face neglect, exploitation and abuse. As the right hon. Gentleman has said, even very young children are being sent out to work or beg, while girls as young as 13 have been sold into early marriage. Whatever the degree of trauma children might have faced, what is true more widely is that millions of them are missing out on a basic education.

A destroyed childhood is a destroyed life. As this crisis rages on, an entire generation of children is being shaped by this relentlessly brutal war that has ripped every bit of normality away from them. That will have profound long-term consequences for Syria, the region and even much further afield.

We have a clear responsibility to invest in these children now and to invest in Syria’s future, because they are Syria’s future. That is why, right from the start of this crisis, this Government have highlighted the plight of vulnerable children and focused on ensuring that they have the basics that they need to survive.

The UK is leading the way. We have pledged £600 million for Syria and the region, which is three times the size of our response to any other humanitarian crisis. We are the second largest bilateral donor after the United States. UK aid is getting food to almost 320,000 people a month. We are getting water to 930,000 people a month, and we have provided more than 300,000 medical consultations. Our support is reaching children and their families inside Syria, and also those refugees who have fled to Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey and Egypt.

Food, water and medicine, however, are not enough. As the right hon. Gentleman knows all too well, bombs and bullets have forced nearly 2.3 million children out of school in Syria. Outside Syria, 735,000 school-age refugees are simply not going to school at all. As the number of refugees continues to rise, so will the number of children without an education—unless the world acts now.

Countries such as Lebanon and Jordan have been incredibly generous in welcoming these refugees, but their schools are coming under incredible strain. As many as one in four of school-age children in Lebanon are from Syria. We cannot afford to let these children—the future of Syria—become a generation lost to conflict.

That is why in September last year the Secretary of State played a leading role in championing the “no lost generation” initiative, which is designed to galvanise a global, co-ordinated effort to provide Syrian children with the education, protection and psycho-social support they all so desperately need. The UK has already pledged £30 million to the initiative, almost all of which has already been committed to specific projects.

For the past two years, I have personally worked with the United Arab Emirates on the Emirates-Jordanian camp for Syrian refugees, near Zarqa in Jordan. The camp is financed by the UAE, but it is the UK, through UNICEF, that is funding the education that is benefiting the more than 6,000 children in it. Furthermore, we have matched pound for pound the UK public’s generous contributions to winter appeals for Syrian children by UNICEF, War Child, Oxfam, and Save the Children. That is helping those agencies to deliver blankets, clothing and heating to help people to cope with winter conditions.

The right hon. Gentleman has asked the Government to support a plan to educate refugee children now in Lebanon, as well as vulnerable Lebanese children there. I want to make it clear that the Government fully support this excellent plan, which has been developed with the Lebanese Government and fits squarely within the “no lost generation” initiative that we have pushed. Lebanon has more Syrian refugee children than any other country, and the UNICEF “reaching all children with education” plan can make a huge contribution to achieving one of the key goals of the “no lost generation” initiative by ensuring that all children affected by the Syrian crisis can receive a good education.

The right hon. Gentleman has rightly drawn the House’s attention to the need to act now, and I share his sense of urgency. I am pleased to inform the House that the Department for International Development is already supporting one of the most urgent areas identified in the plan, namely the provision of textbooks for the current academic year. When she was in Lebanon in January, the Secretary of State announced that £4 million will be made available for 300,000 packs of textbooks for all children between the ages of six and 15 who attend state schools in Lebanon, including Syrian and Palestinian refugees.

The Government intend to provide further support for the “reaching all children with education” plan in Lebanon. I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that I want to work very closely with him as we assess just where UK assistance can add most value. As he said, I will discuss all this in more detail directly with the Lebanese Prime Minister tomorrow.

I am pleased to announce that the Secretary of State is planning a high-level meeting of key stakeholders—donors, host Governments, UN organisations and non-governmental organisations—to agree on how the international community can further ramp up its support for the education of Syrian children in the region, including by supporting the Lebanon plan. She has invited the right hon. Gentleman to attend that meeting, which will provide a further opportunity to rally support and to mobilise funding.

The right hon. Gentleman has done the children of Syria and Lebanon an inestimable service in fighting their corner. In this sphere, we respect and wish to support his work as a UN special envoy. Through DFID, this Government will do all they can to underpin his efforts. As a result of this debate, he can confidently tell other donors that the UK is there to support UNICEF’s Lebanese education plan. We will work with him to finalise the details.

It is the children of today who will have to rebuild their country tomorrow. The UK will continue to do everything possible to give them and Syria the chance of a better future. We continue to call on other nations to do likewise and to contribute more funding both to support this plan and to tackle the Syrian humanitarian crisis more broadly. The right hon. Gentleman’s role in this initiative is crucial, and his is an effort that we commend and support.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.