Education Now for Children Displaced by Crises

When I recently visited Save the Children's refugee programs on the Greek Island of Lesvos, I met a Syrian family who had escaped Aleppo, traveled through Turkey and successfully made the dangerous voyage across the Aegean. Their reason for fleeing Syria was as simple as it was stark - they had given up all hope and their 12-year-old daughter, who stood close to her father during our talk, had been out of school already for four years.

War, persecution and natural disasters have displaced more than 65 million people worldwide, an all-time high since the end of the World War II, over half of whom are children and most struggling to access basic services. That includes food, shelter, healthcare and education.

Education is the single most important tool we can equip children with, yet it is usually one of the first casualties of conflicts and emergencies. Only 2 percent of global emergency aid funding is set aside to pay for learning during crises - jeopardizing the future of millions of children worldwide.

Despite the generosity of many countries hosting large refugee populations - the overwhelming majority of which are developing countries - most struggle to provide these large numbers of refugees with the most basic services, including education. The situation is especially bleak in countries like Kenya where a third generation of children has now been born into displacement.

Enrollment in primary school among these vulnerable children is well below the national average in places like Lebanon, Uganda, Kenya and Malaysia - a gap which is even more startling among secondary school-aged refugees. In fact, refugee children globally are five times less likely to attend school than other children, with 50 percent of primary school-aged refugee children and 75 percent of secondary school-aged refugee children completely left out of the education system. What does that portend for the future of countries that need to be rebuilt?

A poll commissioned by Save the Children in April found that 77 percent of respondents in 18 countries think children fleeing conflict have as much right to an education as any other child. More than three quarters of school-aged refugee children interviewed in Greece said that going to school was one of their top priorities, more than one in five of them have never even begun their education. Those conclusions are consistent with a 2015 analysis by Save the Children of 16 studies from eight organizations covering 17 different emergencies, reflecting the voices of 8,749 children, which found that 99 percent of children in crisis situations see education as a priority. Yet, for the millions of refugee children around the world like the young Syrian girl I met in Greece, who want nothing more than to learn and go to school, education is often an unattainable dream.

Children affected by crisis clearly prioritize education, alongside other essential needs such as food and livelihoods. Yet, the international community consistently fails to answer their call. Instead, education is regularly under-prioritized. This must not continue; we can do something about it.

Countries who host refugees need to summon the political will to make education for refugee children a top priority. Equally we know that host countries need support from the international community. No single country can solve this challenge on its own.

Last month at the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul, several organizations, including Save the Children, joined forces with governments and donors to stop education from falling through the cracks during emergencies.

Our goal is simple - to get millions of displaced children by crises back in school, where they belong.

Save the Children - like the United States and several other governments -- also committed via the Education Cannot Wait fund to push to get children affected by crisis back in school. That new fund has the potential to be a game-changer alongside other initiatives. We are calling on host and donor governments to commit to and mobilize the funds necessary to reach the goal of getting 3.2 million refugee children back in school as the first step in helping all children displaced by crisis. In the near term, countries should also join the handful of countries such as Lebanon and the Netherlands which spoke in favor of a commitment that no refugee child should go without education for more than a month. Only then can we meet the Sustainable Development Goals set out by world leaders at the UN, and ensure that no child in the world is 'left behind.'

As world leaders prepare to attend a United Nations summit in New York City on September 19 on migration and refugees, and as President Obama prepares to host a complementary summit on refugees on September 20 with leaders from six other nations, we urge all world leaders and donors to prioritize education for children in emergencies, including those who have been displaced. Formal learning provides children with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed, while giving them hope for the future. It also gives children who have experienced the trauma and horrors of war and disaster the stability and normalcy they need to restore their childhood.

With the right opportunities and the chance to learn, children will not have to face pressure to work or become a child bride. We should give children and their parents the hope they need to rebuild their lives, and potentially their country, if or when it is safe for them to return.