BY WENDY WILSON
The United Nations, through a variety of treaties and conventions like the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), establishes education as a human right that should be protected and respected by states around the world. However, the capability of states to adequately fulfil their obligations of providing education to all is greatly limited in times of emergencies when populations are affected by unanticipated events like violent conflict.
The Syrian conflict, which has resulted in the displacement of over 5 million people, epitomizes the challenges that states face in guaranteeing education for all during times of emergencies. Lebanon, which has seen the influx of more than 1.2 million Syrian refugees, has been particularly burdened because of its already compromised public education sector.
Lebanon’s education system has always been defined by a weak public education sector where grade repetition and dropouts are the norm. Before the Syrian conflict, Public schools only accounted for 30 percent of students registered in the Lebanese education system. The spillover from the Syrian conflict has further worsened the education structure as it has struggled to keep up with the growing number of refugees. By the end of 2011, the first year of the crisis, only 5,000 Syrian refugees had been enrolled in school. This number increased significantly in the 2012-2013 academic year when 51,522 Syrian refugees registered in public schools. However, “an estimated 62 percent of primary-aged children and more than 98 percent of secondary-aged children remained out of school.”
In order to keep pace with the growing number of refugees, the Lebanese government has established the second shift initiative to accommodate the growing number of students. The second shift initiative, which began during the 2012-2013 academic year, are afternoon classes that are strictly reserved for Syrian refugees in public schools. Syrians are allowed in first shift classes so long as there is space and their number does not outnumber that of the Lebanese. During the 2013-2014 school year, the Lebanese government gradually created second shift in 88 schools, and in that year, 103,207 Syrians registered in public schools.
In 2014, the Ministry of Education and Higher Education (MEHE) demonstrated further commitment to the education of Syrian refugees through its three-year “Reaching All Children with Education” (RACE) policy. RACE, which endeavors to strengthen the public education sector, is committed to increasing enrolment and providing quality education opportunities for those school-aged children who have been affected by the Syrian crisis. Since its inception, RACE has steadily ensured the incorporation of Syrian refugees into the public education system. In September 2014, MEHE announced “spaces for 157,000 Syrian children in public schools: 100,000 in the first shift and 57,000 in the second.” Although the second shift classes for that year, which had been created in 144 schools, did not start until January 2015, 105,958 Syrians were enrolled in public schools by the end of the school year.
Second shift classes have proved essential in addressing the space constraint issues that previously prevented the Lebanese government from meeting the urgent education needs of Syrian refugees. However, these schools may not be the best long-term policy response in addressing the education needs of the Syrian refugees. Although second shift schools are constructive entities in accommodating Syrian refugees in the education system, their institutional design, which allows for social cohesion to give out in deference to ethnic distinction, is detrimental to the societal fabric of Lebanon, which is already in a precarious state. This favoring of ethnic distinction presents a narrow view of the societal structure, which serves as an impediment to coexistence between the Lebanese and Syrian refugees.
Education, when properly organized, can work as a vehicle for social cohesion where shared and common identities are advanced. Second shift schools, however, created on a foundation of separateness, do not allow for the growth of cross-cultural bridges between different communities. The requirement that afternoon classes be reserved strictly for Syrians establishes a physical separation between Lebanese and non-Lebanese students. This physical separation promotes a lack of contact between the two communities. In deeply divided societies, contact between contentious communities is imperative because it fosters interaction. Interaction between groups provides them with valuable insight on each other, allowing them to moderate their perceptions on each other, thereby bridging the perceived gap of differences. This bridging of perceived differences fosters harmony and a willingness to coexist. Without contact and interaction between Lebanese students and Syrian refugees, fears about the latter crippling the public services will remain. The reinforcement of prejudices and stereotypes undermines the creation of cross-cultural bridges, which are important in narrowing differences and propagating tolerance. Thus, education becomes another arena through which the political, social, and cultural tensions of the broader society are fortified. Therefore, overtime, these attitudes will further crystallize and present another layer to Lebanon’s perpetual climate of tension, which could inadvertently tip the country towards violent conflict.
Documented incidents where insults have been hurled at Syrian refugees by Lebanese students after the end of first shift classes creates an “us vs. them” dynamic of group identity that informs a vicious cycle of societal security dilemma. Thus, when Lebanese students demonize Syrian refugees through such insults, insecurity and alienation is generated among the latter, forcing them to proceed with hostility. The dangerous cycle, based on the need to protect group identity, advances a sense of injustice among the Syrian refugees. Such feelings promote disillusionment and heighten the risk for radicalization, two elements that can contribute to the conditions to make Lebanon ripe for conflict.
Second shift schools have greatly expanded the access of Syrian refugees to the Lebanese public education system. Currently, they have been productive in helping the Lebanese government meet the urgent education needs of the Syrian refugees. However, as they do not provide the space for the development of shared identities between the host and refugee communities, second shift schools should not be projected as the mainstay policy response to the refugee education crisis. The crystallization of differences that are inherent in the institutional design of these schools only serve to compound the problems of Lebanon as they provide additional stressors and pressure points that could be used as vehicles in plunging the country into further chaos.
Image source: unhcr.org
About the Author
Wendy Wilson is an intern with the Eurasian Conflicts Studies Project at the ERA Institute.
DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the ERA Institute.