Fighting and Islamic State force 670,000 Syrian children from schools

Muhanad*, aged 11, from Syria, in school in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, close to the border with Syria. (Credit: Russell Watkins/Department for International Development)

The simple act of going to school is getting harder and more dangerous for children in Syria. At least 68 attacks were leveled against schools in 2014 and some 670,000 children have recently experienced disruptions to their education, warns the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

The group says at least 160 children were killed at school last year and another 343 were injured. And that is likely an underestimate, said spokesperson Christophe Boulierac to the media. While the civil war rages on and the threat posed by the Islamic State poses an emerging problem, the next generation of Syrians are seeing their lives disrupted in ways that UNICEF and others worry will create long-term harm.

“Access to education is a right that should be sustained for all children, no matter where they live or how difficult the circumstances in which they live. Schools are the only means of stability, structure and routine that the Syrian children need more than ever in times of this horrific conflict,” said Hanaa Singer, UNICEF representative in Syria.

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As many as 2.4 million Syrian children are estimated to be out of school or not attending regularly because of the civil war. That is a significant proportion of children when considering that a total of 4.3 million children are enrolled to attend school this year. The fighting that started in March 2011 has taken a major toll on the country. More than 8 million children have been affected with 1.7 million of them living as refugees in one of Syria’s neighboring countries.

Fighting prompted school closures in the Raqqa and Deir-ez-Zour governorates and the rural parts of Aleppo. A commonality among the three is the presence of the Islamic State, also known as IS. UNICEF confirmed that the radical Islamist group held control over the parts of Raqqa where schools were closed and had a presence in the two other governorates.

A December decree by IS mandated that all schools in areas under its control were to be closed. The group said it wanted to stop schooling while it developed new curriculum to be taught to young people. That and insecurity are behind the closures, said UNICEF. The current situation on the ground remains fluid as IS rebels are fighting with Syrian forces.

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“There were some reports that circulated and, according to which, the Islamic State wanted to change the curriculum of schools,” said Boulierac to the media. “And, therefore, asked the teaching staff of schools to redevelop new curriculum and that was one of the reasons.”

UNICEF is using the start of a new year to appeal to leaders in Syria where the schools are closed.

“UNICEF has repeatedly called upon all parties to the conflict to uphold their responsibility to protect children, schools, and other civilian infrastructure from the conflict – a call we repeat with even greater urgency as a new year begins with children in Syria still facing the most terrible threats to their safety, well-being and their education,” said Singer.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.