Sarah Ibrahim and Theresa Farhat
- July 15, 2021
Sarah Ibrahim and Theresa Farhat
Lebanon currently hosts the highest per capita of refugees in the world with approximately 1.5 million Syrian Refugees who had fled their country due to the Syrian conflict since 2011 . As the conflict enters its 10th year, the dire situation of Syrian refugees in Lebanon has worsened due to the concurrent political instability, economic inflation, and COVID-19 crisis. There is decline in the quality of life, access to vital services such as education and health, in addition to loss of jobs and source of income . In fact, nine out of ten Syrian refugee families in Lebanon are now living under extreme poverty and are accumulating more debt than ever, according to the 2020 Vulnerability Assessment for Syrian Refugees in Lebanon (VASyR) report . Syrian refugee families are therefore increasingly practicing negative coping mechanism as means to generate income, including borrowing money from each other, decreasing food intake, and increasing child labor and early marriages. Consequently, refugee children are at a much higher risk of school dropouts, poor retention to proper education, child labor, early child marriage, and a compromised mental health status .
The Impact of COVID-19 on the Access to Education
The COVID-19 pandemic further impacted Syrian refugee children education in all refugee-hosting countries, but in Lebanon it was a free fall . It has placed a heavy financial burden on a country that was already suffering from an unprecedented economic crisis, which critically affected the education sector . Lebanon is currently hosting around 660,000 school-aged Syrian refugee children (3-18 years old) with only 42% enrolled in public education, whereby only 9% attend private schools (3, 5). The education system in Lebanon is highly privatized, with roughly one third of school-aged children (poor Lebanese families and refugees) enrolled in public schools. The public schools are characterized by an under-qualified teaching staff and poor learning environment and equipment, rendering the schooling insufficient . Despite the efforts of the MEHE to launch a distant learning plan for all public and private schools, remote learning was out of reach for poorer children including Syrian refugees. The public schools did not have the infrastructure and resources to create online courses, and the Syrian children lacked reliable internet network or access to electronic devices preventing them from participating in online education . Many children who are currently out of school are at a higher risk of never returning to schools due to the increase in child labor and early child marriages . In fact, a significant increase in child labor was evident with prevalence doubling from 2.6% in 2019 to 4.4% in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic . Additionally, the percentage of young girls between 15 and 19 years of age who are married increased from 24% in 2019 to 37% in 2020 . Thus, the COVID-19 pandemic resulting in poor access to proper education due to technical challenges along with poor retention of education due to child labor and marriage.
Poor Mental Health Status and its Effect on Education due to COVID-19
The pandemic also had a psychological impact on children, hence affecting their education. The national lockdown measures elevated the prevalence of psychological disorders such as anxiety, depression and stress among refugee children which may lead long-term psychosocial consequences. Around 83% of families reported a change in their child behavior during the lockdown measures . The behavioral change includes anxiety, aggressiveness, irregular sleep and eating patterns, and hyperactivity. Additionally, 40% of refugee children ages 15-18 years reported that the pandemic is taking a toll on their mental health status . The impact of studying at home on children is concerning, particularly those of younger age, as building friendship and engaging in social face to face activities in schools give the children a sense of security, self-esteem, and belonging . Moreover, income loss and school closure amid the pandemic exacerbated violence and child abuse. Roughly 1 out of 2 refugee children between the ages 1 and 14 have reported at least one form of violent discipline in 2020 . This has devastating effects on the children physical and psychological well-being in the short and long run.
COVID-19 Vaccine Obstacles and Impact on Returning to Physical School
In Lebanon, the Ministry of Public Health (MoPH) has prepared a National Deployment and Vaccination Plan (NDVP) which aims to vaccinate 80% of the population, regardless of the nationality and residency status  . Despite the aforementioned inclusive approach, very few Syrian refugees are aware of their eligibility  . Additionally, there is low levels of literacy and digital literacy among Syrian Refugees, thus many do not know how to register for the vaccine on the platform  . Another major obstacle that the refugees are facing is the cost of transportation to the vaccination center which are far from their camps. With a poor outcome in the vaccination plan, the Syrian refugee children will not be able to resume physically in school campus as a high risk is placed on them and their families. Thus, education will remain virtually, and many refugee children will not go back to school after it resumes. Recommendations/Conclusion:
Syrian refugee children residing in Lebanon already grapple with their own war-related traumas, health concerns, and poor access to education, and the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these issues. For young children, education is considered a safe place to learn and grow  . It is therefore pivotal to take action to prevent a lost generation as education is a key investment for the future. With the ongoing economic, political, and COVID-19 crisis, awareness should be given to the refugee families for the importance of keeping their children in schools and avoiding child labor as means to generate an income. Syrian refugee families should be educated on positive coping mechanisms amid Lebanon’s current situation rather than resorting to early child marriage, child labor, among other negative coping mechanisms. Mental health and psychosocial support activities are needed to address these problems before it is no longer repairable. For those who attend online classes, a school-based mental health and psychosocial support class can be incorporated into the education program. This may even improve learning capacity as the integrated techniques for coping with stress into daily learning encourages a natural recovery for children who are struggling to recover from the impacts of displacement and other trauma . This mechanism can also help encourage recovery from the violence that children might be experiencing at home. As for the children who are not attending online classes, group activities should be initiated in camps to boost mental health status of children and youth. As for the vaccination obstacle, it is pivotal to address bottlenecks that the refugee families are facing in registering for the COVID-19 vaccine, such as increasing awareness in their eligibility for the vaccine, provide support in accessing the registration platforms, mass vaccination outreach campaigns, among others . Additionally, special measures should be implemented, such as opening additional vaccination sites, for underserved areas in order to also alleviate the transportation cost barrier . Lastly, recommendations for international donors are also pivotal and include: 1- expanding multi-year funding for transportation costs and class capacity (i.e., mobile classrooms); and 2- increase funds to enhance services provided by public schools . The refugee children in Lebanon stripped from their rights and their capability of becoming the ‘future builders’ and are in dire need of support from humanitarian actors and organizations to implement adequate program interventions.
Sarah Ibrahim and Theresa Farhat
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