The futures of children throughout the Middle East and North Africa are threatened by conflicts and political crises that have sharply curtailed their education, raising concerns about the long-term consequences of a potential lost generation produced by regional unrest.
Violence and accompanying chaos have kept more than 13 million children from attending school, the UN's Children's Rights & Emergency Relief Organization (UNICEF) revealed in a report released on Thursday. In four countries alone — Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya — almost 9,000 schools have either been destroyed, heavily damaged, or are occupied by displaced civilians or armed belligerents. According to UN data, attacks directly targeted more than 200 schools last year.
In each of the aforementioned countries and Sudan, between two and three million children are out of school.
Syria's neighbors have also struggled to provide schooling for a surge in child refugees. Some 700,000 are left without any formal education in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. Arabic-speaking children, many of them traumatized by war, have had great difficulty learning new languages in Turkey or in Iraqi Kurdistan, where many have also fled.
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Those who have remained in Syria face daunting and dangerous journeys to schools in distant towns and cities.
"The war has totally disrupted my schooling," a ninth grade Syrian schoolgirl named Amina told UNICEF. "For example, to sit for my exams, I had to travel to Hama. It took more than 14 hours to get there."
Huge numbers of children have been murdered by armed groups and regime soldiers, and suffer disproportionally in besieged areas. "Thousands of children have been killed and injured in the Government's indiscriminant aerial bombardments on Aleppo, Damascus, Dara'a, Idlib and Dayr Az-Zawr," the UN's Commission of Inquiry for Syria wrote in its most recent report, released Friday. The commission also referred to the thousands of Yazidi women and girls who have been trafficked into sexual slavery by the Islamic State terror insurgency.
'There was once a time in the history of terrorism where there were limits to what was acceptable. It seems so quaint when you look at children now having multiple frontline positions. They are either cannon fodder for the spectrum of groups in Syria, or they are their victims.'
Many Syrian children who would have been entering primary school when civil war broke out in 2011 have received no formal education, UNICEF spokesperson Juliette Touma told VICE News. In a country that for many years boasted one of the highest literacy rates in the region, children are growing up without adequate instruction. Others, in Syria as well as Yemen and Iraq, risk being indoctrinated by curriculum that has been adjusted to reflect the sensibilities of militants.
"In areas of Syria under the control of the so-called Islamic State, a revised version of the curriculum is in use, with several subjects removed and with additional regulations for girl students," wrote UNICEF.
A common fear among many observers is that a generation beset by such difficulties will increasingly turn toward extremism and to radical groups like the Islamic State and other hardline factions. But experts note that the relationship of poverty, war, and disenfranchisement to an attraction to terrorism is not as direct as many might expect.
"I understand that it's a small part of the story, but it's shameful to me that in some discussions the only strategy that can get people's attention is to link it to a vulnerability to terrorism — that is pathetic," John Horgan, a psychologist who focuses on terrorist behavior at Georgia State University's Global Studies Institute, told VICE News. "The likely number of people that would gravitate to terrorism as a result of this is so small relative to the scale of what's presented in this report."
"What's upsetting is we have this perverse obsession with terrorists and the psychology of the militants," he added. "Those stories fascinate us, while at the same time we ignore the needs of these children."
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Horgan and Touma both noted that children in the region are increasingly forced into the hazards of conflict at an early age. Girls have been forced into involuntary marriages in their teens, while boys are widely recruited by combatants.
"Last year, the UN could verify more than 500 cases of children that joined the military around the region, and the number is likely to increase this year," Touma said. "Unlike in past years, what we are seeing increasingly with all these conflicts surging is that the children are joining more voluntarily, even without their parents knowing. We are also seeing more children forced to join. Before children were working as porters, but now we are seeing them take a more active role, using heavy guns and weapons. It's quite scary."
She added that the situation "has a direct connection to the children being out of school."
In its latest annual report on children in armed conflict, released in June, the UN reported that "the recruitment and use of children in combat has become commonplace" in Syria. Investigators verified that armed groups, including the Islamic State and the Free Syrian Army, had enlisted 271 boys and seven girls in the conflict. "In many cases, children were paid to fight for salaries of up to $400 per month," the report said. In Iraq, investigators found that that at least 1,297 children — 685 girls and 612 boys — were abducted last year, though the figure is likely well below the true toll.
"ISIS continues to recruit and train boys as young as six in the use of weapons," wrote the Commission of Inquiry, referring to an alternative name for the Islamic State. It found that Yazidi boys who were among the thousands abducted in Iraq's northern Sinjar province last summer were separated from their families and transported to Syria, where they have reportedly trained with underage Syrian boys in so-called "cub camps." Other groups, including the al Qaeda-affiliate Jabhat al-Nusrah, are also recruiting minors.
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UNICEF meanwhile noted that that children as young as 14 were documented "joining armed factions in Palestinian camps and armed parties" operating in Syria.
"There was once a time in the history of terrorism where there were limits to what was acceptable," said Horgan. "It seems so quaint when you look at children now having multiple frontline positions. They are either cannon fodder for the spectrum of groups in Syria, or they are their victims."
Experts say that a generation devoid of basic education in the Middle East and North Africa can only be averted by ending the conflicts there — an argument that has also been made about the unfolding refugee crisis in Europe. Doing so in the foreseeable future seems a distant prospect, however, so UNICEF is meanwhile pushing for the official recognition of informal education services that have cropped up in old garages, storefronts, and family homes, particularly in Syria.
But the organization's education efforts, like many of the UN's projects, are vastly underfunded — in UNICEF's case, to the tune of $300 million. Still, Touma said that informal arrangements are achieving remarkable results in dreadful circumstances.
"These schools are using all sorts of ways to pass on knowledge to children," she said.
Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford