Education for Syrian refugees: the failure of second-generation human rights during extraordinary crises.

Author:O'Rourke, Joseph

    In the early morning hours of August 21, 2013, rockets carrying chemical weapons struck outside the Syrian capital of Damascus, killing an estimated 1429 people, including 426 children. (1) The U.S. government concluded, with "high confidence," that the Syrian government, which was known to have stockpiles of various chemical weapons, perpetrated the attack. (2) While the brutal nature of this attack may be surprising to most, it is just one example of many in which the Syrian government utilized force against its own population. (3) The Syrian Civil War has been described as "the biggest humanitarian catastrophe of this century." (4) It began in March of 2011 "in the wake of the Arab Spring [and] has evolved into a brutal and bloody civil war between the Assad Regime and opposition forces." (5) While it was the August chemical weapon attack that nearly entangled the United States in an armed conflict with Assad's forces, (6) there are numerous concerns associated with this conflict that long precede the use of chemical weapons. (7)

    One such concern involves the growing number of refugees that continue to flee from Syria. (8) Between March 2011 and September 2013, two million refugees fled to neighboring countries, North Africa, and Europe, with 1.8 million leaving the war torn state between September 2012 and September 2013 alone. (9) At the time of this writing, there are 2.8 million refugees. (10) Of that population, it is estimated that thousands have no access to assistance from the international community because they are living outside of refugee camps. (11) Perhaps most startling is that an estimated fifty-two percent of these refugees are children under the age of eighteen. (12) By March of 2014, the number of Syrian child refugees surpassed 1.2 million. (13) Not only are many of these children exposed to traumatic violence and family upheaval during the course of their escape, but many have missed upwards of two years of school and are unable to reenroll in their host countries. (14)

    This note will consider the international human right to education for child refugees in the context of the Syrian Refugee Crisis. There are numerous provisions in international law aimed at protecting children's right to education. Unfortunately, the flaws in these provisions are notable as political unrest may, at any time, deny an entire generation of children an education. Part II will discuss the genesis of the Syrian Refugee Crisis, briefly examining the origins of the civil war. Part III will discuss the refugee crisis that has emerged from that war in the context of the most effected host countries. In addition, particular attention will be directed at the actions taken by each host country to expand access to education for Syrian child refugees. Part IV will discuss the role of international law in protecting the right to education and how the right to education's status as a "second-generation human right" severely limits its applicability in the context of the Syrian crisis. (15) Part V will address the current problems facing the international community with respect to obtaining sufficient humanitarian aid for those adversely affected by the Syrian Crisis. It will also consider why international law is unable to compel wealthy nations to contribute humanitarian aid, by examining the limitations of the novel concept of Responsibility to Protect. Through this discussion it will become evident that international law is currently unequipped to protect second-generation human rights in the context of extraordinary crises akin to the Syrian Refugee Crisis. In order for future displaced populations to fully realize their secondgeneration human rights, international law must respond to the deficiencies highlighted in this note.


    The Syrian Civil War began in March 2011 as a dispute between the government of Bashar al-Assad and Syrian citizens dissenting from his regime. (16) When protesters and nonviolent demonstrators were met with extreme violence and brutal repression by government forces," members of the military defected and other opposition forces obtained weapons from foreign countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar. (17) What began as a small movement escalated into an all-encompassing civil war during the latter half of 2012. (18) The opposition forces were, and remain, determined to overthrow the Assad Regime, and several foreign powers have taken sides. (19) Two superpowers that sided with the Assad Regime were Russia and China; (20) both permanent members of the United Nations (U.N.) Security Council (21) who demonstrated their support, in part, by vetoing any attempts by the U.N. to impose sanctions on the Syrian government in response to its treatment of dissenting Syrian citizens. (22) These vetoes were issued despite a 2012 report by the Independent Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic which stated that there were

    reasonable grounds to believe that Government forces and the Shabbiha had committed the crimes against humanity of murder and of torture, war crimes and gross violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law, including unlawful killing, torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, sexual violence, indiscriminate attack, pillaging and destruction of property. (23) The commission also "confirm [ed] its previous finding that violations were committed pursuant to State policy." (24)

    The individual stories from inside Syria are equally disturbing. As one refugee described:

    The war was outside my door. My children looked out the window every day and watched dead bodies thrown in the garbage pile across the street. One day, they saw their uncle shot to death outside our home. I told them not to look out the window anymore. It didn't help. When they raided the house next door, we could hear the rape of my neighbor, my friend. And then they arrested my brother and tortured him for days. He survived but they scarred his body and destroyed his genitals. We stayed at home, even when we were running out of food. We were too afraid to go out. But then they forced their way in, beat my husband and threatened to arrest him. From under a table, my children watched and screamed. We had to flee. (25) Thousands of Syrians face similar situations as many continue to lose their employment, homes, and personal belongings as a result of the conflict. (26) Entire regions of the country are without electricity, sanitation services, or even adequate food and clean water supplies. (27) Not only are children exposed to this death and destruction, but they are frequently the direct target of Syrian military aggression. (28) One doctor reported that "he recently treated a one-year-old boy stabbed in the neck and a nine-year-old girl who had been brutally raped." (29) There are also reports of Syrian forces shooting at a school bus, resulting in the death of at least one ten-year-old child, and a video was posted to the Internet showing the "mutilated remains" of a thirteen-year-old. (30)

    This appalling government action is causing millions to flee from the grasp of the Assad Regime. Although this note will focus on those who have already left Syria, as of October 2014, there were some 6.5 million people displaced within the county. (31) These internally displaced persons constantly move within the country seeking shelter from the violence, "[b]ut there are virtually no safe zones inside Syria anymore." (32) Between those forcibly displaced internally and externally, there are more than six million Syrians who have fled their homes as a result of the civil war; more than any other country in the world at the time of this writing. (33) Those who left the country are adversely impacting the countries surrounding Syria, several of which met with the U.N. in September 2013 "in a bid to accelerate international support." (34) Such support is desperately needed considering that ninety-seven percent of those leaving Syria are migrating to neighboring countries, including Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and Egypt. (35) Despite the fact that three of these host countries are not members of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, (36) all were willing to accept the refugees early in the Syrian crisis, "granting access to territory, registration and public services" and creating a "positive protection environment." (37)

    More recently, as the number of refugees has rapidly increased, it is increasingly difficult for these nations to provide such services, creating "tensions between refugees and local populations." (38) In particular "infrastructure and services for health, education, shelter, water and sanitation have faced increased pressure; competition for jobs has increased and wages have fallen; and the cost of basic goods has risen." (39) One area of special concern is education. At the time of this writing it is estimated that over half of Syrian children are out of school despite the efforts by several of Syria's neighbors to provide some form of education to students displaced by the conflict. (40) There are a variety of reasons for this, including inadequate facilities to accommodate the influx of students, costs associated with transportation, the reliance on child income to support the families, psychosocial issues, and language barriers. (41) Despite the importance of education for refugees, as a group they are highly likely to face more educational obstacles. (42) As more refugees flee their home country, their children are unable to continue schooling. (43) Often, once the families have relocated, there are language barriers, prejudice, and financial concerns that further impede access to education. (44) During the Syrian Refugee Crisis, similar patterns have emerged in each of the primary host countries.


    1. Iraq

      Of the 2.8 million refugees that have fled...

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