Palestinian and Syrian Refugees’ Access to Education in Lebanon: A Comparative Approach
Romain H. Mellies, Visiting Fellow, Institute for Migration Studies
With an estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees and close to 500,000 Palestinian refugees living on its territory, Lebanon is the state that hosts the highest number of refugees per capita in the world. Such a demographic challenge -where one person out of three persons in Lebanon is a refugee- in such a protracted situation calls for a long-term approach vis-à-vis the Palestine and Syrian refugees’ access to education in host countries, despite the specificities of each group’s ongoing plight.
On the overall Palestinian exile in Lebanon, much has been said in the literature about the state of exclusion, the marginalization of Palestinians in the legal, social and economic spheres, as well as their non-integration in Lebanese society, for various reasons ranging from the preservation of their ‘right to return’ to the danger they would represent for the sectarian demographic. Quickly enough, this exclusion was translated into the educational sector: for diverse motives, the Lebanese approach to Palestinian education was left to UNRWA to deal with, through separate and specific schools, which led to further exclusion of Palestinian children in Lebanese society.
With the Syrian displacement, the Lebanese government seems to have reviewed its position on refugee education: though a lot could be said about the ambiguous Lebanese humanitarian response to the Syrian crisis, especially after 2015, Syrian children have been largely included in the already-existing public education system since the beginning of the crisis. However, in practice, there remain several barriers to educational access for Syrian children, attributable to both socio-economic factors impacting displaced Syrians and the crisis affecting the fragile public education in Lebanon.
Often considered to be primarily the domain of the national government and the reflection of the state’s authority, the access to education for displaced populations in Lebanon is worth investigating, as the non-monolithic structure of the government sets the stage for conflicting interests. This article aims to answer the question “What educational policy for Palestinian and Syrian refugees in Lebanon?” by looking at these two specific cases and their consequences, while trying to understand the broader public education crisis in Lebanon.
Palestinian Exile and (Non-) Integration in Lebanon
The Palestinian exile in Lebanon
Following the Nakba, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled to neighboring Lebanon through successive waves and were received differently according to their religion, with Christian Palestinians being quickly integrated into cities and into public life, while Sunni Palestinians were considered strangers and were marginalized, both legally and physically. Overall, the Palestinian exile in Lebanon was marked by exclusion and exception whether spatially – through camps – and legally, where Palestinian have never been integrated or even given the possibility to. The official discourse attached to such an approach is the so-called preservation of the Palestinian’s right to return, when in fact it can barely conceal the perceived threat on the confessional demographic, with the Palestinian refugees representing today around 6 to 7% of the Lebanese population. Thus, Palestinians have taken care of their own ‘bare life’, or have been taken care of, mostly through the assigned UN agency (UNRWA) that inter alia provided the education for Palestinian refugees with 6 years of elementary education, 3 years of preparatory education and 3 more years of secondary education.
Educational framework for Palestinian children in Lebanon
There are around 40 000 Palestinian children registered in the 65 schools that UNRWA operates in Lebanon, enrolling as much as 97% of Palestinian children in primary education, 84% in preparatory and 61% in secondary (to be noted that Palestinian students are accepted in Lebanese University only if there are remaining unwanted seats by Lebanese students). It has been argued that providing a separate education for Palestinians would be a way to maintain a separate identity, though the reality is for Palestinian children in Lebanon a stateless status with curtailed rights, amounting to a “unique degree of political, economic and social exclusion”. In recent years, there has been an alarmingly growing number of Palestinians dropping out of school, with a 55% increase in dropouts from 2020 to 2021, likely linked to the ongoing crisis.
The specific situation of Palestinian Refugees from Syria (PRS)
Among Syrian refugees that crossed the border in recent years, around 44,000 Palestinian Refugees from Syria (PRS) reached Lebanon. With around half of them settling into pre-existing Palestinian camps, the enrollment of PRS children was absorbed by UNRWA schools (6 500 PRS enrolled in 2022). Yet, despite efforts to integrate them into the educational system, only 58% were enrolled in 2014, with high dropout rates after 12 years old for both boys and girls. These weaker numbers are mainly due to the practical access challenges faced by PRS children: for those not living in camps, transportation can be hindering access to school (cf. the following section).
The paradox of Palestinian education
Even though UNRWA maintains that the curriculum followed by Palestinian children is acknowledging the Palestinian culture and reflecting the UN values, the curriculum is in fact aligned with the Lebanese curriculum, where scholars have found that no Palestinian knowledge is being taught to children - which of course poses the question of the identity building for these children. Moreover, a paradox has emerged from studies on Palestinian education in Lebanon: while children in UNRWA schools are forced to learn the Lebanese curriculum to align with national standards and present some kind of integration through education, Palestinian children face exclusion and marginalization once they graduate from UNRWA schools. In other words, they are on the one hand required to follow the formal Lebanese curriculum but on the other hand prohibited from later entering professional work, which to some scholars constitutes a form of acculturation and a creative process of ‘us’ vs. ‘them’.
This disillusionment with the education that emerged from the Palestinian educational paradox has had a negative impact on the perception of opportunities for Palestinian youth: there is a form of fatality that pushes many children to drop out of school, as higher education no longer means better employment. To some extent, this is a form of anti-citizenship applied to Palestinians in Lebanon. The relationship between UNRWA and Palestinian refugees has therefore been lately marked by dissatisfaction and resentment, while critics have emerged on the bureaucratic aspect of the agency and its inability to accommodate Palestinian Refugees’ needs for public education.
Syrian Displacement: Entrenched Challenges
Chronology of the Syrian exile
Since the beginning of the crisis, at least 1.5 million Syrians have entered Lebanon, even though only approximately 950,000 of them are registered with the UNHCR, after the Lebanese government requested the suspension of Syrian refugees’ registration on May 6, 2015. With more than half of this population being youth and children under 18, the question of their education in Lebanon is crucial. In 2013, the Lebanese government adopted, as an educational response to the Syrian crisis, issued a memorandum instructing all public schools in Lebanon to enroll Syrian children, and soon second shifts were implemented in schools for refugee children from Syria to access education. This constitutes a shift in Lebanon’s education policy vis-à-vis refugees, especially looking at the previous Palestinian experience which was symbolized by exclusion rather than integration. In that perspective, the Lebanese government implemented in 2016 a strict framework defining, in theory, the legal margins in which non-state actors could provide education for refugees; while developing – since 2014 – the ‘Reaching All Children with Education’ (RACE) framework aiming at enrolling all Syrian children in Lebanese schools.
It would be hard to understand the current situation regarding Syrian refugees in Lebanon without historicizing its political relation with Syria, marked by 29 years of occupation and several conflicts that have deepened the Lebanese politics’ divides, or without understanding Lebanon’s position vis-à-vis the international refugee law as not an asylum country but rather a ‘transit’ country denying protection and long-term prospects. In this mindset, the Lebanese government has refused to open new camps for Syrian refugees, likely haunted by the Palestinian experience in Lebanon, which pushed them to settle mostly in expensive residential areas but also in abandoned buildings or informal neighborhoods. The situation of Syrian refugees in Lebanon is very concerning: 9 out of 10 families are living in extreme poverty and are heavily indebted, as rent and food constitute a challenge for many families, not to mention that 2 out of 3 Syrians in Lebanon do not have a legal residency. These observations, coupled with external factors such as often conflicting interests between Lebanese state actors and the limited government capacity to implement policies at the local level render the situation impassable for Syrian children to access education in Lebanon.
Factors hindering Syrian children’s education in Lebanon
There are also multiple factors at a smaller scale hindering refugees’ education in Lebanon, mostly linked to financial conditions, in addition to the transportation costs, economic insecurity, the lack of legal documents (despite the government’s instructions, Syrian reportedly cannot cross checkpoints without documentation), the language and the level of the curriculum (Syrian children are not used to having class in French for example), the tensions and the overcrowding in Lebanese schools (HRW estimates that 29% of Syrian children are out of school because of arbitrary rejections by Lebanese schools) and several other factors are as many barriers for Syrian children to access education in Lebanon. In many families, children (especially boys) are entrusted with the role of breadwinner and therefore tend to sacrifice their education or find themselves married at a young age (mostly girls) to lift them out of their precarious environment. Overall, critical economic conditions coupled with bureaucratic challenges, induced by the fact that around 800 000 Syrians are not registered with the UNHCR and that many children are born out of hospitals (for economic and cultural reasons), therefore not registered as residing in Lebanon and risking being arrested and put in detention; mean for Syrian children that education is hardly reachable in Lebanon. Although the support of the family and the head of household’s education play a great role in the enrolment of children, refugees’ education is mostly hindered, as said before, by economic, socio-emotional, cultural and academic challenges.
Consequently, Lebanon is facing low enrolment rates for Syrian refugees, with almost half of the school-aged Syrian children out of education in Lebanon, including 30% of them that have never been to school, UNHCR says. Recently, the dramatic decrease in enrolment rates for 15 – 24-year-old, from 60% to 43%, is largely the result of the profound economic crisis that Lebanon is facing since 2019. Studies have shown that 74% of families have been cutting expenses on education to survive, while many students have been pushed toward child labor or early marriage.
The Broader Education Crisis in Lebanon
Public and private education in Lebanon
Recent numbers show that around 70% of Lebanese children are enrolled in private schools (BSC), while the World’s average school enrollment in private institutions is around 20% (World Bank). This is not only due to the weak government’s funding in public education, but also attributable to a historical construct likely inherited from the French colonization where private sectarian schools religiously funded pre-existed national public schools. The destruction of the public school system during the Civil war further widened the evident gap between public and private education in Lebanon: Today, national education is the mirror of the “highly fragmented and politicized nature of the Lebanese state and society,” with economically and socially disadvantaged Lebanese children enrolled in public school, mostly living in the Northern region, the Bekaa valley or the Southern region. With the arrival of Syrian children, Lebanese public schools have faced major difficulties that added a layer to their already challenging situation, as zones in which schools were already struggling with capacity happened to be areas where Syrian refugees were the most present.
Lebanon’s public expenditures on education are among the lowest in the region: it does not exceed 2% of the GDP when the World’s average government expenditures on education are twice this number. Historically, Lebanese public schools have been underfunded and lately even more, due to the covid crisis, the economic crisis and the port explosion that incidentally destroyed or damaged many schools. Public schools in Lebanon have struggled with the additional pressure induced by the Syrian refugees’ influx: managing the increase in costs and salaries has been challenging and the workload for workers in the educational sectors has been heavier lately, mainly due to the public sector’s lack of resources. The situation has reached a point where the donor-funded education budget is higher than the Lebanese national education budget, and many critics have emerged facing the amount of money that is channeled through aid without seeing the outcomes: between 2017 and 2020, more than 1.12 billion dollars have been donated and allocated for educational programs, with half of it for the Lebanese Ministry of Education. However, Human Rights Watch and the Center for Lebanese Studies found that, by setting artificially low exchange rates, the Ministry has been able to withhold part of these funds, while the rest hardly reached beneficiaries.
The struggle of Lebanese students and teachers
As a result of the poor investment in public education and the devastating economic crisis in Lebanon, more and more students are hindered from accessing education and many teachers in public schools are struggling more than ever to make a living (i.e., to survive) out of their activity. For students, recent years marked by distance learning, strikes, fuel shortages, the Beirut Blast, etc. have been challenging. As a result, there has been a rise in dropout numbers and in transfers from private to public schools (120 000 in 2021). This is mainly due to the tuition fees and the transportation costs, that, due to the economic crisis, over exceeded the household’s income: the Center for Lebanese Studies has estimated that the average annual tuition fees and transportation costs ranged between $1037 and $1318 per month and per child, while the average household monthly income was situated around $460.
For teachers, the devastating economic crisis has reduced their salary by 90%, meaning that teachers would have $3 left out of their salary to live after paying for commuting expenses at best or would simply work at a loss. As a result, 66% of teachers work second jobs or borrow money to pay for electric bills, which represent on average 139% of their salary. The attempted strikes only led to trivial and limited financial compensations from the government while adopting a punitive approach for teachers missing out, which most of the time is due to transportation impossibilities. Overall, this situation has had a negative impact on their mental health and 73% of teachers now plan on leaving the educational sector, which the CLS argues is the direct responsibility of the Ministry. In a context where poverty affects more than 70% of the population, including 82% in multidimensional poverty, the World Bank estimates that the average child in Lebanon will only develop half of its human capital.
Having explored the two different educational frameworks that Palestinian and Syrian refugees are provided with by different institutions, what stands out is that “access [both theoretical and practical] to education does not equate to protection”: in the Palestinian case, UNRWA education does not pledge for future employment and/or Lebanese integration and protection; while in the Syrian case, the policies integrating them in public schools do not intent to lift them out of their precarious status of “displaced” at best, “illegal” at worst. The practical barriers that Syrian refugees face when accessing education in Lebanon (e.g., transportation, fees, academic challenges, etc.) hardly conceal the disastrous socio-economic condition in which they survive in exile; and while Palestinians have been displaced for more than 70 years now, they are still excluded from the Lebanese society and labor market, no matter how much UNRWA pushes for their education. Yet, scholars found many benefits to refugees’ education: for children, it gives back a sense of normalcy in exile, helps trauma healing, serves as reducing GBV, etc.; for the society, it forms part of a long-term investment which will eventually virtuously circle back to it (though once again, integration of educated refugees must then be carried out thoroughly).
Surely, the situation of refugees’ education forms part of a larger issue, that of the Lebanese public education crisis. Not only is the condition of students and teachers profoundly alarming, but there is a risk that the lack of investment in public education may reinforce sectarian division by encouraging private education. In some cases, non-state actors like Hezbollah and other groups have taken over the government’s lack of organization and have filled some of its prerogatives (e.g., education, micro-credit, etc.). In other cases, programs run by NGOs, which offer various programs and content, have faced poor-to-no assessment of the quality. While education is certainly (in Lebanon more than anywhere else) best implemented at the local level, where communities have their own source of authority and legitimacy, and where non-formal education truly constitutes an act of citizenship for marginalized populations, the communitarianism’s risk remains and might re-awaken past ghosts from Lebanon’s darkest times.
Nevertheless, the lens needs to shift from a humanitarian perspective where the response is urgent, immediate and short-termed to a more development-oriented approach that acknowledges the protracted aspect of the situation. If not, the future of refugees’ education in Lebanon is facing expected donor fatigue and poor outcomes from exceptionalist provisions promoting a form of segregated and compromised education.