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BorderWatch:Syria
Fleeing Iraq
UNHCR Launches "Back to School" Campaign
UN Urges Iraqi Refugees to Enroll Children in Syrian Schools
07/19/2007 4:00 PM ET
Ali Raddi Ali, foreground, is one of thousands of Iraqi refugee children going to school in Damascus.
Hugh McLeod/IRIN
Ali Raddi Ali, foreground, is one of thousands of Iraqi refugee children going to school in Damascus.

DAMASCUS, 19 July 2007 (IRIN)-Iraqi refugees in Syria were on 19 July urged by Craig Johnston, deputy high commissioner of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), to send more of their children to Syrian schools.

Speaking to Iraqis at the UNHCR refugee centre in Damascus, Johnston, on his first tour of the region since assuming office in June, stressed the importance of education in alleviating the refugees' long-term plight.

"In particular it's very important that you send your children to schools," Johnston told around 200 gathered Iraqis. "It's important for the future of Iraq and the future of your families that your children get a good education."

The remarks came days after the UNHCR launched a “Back to School’ campaign aimed at getting more Iraqi children in Syria into local schools. At present only 35,000 out of an estimated 250,000 school-aged Iraqi children are enrolled in Syrian schools despite the government's offer of free education for all Iraqi children.

The UN Children's Agency (UNICEF) estimates that around half of all Iraqi refugees are children.

Many Iraqi refugees are reluctant to send their children to Syrian schools because they believe it will cost them money or could jeopardise their residency in Syria by alerting the authorities to their presence.

The government sparked confusion in January when it announced tighter visa restrictions that would have required Iraqis to apply for residency permits within 15 days after arriving in Syria, which then would have had to be renewed every three months by leaving Syria and returning.

The government has since scrapped the decision, reverting to the previous system whereby Iraqis may take a six-month residency permit on entry into Syria, also only renewable at a border crossing.

Schools under strain

Syrian educational facilities are coming under increasing strain as they try and meet the huge extra demand with a shortage of schools and teachers. Some class sizes have nearly doubled to up to 50 students.

"It is not possible to find a school," said Mohammed Taha, an Iraqi refugee waiting to register at the UNHCR centre, his two young and fatherless nephews sitting beside him. "There is no place in the schools in Syria and they are too expensive."

UNICEF, UNHCR and the Syrian Ministry of Education launched the media campaign to raise awareness of the free schooling available to Iraqi refugees, as well as to strengthen the facilities on offer.

The project aims to build up to nine new schools this year while rehabilitating a further 70. All schools will now work on a two-shift system, teaching separate groups of children in the morning and afternoon, as some schools are already doing.

The UNHCR has also committed to providing school buses, uniforms and books for Iraqi children.

Money for the campaign will come from the Syrian Ministry of Education and the UNHCR, which is to launch a special financial appeal to aid the project.

Johnston's trip to Syria comes on the back of a recent international appeal to donors by the UNHCR to double its 2007 budget to $123 million from $60 million; a figure that Johnston is confident will be met.

"I'm looking forward to the appeals that we are making. I think they will be met. I think there is a great deal of concern in the international community about these issues," said Johnston, who travelled to Syria from a three-day trip to Jordan, and who returns to Geneva on 21 July.

While in Syria, Johnston is expected to meet officials, including the education and foreign ministers, to discuss increased cooperation on the refugee issue. With an estimated 1.5 million Iraqis already in Syria and another 30,000 arriving each month, the displacement crisis sparked by the US-led war of March 2003 continues to escalate.
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