(Originally published on newsdeeply the 23rd of September 2016)
Last week I received an invitation to be a panelist at a side event at this week’s U.N. General Assembly in New York, alongside the British secretary of state for international development and the Jordanian and Lebanese ministers of education.
I was asked to contribute a grassroots perspective on the education of Syrian children inside Syria and in surrounding countries. Ironically, I had to decline the invitation due to Lebanese General Security’s lengthy delay in processing my residency request, which I filed two and a half months ago.
I was also invited to attend many other events, like the Summit for Refugees and Migrants organized by the U.N. secretary-general, and the panel on education. But here I am, trapped in Lebanon as I have been for most of the summer, unable to travel and represent my organization, Basmeh &
Zeitooneh, at any of the events we have been invited to in the past few months.
Why am I mentioning a personal issue here while writing about the refugees summit and the U.N. General Assembly?
My case is just one of many illustrating the extreme difficulties Syrian refugees in Lebanon face while trying to renew their residency documents and obtain legal status. I should mention that I am one of the most privileged refugees in Lebanon and have the connections and the resources to get myself out of most of the difficulties that may arise. Imagine how much worse the situation is for my less privileged compatriots.
Since January 2015, when Lebanon imposed new residency regulations on Syrians in the country, Syrians have had to contend with complicated requirements and elevated costs associated with residency. The new process has left many Syrian refugees with expired documents and therefore unable to move freely inside the country out of fear they may be arrested at a checkpoint for their “illegal” status.
What is the collateral damage of this situation? When families can no longer survive on ever-shrinking international assistance, and when expired documents or Lebanon’s labor restrictions prevent adults from legally working, many refugees will have no choice but to send their kids, who are less frequently stopped at checkpoints, to work. As a result, many Syrian refugee children work in the black market to provide their families with what little they earn to pay for rent, food and other necessities.
Human Rights Watch wrote in a July 2016 report that 250,000 Syrian refugee children in Lebanon are not enrolled in formal education. Insufficient funding is an essential part of the problem, but bad policies around residency and work, in addition to the absence of a constructive collaboration between the authorities and the nongovernmental sector, are adding to the problem.
The education dossier for Syrian children in surrounding countries cannot be tackled separately from other pressing issues such as residency, legal status and the right to work. In fact, local and international human rights organizations have released one report after another highlighting how residency regulations have increased child labor among Syrian refugees in Lebanon, thus leading to an increase in school dropouts among boys and girls between 10 and 15 years old. Parents’ inability to work or move freely has given these kids no choice but to join the labor market instead of pursuing their education.
Syrian civil society organizations have repeatedly raised these interconnected issues at numerous summits throughout the past year, including at the London donor conference in February and the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul in May. I can say with confidence that several of my colleagues – those who managed to make it to the Summit for Refugees and Migrants in New York – repeated these issues. But will this lead to results?
For us Syrian activists involved in the humanitarian response in Syria and surrounding countries, these events, summits and high-level meetings (or whatever fancy labels they are given) are seen as gatherings where excessive amounts of money are spent to hear emotional speeches by world leaders, and where great pledges of assistance are made but never translated into concrete results on the ground.
In the absence of any clear mechanism for monitoring or holding member states accountable for their pledges and commitments, we have serious doubts about how effective these events can be in solving the most pressing issues. For some of us, these events are nothing more than an elegant cover-up of the international community’s failure to fulfill its duty towards refugees and the various humanitarian crises around the globe.
World leaders are not only failing the displaced by failing to put an end to the root causes forcing Syrians to flee in the first place, but they are also failing us, Syrian civil society members, with their inability to provide the safety and assistance to lead a dignified life when we become refugees. Their inaction is making refugees even more vulnerable as easy targets for the attacks of populist, racist and fascist politicians around the world.
There is a trust crisis between Syrians, the U.N. and the international community in general, and this is why we have zero expectations from these summits. Many critics have stated that the U.N. system has failed and argued that it is time to create a new international institution. Is this the best course of action? I don’t have a definitive answer, but what I am sure of is that the member states, especially the members of the Security Council and the U.N. bureaucrats, are responsible for proving this wrong. It is on them to show us real results and progress that go beyond the same two-minute emotional speech given at every global summit and General Assembly.