Syrian Refugees and the Right to Education in Turkey

“When we talk to people in the camps and cities, inside Syria and in Turkey, they say it’s ok if we don’t have enough food or health care, but it’s not ok if we don’t have education for our children.” 

This is the message I keep hearing over and over again in Turkey, from both refugees in the country and as an urgent message from their families and friends still inside Syria. We are told that up to 70 percent of children in Syria can no longer go to school because the schools have been bombed or it’s no longer safe to go outside because of barrel bombs. More than 70 percent of Syrian refugee children in Turkey are not attending school because Syrians speak Arabic and the curriculum in Turkey is, of course, in Turkish. Many of the Syrians also don’t know how to access and register for temporary protected status in Turkey, which is necessary for their children to attend school. 

With over 1.7 million Syrians, Turkey currently is hosting more refugees than any other country in the world. In the last few years the country has also absorbed tens of thousands of Yazidis, Kurds, Iraqis, Afghans, and other individuals and families from all over the region who are welcomed nowhere, but have found refuge in Turkey. Turkey for its part has done a commendable job as host – providing access to public schools and public health services. But it can’t do everything, and there are signs of deterioration in its registration system and other mechanisms that are critical to child protection. 

With over 1.7 million Syrians, Turkey currently is hosting more refugees than any other country in the world.

For the 250,000 Syrian people living in Turkish refugee camps along the border, life is stable. But this is not the case for the almost two million living outside the camps. Syrians outside camps cannot legally work and have very little access to food distributions. As a result, kids have had to go to work, selling goods on the streets, begging, and taking up work in restaurants and factories. On this trip I have spent time in Istanbul, Ankara, Gaziantep and Sanliurfa, and in all of these cities small Syrian children have come up to me in the street and asked for money.

In some cases, families are arranging for female children to marry Syrian or Turkish men, because it means those girls will have a roof over their heads and some security, and their own families will have one less mouth to feed. These girls will not go to school and may quickly become mothers themselves. These child marriages are not legal in Turkey, and that makes both the child brides and their newborns more vulnerable.

According to the Turkish government, at least 60,000 Syrian babies have been born in Turkey. But this is almost surely an underestimate because many children are not being registered at the local foreigner’s office. Given that the war just started its fifth year, most of the babies born to Syrian refugees in Turkey are not old enough to attend school yet. And when they do, it will exacerbate an already overwhelmed system. 

RI was told that even with only half of Syrian kids attending school in Turkey, in some areas classroom sizes have gone from 25 to over 40 students. Schools are doing double and triple shifts to meet the overwhelming needs of Turkish and Syrian children. While the extra shifts cater to Syrian children, they don’t get a full curriculum. Many Syrian families are now just beginning to accept that they are not going home anytime soon. Despite the massive language challenges, the children born in Syria before the war got underway must start attending Turkish schools.

For children born in Turkey to Syrian parents, the challenges are just beginning. Turkish hospitals register their births and issue reports, but requesting a birth certificate is an entirely different process that requires engagement with the local district police. Many Syrians in Turkey, whether doctors, social workers, or activists, are wanted by the Assad regime so they are afraid to register in Turkey and create a paper trail that might lead to their capture. Others hope to move to Europe because they have family, friends or business prospects there. Despite the fact that Europe has absorbed an infinitesimal number of Syrians, Syrian refugees fear that by formally registering their children in Turkey, other European countries will send them back. Turkey is admirably coping but unfairly shouldering the burden of refugee needs.

Community centers are helping Syrian children and parents cope with the unimaginable shock and ongoing trauma of homes abandoned, dreams destroyed, and families torn apart by bombs, snipers and flight. The legal identity that comes with the issuance of a birth certificate, and the stability and hope that comes with access to an education cannot be overestimated.

Photo: A drawing from a Syrian refugee at a community center in Turkey, with her mother who died in Syria as an angel.