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Schooling can help fight terrorism

26 September 2014

It is myopic to neglect education for Syrian refugees, says Paul Vallely

TWO seemingly uncon­nected events happened this week. One concerned textbooks for the children of refugees. The other, which got much more media attention, was the United States' ex­­tension into Syria of air strikes against the zealots of the self-styled Islamic State.

The connection is this: Islamist zealots have begun recruiting in Lebanon among the young impressionable refugees who have fled there over the past three years, since the civil war began in Syria. A mind-boggling three million people- a million of them school-age children - have fled their homes in fear, and are now camped in neighbouring countries.

The biggest group is in Lebanon, where facil­ities are so limited that, even with a double shift of morning and afternoon lessons, four out of five boys cannot get an education. Previously, almost all Syrian children were in school; so this constit­­utes a reversal in educational opportunity with­out parallel in recent history, according to a report by the think tank the Overseas Develop­ment Institute.

The result is not just a lack of education, but a rise in child labour and forced marriage: offices are being opened in which men can choose a child bride, often 15 years younger than themselves. And boys are falling prey to the blandishments of recruiters from IS and other terrorist extremists.

Education would provide some kind of defence against the radicalising talk of the IS recruiting sergeants. And yet a conference in New York on Wednesday was told of a massive failure by the international community to deliver on pledges that were made in 2013 to provide education for these children. The EU and Germany have con­trib­­­uted significant amounts, but the United States and the UK have not. Of the $200 million needed, Britain has given just £3 million - to buy textbooks for Lebanese schools.

The Tomahawk missiles fired against IS in Syria the day before the conference cost $1.2 million each. To date, the US has launched 140 airstrikes against the Islamist fanatics. That would suggest that the cost of war will soon outstrip the provision for education for the boys who could be the next generation of suicide-bombers. This is false economy in the extreme.

This week, David Cameron announced that Britain backed the strikes inside Syria. Some analysts suggest that UK forces will eventually join the action, although the House of Commons may have something to say about that.

This is not to adopt a pacifist position. Some kind of action is clearly necessary to halt the tide of fanaticism which is raping, pillaging, behead­ing, and crucifying its way across what was once the cradle of world civilisation. But exactly what kind of action is required is open for debate, when the 140 airstrikes appear to have done little to shift the existing battle lines.

What is clear is that neglecting a future seedbed of terrorism in the region is culpably myopic. Schools for refugees may not provide media images as compelling as airborne explosions and burned-out buildings; but they are a sensible and far-sighted part of any fight against international terror.

Paul Vallely is a Senior Fellow at the Brooks World Poverty Institute at the University of Manchester.


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