Refugee children face education black hole on Greek Islands

Coronavirus and cash crisis threaten to bring bleak future for youngsters who fled war

A girl wears a protective face mask at a makeshift camp for refugees and migrants next to the Moria camp, during a nationwide lockdown to contain the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), on the island of Lesbos, Greece April 02, 2020. REUTERS/Elias Marcou
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Thousands of refugee children who fled war in Syria and Afghanistan face life without education from June because of a cash crisis in the overcrowded camps of the Greek islands, a report shows.

About 42,000 refugees are on the islands of the Aegean Sea but the twin threats from coronavirus and delays over education funding threaten the future of vulnerable children in camps.

Money for education programmes will run out in June and major donors are yet to agree on an extension, global children’s charity Theirworld said.

Theirworld says that €20 million (Dh79.4m/$21.6m) is needed for the next two years to school the estimated 6,000 refugee children on the islands.

It said fewer than a third of the children were receiving any schooling by late 2019.

“Even if only for a few hours a day, these classes offer a stark contrast to their existence in overcrowded camps blighted by poor diet, sanitation, high tension and sometimes violence,” said Justin van Fleet, Theirworld's president.

The charity urged international donors to fulfil a pledge made in 2016 to educate every Syrian refugee child.

The UN has called on donors to give $1.5m for remote learning for refugee children, whose education has almost entirely been stopped by the Covid-19 outbreak and their traumatic journeys to Europe.

“For children who have been displaced because of conflict or persecution, entering school restores their hope and dignity,” said Philippe Leclerc, UNHCR representative in Greece.

Many on the islands of Lesbos, Kos, Samos and Chios had gone without schooling for a year after fleeing their homelands.

The highest number of refugees are at the Moria refugee camp on the island of Lesbos, which was built for 3,000 people but is now home to nearly 20,000.

A charity education centre on the island was also destroyed in fire last month amid rising tension between the local population and migrants.

Providing education with little funding has been made more difficult by the pandemic in the overcrowded camps, where conditions are ripe for the disease to spread.

A new mother in a camp near Athens this month became the first refugee from a Greek refugee centre to test positive for Covid-19.

The situation on the Greek islands is part of a bigger problem.

About 1.5 million refugee children, most of whom fled the Syrian war, are out of school in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon, the charity said.

"It's important to help children on the islands during Covid-19 with remote learning, because their situation is so difficult,” said the charity’s chair, Sarah Brown, a global health and education campaigner.

"But we mustn't stint on the effort to provide learning and proper school places when the crisis begins to ease.

“We know for sure that the children and their families want them to resume learning. We hear all the time that education is so important to them.”