Syrian Refugee Children and the Barriers Against the Right to Education

Teaser Image Caption
Since April 2011, when the first migration waves from Syria started, approximately 150.000 Syrian babies were born in Turkey. The number of Syrian children below 18 years is almost 1,2 million. Of those 600.000 who are at school age, not more than 20% have access to regular education.

We are refugees, banished individuals.

And the land that has accepted us will be no home, but an exile.

We sit there uneasily, as near the border as possible

Bertolt Brecht


“This world is an equalizing and unequal world, inviting everyone to the table, but shutting the door in majority’s face: equalizing in its imposed thoughts and habits, unequal in its opportunities…” is the introductory sentence of Eduardo Galeano’s Upside Down: A Primer for the Looking-Glass World.* He says that the most fervent supporters of universal peace are those countries producing and selling the most arms, adding that a neighbor in our world is not a security but a threat. He remarks that what prevails in this world are different kinds of negligence, forgetfulness, submission, depersonalization and dislocation.

 It is because the world rotates upside down that the number of dislocated people has outreached that of the Second World War. This number is the highest known in human history. According to the data presented by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the number of refugees all over the world has exceeded 50 million. Six and a half million of these people will probably have to live as refugees for many years to come.

 Two and a half million of these refugees are living in Turkey. People forced to migrate from Afghanistan, Iran, and Somali and, for the last five years, Syria, are carrying the hope for new life in Turkey. Only a transition point for refugees before the civil war in Syria, Turkey has now transformed into an asylum country. More than half of the registered two million refugees having been forced to migrate from Syria to Turkey are composed of children. And by September 2015, 663,000 of these children will have reached school-age.

 According to Article 22 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, Turkey is obliged to take necessary measures to make it available for all refugee children located in its own territory to enjoy the rights stated in the said convention. To what extent, then, does Turkey fulfill this obligation?

 In this country, where they come after escaping from war, leaving behind their relatives, homes, schools, after covering a long and difficult journey, these children are now unfortunately exposed to many violations of their rights.

Getting a leg in the door following a difficult journey

Meeting its obligations stated in human rights documents, Turkey opened its doors to people escaping from war in Syria in 2011. Yet it is not enough just to open one’s doors. Due to policies and practices that disregard human rights, for the last five years refugee children have been grappling with increasingly severe problems.

Three years after Syrians entered Turkey, the first migration law became effective as of April 2014. The definition of child in the said law, however, conflicts with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Despite the objections by non-governmental organizations, this law defines a child as “a minor person under the age of 18.” Then, if a child legally became an “adult” before the age of 18, they would not be defined as a child and have access to these rights. This could happen, for instance, if they were married. Along with this rather dangerous legal definition, the rights of refugee children are not well known and services offered to children are considered as a favor. Moreover, children rights are often violated, sometimes due to physical insecurity in the camps where they stay, sometimes during migration to another country, and sometimes in job ‘accidents’ or hate crimes to which they are subjected. Unfortunately, there is no detailed and transparent statistical data record regarding these violations. According to the Child Agenda Association’s Children’s Right to Life Report 2014,1 at least thirty eight refugee children lost their lives due to various reasons. However, these figures are limited and do not significantly reflect the extent of the problem.

The children who survive, on the other hand, cannot access their right to sufficient nutrition and therefore, come face to face with serious problems in terms of health rights. In spite of legislative regulations, children are deprived of regular medications, preventive health services, and generally are subjected to a variety of obstacles in accessing health rights.

The employment of children and labor exploitation is another problematic field.  As a consequence of the fact that Syrian adults are denied work permits, children are employed for a pittance at illegal workplaces in unregulated, informal and inhumane conditions. To make matters worse, they are exposed to bias-motivated murders, discrimination and other sorts of violence at workplaces.2 Refugee children are generally employed in waste collection, textile mills, and shoe workshops. And there are very limited or no sanctions for the workplaces employing them in this manner.

Many violations of rights, such as being forced into marriage, commercial sexual exploitation, violence, discrimination, etc., are now ordinary practices in the daily lives of refugee children. But we are deprived of data through which we could illustrate the aspects of these violations. There is no rights-based data system about the condition of refugee children (for example, their total number, age, gender, locations, requirements, etc.). It is, of course, not possible to develop an effective policy in the absence of such data. And in the absence of an effective policy, available sources are inevitably misused.

Refugee children’s right to education

The right to education, a legal obligation in accordance with international conventions and the constitution, is one of the fundamental rights enabling other child rights to be put into practice. According to UNESCO’s research in 2011, Syrian children devoid of the right to education are at more risk of abuse and maltreatment, exhibit more symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (nervousness, stress, anxiety, hopelessness…) and experience various regressions in their physical and psychological developments.

Even though an important regulation was issued in September 2014 to allow Syrian children to go to state schools, they still face many barriers in accessing their right to education. This situation leads many Syrian families based in Turkey to take their chances or even to put their lives at risk to migrate to other countries or to send their children there so that their children can receive an education. Unfortunately, before they are able to arrive at a country where they might get an education, many of these children lose their lives on this imposed and tough journey. It has not taken much time for the image of Aylan Kurdi lying dead on the shore to be inscribed into the memory of humanity. The Kurdi family had decided to migrate to Canada so that Aylan and his brother could continue their education. But it was not to be. Similar to Aylan’s fate, by October 2015 at least seventy children had lost their lives while trying to migrate.

The circular letter issued in 2014 with regard to the education of Syrian children made it possible for these children either to go to state schools or to the Temporary Education Centers, where they could access the Syrian curriculum in Arabic. However, they were often charged a fee, as these centers lacked sufficient resources. However, in spite of this formal letter, as of September 2015, approximately 60% of Syrian children cannot access any form of education. And those Syrian children incorporated into the education system experience a great deal of problems beginning from the enrollment process onwards.

Research carried out by the Bilgi University Child Studies Unit indicates that due to a lack of infrastructure and necessary support mechanisms, even those Syrian children who could access education are not able to enjoy the right to education in real terms.3 Similarly, another report prepared by the Human Rights Watch on the same issue points out that, despite the adoption of the law enabling Syrian children to go to state schools, fundamental obstacles such as linguistic barriers and problems of social adaptation and economic difficulties contribute to the violation of these children’s right to education.4

Obstacles against school enrollment

The families of Syrian children wanting to go to school in Turkey must first register at the Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD) or at the District Police Department. If the child wanting to enroll into a school has no passport, it is enough for her to give personal identifying information. They take her fingerprint, her picture and register the information given by her. The Foreigner Identity Card is given to those who have a residence permit and the Temporary Protection Identity Card to those under temporary protection.

But this is not a smooth process, as Syrians can be put into trouble either by the authorities carrying out the procedure or due to a lack of relevant knowledge. During the registration process, Syrian families are sometimes required to present documents, which is often not possible, as they do not have any proof of residence, rental contract or utility bill, documents which can all be taken from the neighborhood directorate (muhtarlık). Such difficulties pose serious obstacles in enrolling children into schools.

In the wake of a possible completion of the enrollment process

First of all, Syrian children and their families do not have sufficient information about enrollment into schools, to they cannot even apply for enrollment. And several impediments tend to be experienced by those trying to get their children enrolled into school thanks to the help of some people from Turkey, living nearby and knowledgeable about the matter, and of other refugees acquainted with this process. For instance, school administrators can refuse these children either arbitrarily or due to lack of knowledge; besides, they can ask for documents which they are not able to provide. Supposing that they have overcome all barriers and enrolled in school, let’s look at what they usually experience when they start school:

* Syrian children, most of whose only language is Arabic, face a linguistic barrier at schools where Turkish is the language of instruction. Language is the basis for a child not only to understand and make sense of the world but also to express herself. If a child’s school does not instruct her in her mother tongue, that child cannot be regarded as enjoying the right to education.

* Education appears to be free of charge, yet expenses like transportation and stationery equipment add up to a high amount. Either not being able to work due to a lack of work permit or illegally working in very poor conditions, Syrian families cannot cover these expenses, so they have to take their children out of school.

* Refugee children can be exposed to bullying at schools from their peers, teachers and the families of other children. And this can lead to them yielding to this bullying or their families not sending their children to school anymore. When bullying is not effectively dealt with it can affect the child’s whole development in a negative way and can disrupt her life.

* Apart from the Temporary Education Centers, the majority of which charge fees, state schools do not have a separate curriculum appropriate to Syrian children. These children have to make a transition to an education system very different than the previous one to which they had attended. And this negatively affects their academic success.

* Teachers do not have sufficient information neither about refugee children nor about relevant procedures. They can fall short of dealing with classroom problems such as discrimination and exclusion, etc.

* In the case of arbitrary attitudes and violations of rights experienced in the field of education, there are no paths to legal remedies for refugee children. And this causes violations of rights to go unpunished.

The story of Syrian Mohammed and Samir, as told in the report prepared by the Human Rights Watch, is in fact a good summary of all these problems.

Samir and Mohammed’s story

Eleven year old Samir and seven year old Mohammed are two brothers living in İzmir. Samir does not go to school and works with his father all day long at a shoe workshop on a salary below the minimum wage. As for Mohammed, who passed the first class at the state school in their neighborhood, he is very successful both at school and in social terms. Due to war, Samir and Mohammed escaped from Aleppo with their parents in the beginning of 2013. They first went to Beirut, but they could not go to school because of the over-crowded classrooms. In 2014, they moved to İzmir where their relatives lived. Having taken their Foreigner Identity Cards, their parents went to enroll them in school. The school was within walking distance from their home and was free of charge. School administrators placed Samir into the fifth and Mohammed into the first class. Mohammed could easily adapt to a new environment and to a new language, as he was quite young. All of his grades are high. Mohammed, who is the only Syrian in his classroom, tells his story in the following way:

I love school. My teacher and my friends are good, very polite and respectful. I speak Turkish; it is not yet perfect, but I’m learning. I want to be a teacher when I finish school. My dad says that I am successful and that I will do much better when I master Turkish.

Unlike Mohammed, Samir had little knowledge of Turkish when he started school. He says that it is impossible to follow the lessons:

I had finished the second class in Syria. I could not go to the third class as my school in Aleppo was bombed. I did not go to school also in Lebanon… And here I could not benefit from the school due to the language problem. I felt excluded. Other children used to mock at me, but I did not understand what they even said. My teacher was well disposed toward me, but as we could not understand each other, I would get bored and tired.

On the other hand, here is how Samir’s father depicts their problem:

We asked for the school administration to place him into a lower class. They said that it was impossible for them to allow him to study at a lower class on account of his age and physical development. We tried to explain that it is very hard for Arabs to learn Turkish, but they did not allow it. They did not even bother finding a solution to the problem.

A week after enrollment, Samir said that he did not want to go to school anymore. His father said, “The state is not interested in whether we send our children to school or not.” After Samir  dropped out of school, no one even called the family to inquire into the matter.


So, what can be done to improve these conditions? Here is the list of suggestions prepared by 32 organizations in September:5

  • A mutual procedure should be followed at the District Police Departments and the General Directorate of Migration Management units to which Syrians apply in order to register and get a temporary protection identity card.
  • During border crossing or temporary registration, information should be provided about access to educational services for all Syrians and their companions.
  • Measures (such as preparatory class, language courses, etc.) should be taken in order to help Syrian children enrolled in state schools overcome problems stemming from language barriers.
  • Information should be provided about the difficult living conditions, rights, available services that Syrians can use, and relevant mechanisms to teachers and administrators.  It should be ensured that they behave toward Syrian children with a rights-based approach.
  • Activities and programs should be planned with the aim of facilitating Syrian and Turkish children and their families to co-exist peacefully and breaking down possible prejudices between the two communities.
  • With respect to working with children exposed to the trauma of war and migration, and dealing with possible discriminatory practices and bullying between students, the pedagogical training of teachers should be enhanced.
  • A guidance system should be formed whereby Syrian children exposed to the trauma of war and migration can be supported in their own mother tongue.
  • Free notebooks, books, stationery equipment and other school material should be provided to children in order to enable them to benefit from educational services.
  • With respect to children’s access to education, regional differences should be minimized and efforts should be made to ensure that all Syrian students equally benefit from educational support services.

It is possible to build a new life together

A rights-based refugee policy capable of presenting durable solutions must be implemented, not only so that children have the right to education, but also for preventing all violations of rights experienced by refugee children and to enable them to get rid of the effects of war. They need to build a new life by becoming empowered and looking to future with hope. Without such a policy, it does not seem possible to eradicate the current problems only with the help of temporary resources and the limited solutions of non-governmental organizations.

If we do not ignore the fact that most of the current problems (child marriage, child labor, lack of education in the first language, violence, etc.) are also experienced by other children in Turkey, we can think of this process as being a possibility to rebuild rights-based child policies for all children in Turkey. However, looking at the problems that have worsened in the last five years, along with the attitude and approach exhibited by the state, we cannot help but lose hope. It is for this reason that non-governmental organizations and rights-based initiatives must come together with refugees (especially with children, young, women and LGBTI refugees) and find ways to build a life together where we can peacefully guarantee our rights and freedoms. An alternative way of rotating the world upside down will, perhaps, pass through the ground we would cover together with refugees.


  • This sentence has been translated here from its Turkish version (translator’s note).
  1. Yasam_Hakki_Raporu_2014.pdf (last access date 21December 2015).
  2. gundem-2150926 (last access date 21 December 2015).
  3. loads/2015/09/Suriyeli-Cocuklar-Egitim-Sistemi-Politika- Notu.pdf (last access date 21 December 2015).
  4. (last access date 21 December 2015).
  5.…-                          degil-devletlerin-yukumlulugudur (last access date December 21, 2015).