The Situation of Syrian Refugee Education in Lebanon: Legal Restrictions and Administrative Challenges
The issue of access to educational services for refugees in Lebanon has been a difficult and fundamental problem with no clear solutions in sight. The obstacles preventing refugees from attaining their right to education are increasing, which threatens their future—whether at the level of livelihoods in Lebanon, Syria, or any other country. More recently, attempts to use the issue of refugee education for political purposes has been emerging, putting pressure on Syrian refugees in Lebanon to return to Syria.
International organizations’ dealings with refugees and the relief services that were implemented without the removal of legal restrictions has also led to large gaps in the educational process. Dr. Maha Shuayb, Director of the Centre for Lebanese Studies and supervisor of many research studies in the field of access and quality of education, points out that the Lebanese state insists on providing educational services to refugees only through the public sector without providing residency or legal papers—which would allow students to register for official certificate exams. This policy turned education into an issue of extortion for students as well as for international organizations that fund this sector. Furthermore, this has led some politicians to brag about allowing refugees to enter schools instead of considering education as a legitimate right to all residents in Lebanon.
Only a few weeks before the official exam date, the Lebanese Council of Ministers finally issued their yearly decision regarding this year’s public exams. According to this decision, students are allowed to take exams this year, even if they are unable to provide the required documents, including the valid residence documents required from Syrian and/or Syrian-Palestinian students. However, the parents and students are still apprehensive due to the lack of response from employees in the educational departments and school principals regarding the implementation of the decision.
The requirement of legal residency imposed on Syrian refugee students in Lebanon—which is necessary to complete their education—is one of the most prominent difficulties they have been facing for years. It has become a critical obstacle that prevents them from their right to education. Residency is now required to register at the Lebanese University or to receive certificates of success in official exams, or even to equalize Syrian certificates.
Asylum Conditions, Laws, and UNHCR Inaction
Syrian students in Lebanon lack access to valid residency due to several factors, most importantly are the high costs or accumulated financial fines to settle the situation of violators caused by missed renewals throughout the years, in addition to the fact that students’ residency are linked to their families’ residence type. Today, a large number of the refugees entered Lebanon informally—due to war conditions—and children who took refuge with their families do not have personal identification cards or records. Furthermore, they cannot obtain passports from the Syrian embassy in Lebanon because of the very high costs of $325 US dollars for an ordinary passport and $800 US dollars for an urgent one.
As for the role of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in this matter, some parents and students have complained about their inability to obtain the required papers from the UNHCR to settle their status with the Lebanese General Security. These papers include housing certificates issued by the UNHCR or registration files, which is an additional obstacle for refugee students.
Umm Ahmed explains the problems she faces in seeking residence for her son: “My son’s school insists on seeing a proof of legal residence so that he can submit his candidacy application for the secondary certificate exam. I borrowed the cost of the passport from acquaintances because my son does not have a personal card. No response … I have been calling the UNHCR for a year and a half to update our registration file, and every time they refuse to give us an appointment under the pretext of COVID-19.”
Students Registered at the Lebanese University
The problems described are not limited to schooling children, university students likewise experience similar issues. In early February, the Association of University Students in Lebanon, AUSL, announced a campaign advocating for refugee students who face problems in pursuing their education in Lebanon, specifically those who are unable to register this year due to the residency requirements.
Raed (nickname) told “Refugees=Partners” via their website: “I am a second-year Master’s student, and the General Security has placed me in deportation since 2017, did not renew my residency and prevented me from doing so, but I continued my studies at the Lebanese University and registered every year as usual using my ID and civil status record without obstacles. This year, the University administration stipulated that I must obtain proof of legal residency in order to complete the registration procedures, so I went to the General Security and asked to submit a petition, but they said they don’t accept petitions, and that I have to leave Lebanon, and I cannot do that.. All these years of education were in vain.”
Registration for the Lebanese University branches closed at the end of February 2022. Many refugee students’ hope that their registration ended with that date as well. This situation was witnessed for the first year in the University’s history, after freezing the decision stipulating that students must pay the fees in US dollars.
Rania states: “My problem is that I was not able to obtain a “student residency”. The General Security asks me to submit a registration paper from the university, and the university, in return, does not give me that paper unless I have a residence permit! I tried to obtain a “guarantor’s residence”, but the General Security refused to do so, on the grounds that the sponsor and I must be relatives!”
Aya (21 years old), who studies at the Faculty of Law at the Lebanese University in Zahle, halted her studies this year because she was unable to come up with the cost of obtaining a passport that would allow her to renew her residency. Last year, Aya registered by submitting a copy of her civil status record because she does not have a personal ID, as she entered Lebanon with her family in 2014 when she was a child.
The outrage on social media over the past weeks, sparked by students expressing their concerns and making their voices heard, has proven to be in vain. The correspondence of the University Students’ Association with the Presidency of the Lebanese University and the UNHCR also did not yield any results, while some human rights bodies and international organizations concerned with refugee issues were also ineffective.
It is worth noting that a large group of students who are affected by this decision confirmed that some branches of the Lebanese University had in fact cooperated with them and that their applications were accepted after they brought their registration papers to the Commission. Other branches of the Lebanese University allowed students to register with a conditional registration while awaiting the submission of the residence document, so some students transferred their registration to those university branches.
The follow-up to the procedures implemented by the Student Affairs Department in the different branches of the Lebanese University firmly demonstrated that these procedures are administrative instructions that are separately handled by respective branches. As for the students who were able to register conditionally, they will have less than a month to submit the residency document with the announcement of the start of the semester exams at the university.
Certificate Equivalency and Conditions
More decisions have been issued obligating students who want to equalize their Syrian secondary or preparatory certificates to provide their educational transcript, valid residency, and their border traffic statement sheet.
Hadeel (30 years old) says: “My problem with the Syrian high school equivalency is that I am unable to provide an educational transcript, and because I applied independently to the certificate, the Lebanese Ministry of Education did not recognize it, although the same type of certificate is found within the Lebanese educational system. It also requires the transcripts of the tenth and eleventh grades and these papers are not available after our schools were burnt down during the war. This is my case and many students’ whose education in universities depends on the certificate equivalency.”
In addition to the problems of discriminatory restrictions against refugee students, these students are also exposed to bullying and racism by employees, whether in the Ministry of Education or in educational departments. The effects of these experiences and practices impede the progress of the student’s procedure even if they have all the required papers and documents.
The Association of University Students in Lebanon (AUSL) follows up on the problems of students of all ages and groups, and through its permanent support for their issues, it was able to engender interaction in some of its campaigns that worked to highlight the rights and issues of refugee students.
Although the AUSL team does not receive any support or funding, it was able to pressure the Ministry of Education in 2017 through the campaign “The Equivalency Makes Me Lose My Education”. The Ministry then issued a decision to equalize the certificates of refugee students in accordance with the presence of their registration paper with the UNHCR and abolish the residence requirement. This decision was active until 2019.
When the educational departments refrained from handing out official certificates, under the pretext of a lack of residence permits—and despite the start of the next academic year—the AUSL pressured the UNHCR and the Ministry of Education again into issuing a new decision in 2020. After the association provided statistics showing that hundreds of students were unable to provide residence despite their registration with the UNHCR as refugees, the ministry issued a decision that certificates must be handed to refugees.
The role of the University Students Association is not limited to calling for the facilitation of education from a legal point of view, but has encouraged organizations supporting education to provide financial aid and scholarships for Lebanese university students, most notably the “My Right to Higher Education” campaign. The organizations Spark, Laser, and the Commission that supports the Duffy Scholarship all responded to this campaign, and despite the small number of scholarships in recent years compared to the rate of demands from students, it was able to change some students’ lives.
School Dropout in the Public Sector and its Consequences
The dropout rate of refugee children from schools in Lebanon is very high for several reasons. The most prominent factor is economic, since the costs of transportation and study have risen. Furthermore, issues such as the lack of absorptive capacity of public schools, the problems of evening shifts inside and outside the educational system, and children being forced to walk long distances at night—or even having to go to neighboring villages and towns since there are no middle and secondary schools where they reside—are all other factors that contribute to the high dropout rate.
Children dropouts lead to another set of problems, including child labor and early marriage. In addition to the economic and social factors, there are other problems such as students’ integration and understanding of the curriculum, and the lack of support provided by international organizations. On the other hand, some local associations have opened educational centers near refugee camps in order to fill this gap, but most of them do not teach the official Lebanese curriculum, and therefore their certificates are not recognized, and their curricula are not accredited.
Some commercial centers that teach the Syrian curriculum have emerged and cooperate with the Syrian and Lebanese General Security to secure the students’ trips back and forth for their official exams (preparatory and secondary). Thus, these students do not obtain papers proving their cross-border traffic, so their certificates are not recognized by the Lebanese Ministry of Education that often considers these documents to be forged.
Dima, 20-year-old, is one of those students who were unable to complete their education in public schools in Lebanon, and so resorted to a commercial centre that teaches the Syrian curriculum. Dima then applied for an official Syrian certificate as an “independent applicant”, but was unable to equalize her certificates in Lebanon, which prevented her from pursuing her education for the current semester at the Lebanese International University. Dima says, “My degree equivalency was not completed because it requires cross-border traffic, as well as an academic transcript for grades nine and twelve, but I studied at a centre that the Lebanese government does not recognize.”
Dr. Maha Shuayb believes that the difficult economic conditions and legal obstacles have led to many young people dropping out of school to join the labor market, after realizing that a higher educational rank could hinder their ability to find gainful employment. Therefore, investing in education as a refugee in Lebanon does not always seem beneficial , despite the fact that informal work conditions are exploitative and grim in terms of low wages and the absence of guaranteed rights.
Thus, refugee students are lost between public sector education and higher education due to legal and economical gaps that prevent them from reaching their future goals. While they waste many years between asylum, war, and looking for stability, they do their best to redeem the years lost without education, only to fall into new mazes that depress their efforts and limit their abilities in exile.
Author: Muzna Alzhouri