UNESCO chief: Education ensures normalcy for millions of displaced Syrians

UNESCO, and other partners such as the EU, is working to ensure that a generation of Syrian refugees receives an education, thereby reducing the chance that they turn to extremism, Irina Bokova, the organisation's director-general, told EURACTIV.

The tragic humanitarian crisis in Syria affects the UN Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) directly, not because the organisation’s mission is to promote culture and education, but because without education the country would have no future, the director-general of the largest UN agency said. 

According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), there are currently more than 2.4 million refugees registered in the region: some 932,000 in Lebanon; 574,000 in Jordan; some 613,000 in Turkey; 223,000 in Iraq; and about 134,000 in Egypt. In addition, more than 4 million Syrians are internally displaced. The international community has recognised that the refugees and displaced persons are unlikely to return to their homes anytime soon, even in an optimistic scenario.

Bokova said she was soon going to visit the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, which hosts over 140,000 Syrian refugees, to oversee how the project of providing education to the children and youth there is advancing. UNESCO, she said, was focusing on training teachers, and on making sure that the diplomas young people obtain are recognised in their country once they are able to return to it.

Bokova spoke of the need of such education, which would actually allow young Syrians to get jobs: “There is a danger that [the] young would remain unemployed. Without the ability to go to school, they are likely to be recruited by extremists who manipulate them”, she said.

Asked if UNESCO had sufficient funding, Bokova acknowledged that it financial difficulties following the United States' decision in October 2011 to stop paying its dues to the UN agency, in protest over the granting of full membership to Palestine. UNESCO had no regular budget for its effort in Syria and was counting on bilateral partners, she said. Among them, she mentioned the European Commission, but also Koweit and private partners.

She also said that many private partners were supporting UNESCO’s action, mentioning that days ago, she had signed a 5-million dollar partnership with the Chinese air carrier HAINAN, aimed at supporting girls’ education. This appears to be the latest in a series of UNESCO partnerships with business to launch innovative development projects across the world.

Asked how she sees UNESCO’s relations with the EU, Bokova said that she was “particularly enthusiastic” about the ongoing cooperation, which she called “very promising for the future”.

Bokova called the destruction of cultural and historical monuments by extremists “unacceptable”, adding that such moves were aimed at destroying the identity of entire populations. She said that UNESCO was alerting the international community over the issue and expressed satisfaction that the latest UN resolution on Syria, from 22 February, which was unanimously approved, contains a paragraph on the paramount importance of the protection of world heritage.

Together with the New York Metropolitan and the International Council of Museums, UNESCO had established a “red list” of the objects of Syrian cultural and historic heritage under threat, Bokova said. She called the smuggling of such objects “a hidden crisis” and said that together with its partners, UNESCO had done huge work in preventing their sale in different markets.

Regarding the post-2015 Millennium Development Goals, Bokova said that UNESCO's objective was to recognise culture as an instrument for social cohesion and sustainable development.

The UNESCO director-general explained that culture was not a millennium goal “objective” in itself, but rather a “vector” for development.

“The new debate we are holding is to determine the objectives of development, and what are the tools to achieve this objective. We will make sure that these tools, these engines for development work to achieve these goals”, Bokova said.

To read the full interview in French please click here.

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