UNICEF: 40 percent school dropouts in Mideast conflict areas

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AMMAN, Jordan (AP) — Forty percent of children from five conflict-scarred Middle Eastern countries are not attending school, the United Nations agency for children said Thursday, warning that losing this generation will lead to more militancy, migration and a dim future for the region.

An estimated 13.7 million school age children from Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya and Sudan are not in school, out of a total of 34 million, UNICEF said.

The dropout rate could increase to 50 percent in coming months as conflicts intensify, Peter Salama, the agency's regional chief, told The Associated Press.

"We are on the verge of losing a generation of children in this region," he said. "We must act now or we will certainly regret the consequences."

He said UNICEF needs an additional $300 million this year to make a dent in the numbers and give more children access to education. The agency so far has received $140 million, or 40 percent of its 2015 appeal, for the education of displaced Syrians.

Thursday's report marks the first attempt to show the scope of the regional education crisis, Salama said.

The report said that education is increasingly being disrupted by fighting and the displacement of millions of people.

Close to 9,000 schools in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya have either been destroyed in fighting, turned into shelters for displaced people or been commandeered by fighters, UNICEF said. In Syria and Yemen, one in four schools can no longer be used for education, the report said. In Syria, 50,000 teachers no longer report to work, while thousands of children have to cross front lines to take their school exams.

"The forces that are crushing individual lives and futures are also destroying the prospects for an entire region," the report said.

Salama said he believes lack of access to education is helping drive the increasingly desperate attempts by Middle Eastern asylum seekers to reach Europe. Children who are not going to school are also more vulnerable to recruitment by militant groups, he said. He said that UNICEF has seen a rise in recruitment attempts, in parallel with the drop in school enrollment.

The agency called for greater efforts to educate children in conflict zones, including through self-learning kits and an e-learning program, known as "Sahabati," Arabic for "My Cloud." The program would teach Arabic, English, math and science, with a system of online assessments and certification, the report said. It's not clear when it will be rolled out.

The report also called for increased investment in education in humanitarian emergencies. More money should be spent, among other things, on school systems in countries hosting refugees, including more than 4 million Syrians who fled civil war, UNICEF said. More than half the Syrian refugee children, or 700,000, are not in school, the report said.

In 2010, between 7 and 8 million school-age children in Syria, Libya, Iraq, Yemen and Sudan were not in school, said Juliette Touma, a UNICEF spokeswoman. Reasons included ongoing conflicts, such as in Sudan and Iraq, as well as poverty.

Since then, new conflicts have erupted in Syria, Libya and Yemen, while fighting in Iraq has intensified following land grabs by the extremist group Islamic State there last year.

Currently, 13.7 million children from the five countries affected by conflict are not in school, the report said. This includes 2.7 million Syrian children, including 700,000 in host countries; 3 million children in Iraq; 2 million in Libya; 3.1 million in Sudan; and 2.9 million in Yemen.

The number of dropouts and children who have never been to school is bound increase. In the next few months, with the situation expected to worsen, "up to half ... of school age children will be out of school," Salama said.

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