A profound change has occurred in Syrian refugee movement over the past year: It has almost completely ended.
Countries neighboring Syria and others have effectively blocked the ability of Syrians to flee their country and move on from neighboring countries to places of increased economic and educational opportunity. But despite that rejection, the desire of Syrians to escape to better circumstances has not waned.
“We lost our home in Aleppo, and now Jordan, Egypt and Turkey have shut their doors in our faces. In Lebanon we need a Lebanese sponsor to get a legal residence. We are completely trapped and still people wonder why we throw ourselves in the sea,” said Maha Mohamed, a Syrian mother of two school-age children in Bire Akkar, a small Lebanese town close to the Syrian border.
While a few Syrians today continue to move north, making treacherous and sometimes deadly journeys as they seek to reach Europe, experts say refugee movement has largely been blocked, dimming the hopes of Syrians seeking better access to education.
“Most of the borders most of the time around Syria are actually closed because of the big pressure on the neighboring countries, particularly Lebanon, but also of course Jordan, Iraq and Turkey,” said Pål Nesse, senior advisor for the Norwegian Refugee Council, which works to enhance protection of refugees.
Since June 2014, Jordan, which hosts about 650,000 registered Syrian refugees, has effectively closed its border to Syrians. The Kingdom forbids all Syrians who arrive by car or plane or present themselves at checkpoints from entering. Occasionally the sick or injured are let through, and taken directly to Azraq camp, a settlement with harsh living circumstances not far from the border.
As a result, more than 75,000 Syrians are currently trapped in Rukban and the smaller Hadalat, makeshift camps in the barren slice of land inside Syria near the Jordanian border. Amnesty International has described the area home to the camps as a “desert no man’s land,” with poor sanitation and lack of access to medical care and humanitarian aid. Young people living in those camps are getting zero formal education.
Lebanon has also shut its border to Syrians. Previously, Syrians could stay in Lebanon for up to six months. Under new legal measures, Syrians wanting to enter Lebanon have to fulfill certain criteria to be granted a visa. Every Syrian wanting to enter the country has to state a clear purpose for their visit, and, if approved, a visa will be issued for a fixed duration. Getting a residency or a work permit is expensive and very difficult—if not impossible, even for Syrians with very high qualifications, such as medical degrees.
“The number of people that can actually cross is very limited. So, what you have is a higher number of internally displaced persons within Syria in need of protection that can’t get out,” said Nesse. A stunning 6.5 million people are displaced inside Syria, says the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
Across Syria, a total of 2.1 million children are out of school, according to UNHCR. Access to higher education is similarly limited. The University of Damascus and a few other institutions are operating, but the number of students is dropping steadily, with many male students leaving the country at the age of 18 to avoid obligatory military service and spiraling living expenses.
The problem of limited educational access extends to Syria’s neighbors, where the number of Syrian refugees has recently been relatively stable, UNHCR data shows. That stability not only reflects that fewer Syrians are leaving their country, but it also reflects another shift: a drop in the number of Syrians going to Turkey and on to the European Union.
Last year, the main route for Syrians looking to reach Europe was from Turkey to Greece—a journey more than 800,000 refugees and migrants of various nationalities made in 2015 via the Aegean Sea, according to UNHCR. This year, that figure hasn’t topped 170,000, says the refugee agency. “Syrians are still on the move, but in no way to the degree that they were last year,” said Matthew Saltmarsh, a senior communications officer at UNHCR.
Experts say a deal between the European Union and Turkey that went into effect in March and that stipulated that “new irregular migrants” arriving in Greece would be sent back to Turkey drove the decline. “There are still a few people going, but the border control on the Turkish side has become much more comprehensive as part of this agreement,” Nesse said. The beaches of the Greek island Lesbos, once filled with waves of refugees, are now largely empty.
New visa restrictions have also made it more difficult for Syrians to cross into Turkey to begin with, thus limiting their ability to move on to Europe. All Syrian passport holders are now required to have visas to enter Turkey, according to the country’s foreign affairs ministry.
“It’s impossible to get a Turkish visa now, especially for Syrians who are in neighboring countries like Jordan and Lebanon,” said Maher Mansor, a 27-year-old Syrian who fled to Jordan in 2013. Mansor’s Turkish visa application has been rejected twice with no clear reason.
Inside the European Union, data on first-time asylum applications appears to confirm a recent decline in Syrian refugees’ movement. There were 90,500 first-time applications for asylum from Syrians in the second quarter of this year, a decline from 102,000 in the first quarter of the year and 151,775 in the fourth quarter of 2015, according to Eurostat, the European Union’s statistical office.
If the number of Syrian asylum applicants in Europe continues to drop as the flow of Syrians coming from the Middle East slows, the burden on European universities to offer higher education to an influx of Syrian refugees will not, at least, significantly increase. Around 50,000 refugees qualified to study are already in Germany, a country that has, in general, welcomed refugees. The prospective students represent “a big opportunity as well as an immense challenge,” says the German Academic Exchange Service, or DAAD, a national agency that supports international academic cooperation and is working to integrate refugees at German universities.
In Syria’s neighboring nations, a slew of challenges inhibit access for Syrian students, most of them well documented by now: money, language barriers, and the lack of original copies of academic documents.
In Turkey, 2016 statistics from the Council of Higher Education indicate that 9,689 out of the 2,700,000 Syrian refugees in the country are enrolled in higher education. In Jordan, 6,641 Syrians are enrolled in higher education out of 656,400 registered refugees, according to August 2016 statistics from the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research. In Lebanon, the education ministry puts the number of enrolled Syrians at 5,860 out of about 1 million Syrian refugees. (Refugee population figures are from UNHCR.)
Enrollment figures are unlikely to climb without a substantial and continued surge in efforts to widen opportunities for university-age refugees. Drastic changes also need to be made to ensure that young Syrian children and adolescents are positioned to one day take advantage of education beyond secondary school, given that three million of them are currently out of school, including 900,000 in Syria’s neighbors, according to UNHCR.
Saltmarsh said significant efforts are being deployed in Syria’s neighboring countries to address education and other issues, such as health. “The humanitarian community is fully aware that the situation is a long, long way from being what they want it to be, what we want it to be,” he added.