The number of Syrian refugee students who are actually enrolled in Lebanon’s public schools in the evening shift does not match the number that the Ministry of Education provides to international donors to obtain financial support, a Beirut-based television station recently reported.
The report, titled “Schools of Sand,” by Al Jadeed TV, a private television station with a reputation for investigative journalism that broadcasts in Arabic, accused successive Lebanese governments of misappropriating foreign aid funds provided by donor countries to educate Syrian refugees in Lebanon. The amount of money missing is estimated at up to $9 million annually since 2014.
“There is an unreal increase of at least 15,000 Syrian refugee students over the actual numbers enrolled in schools,” said Riad Kobaissi, the reporter who conducted the investigation.
So far, neither the Lebanese government nor any of the international donors have commented on Al Jadeed’s report.
Real Schools, False Numbers
Kobaissi started his investigation with the suspicion that there were a number of fake schools for Syrian refugees in Lebanon. He discovered, however, that there was no manipulation in the number of schools.
“The schools weren’t fake; they did exist,” he said. “But the number of students is not real.”
Kobaissi and his team worked for a whole year on two levels, first investigating on the ground and then reviewing and checking all data mentioned in related studies and official statements.
“I noticed a huge difference and contrast in the numbers of enrolled students,” Kobaissi said. “I started wondering, why don’t we manually count the students in every school?” Despite the difficulty of that task, he said he and his team manually counted the students by monitoring both the number of students and the number of buses going to the entrances at schools during evening shifts when Syrian students were attending.
Besides the inflated student count, Kobaissi and his team also found that the 11,000 teachers who contracted with the Ministry of Education to teach Syrian students have not been paid their salaries Besides the inflated student count, Kobaissi and his team also found that the 11,000 teachers who contracted with the Ministry of Education to teach Syrian students have not been paid their salaries in full. The ministry pays them for the hours they teach in Lebanese pounds, not in U.S. dollars. The government is taking advantage of the huge difference in the exchange rate “without anyone knowing where the currency exchange difference of hundreds of thousands of dollars goes,” he said.
“The schools weren’t fake; they did exist. But the number of students is not real.”Riad Kobaissi
(On paper, the official exchange rate remains at 1,500 Lebanese pounds to the dollar, but at the street exchange rate available to ordinary Lebanese citizens, it would take about 4,000 Lebanese pounds to equal one dollar, according to the Financial Times.)
Donor countries have supported refugee students in Lebanon since the 2014-15 academic year, providing the Lebanese Ministry of Education with $600 for each refugee student studying in the evening shift, and $363 for each student studying in the morning shift.
“Through the academic year 2017-2018, the Lebanese government had received about $1.8 billion to educate these refugee students,” Kobaissi said.
Not the First Accusation
Nearly 1.5 million Syrian refugees are currently living in Lebanon, of whom about 950,000 are registered with UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency. Though a small country, Lebanon also hosts an additional 18,500 refugees from other countries in Africa and the Middle East, in addition to more than 200,000 Palestine refugees, according to U.N. figures. Most of them suffer from poor living conditions, which are exacerbated by government restrictions on where they can work. (See a related article, “Syrian Refugees Are Often Steered into Illegal Jobs.”)
International and regional donors have helped Lebanon cope with the challenge, providing more than $7 billion to the Lebanon Crisis Response Plan between 2012 and 2018, according to Kobaissi’s report. For example, in February 2016, at the “Supporting Syria and the Region” conference held in London, a group of countries (the United States, Germany, Great Britain, Norway, Japan, and the European Union) pledged to provide $1.4 billion to finance education inside Syria and in neighboring countries. They also agreed with the host countries that all Syrian refugee children would have access to “quality education” by the end of the 2016-17 academic year.
The conference estimated the costs of Lebanon’s program at about $350 million annually over a period of five years.
Still, there was a lack of information about the projects donors were funding, and their timing. Millions of dollars in aid pledged to Syrian refugee children in schools in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey did not reach them, arrived late, or it cannot be traced due to poor documentation, according to a report by Human Rights Watch. The organization’s report, titled “Following the Money: Lack of Transparency in Donor Funding for Syrian Refugee Education,” published in 2017, found large discrepancies between the amounts mentioned by the various donors and those that were documented as having reached their intended goals in 2016.
“Donors allocate $30 to each professor for each hour of instruction, while the ministry pays 18,000 Lebanese pounds per hour; this means that it does not exceed the value of $16. Also, there was often a great discrepancy between the number of hours of actual education and the number of the hours the ministry and schools administration record.”A teacher who asked to remain anonymous
Kobaissi tried to obtain a comment from the UNHCR and asked the agency in many emails to publish the audit reports of the funds paid by the donors, but the UNHCR refused on the pretext that the information was not available to the public. UNICEF, in an interview with Kobaissi, spoke indirectly and said they preferred keeping students in schools instead of having them on the streets.
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An Arabic language teacher, whom the Lebanese Ministry of Education contracted to teach Syrian refugee students in the evening shift since 2014, believes that the Al Jadeed report is true.
“There is a huge discrepancy that occurs every year between the numbers of students registered at the beginning of the school year, and the numbers that attend school hours throughout the year, and that there were students who only attend the exams,” said the teacher, who asked to remain anonymous. She added that she and all the other teachers at the school did not get paid regularly. They were supposed to be paid every three months, but the ministry and the school administration did not commit to pay them.
“Donors allocate $30 to each professor for each hour of instruction, while the ministry pays 18,000 Lebanese pounds per hour; this means that it does not exceed the value of $16. Also, there was often a great discrepancy between the number of hours of actual education and the number of the hours the ministry and schools administration record.”
Al-Fanar Media independently tried to get a response from the education ministry about the Al Jadeed report but had not gotten a response yet at the time of publication.
Kobaissi observed that “It has become documented at least that there is poor management of refugee student education programs in Lebanon, resulting in the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars. No one can deny that.”
“No response has been issued by organizations and donors so far,” he added. “Perhaps they have an internal investigation to provide a harmonious mutual answer.”
He explained that it is not possible to “confirm who is involved in this, but it seems it is everyone’s responsibility.”