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How does Turkey school 1,3 million Syrian children?

Currently, Turkey has the most significant population of refugees in the world. While the safety of Turkey for refugees has often been called into question, most EU member states have welcomed the March 20 agreement between Brussels and Ankara.

The reasons are clear. Greece went from thousands to tens of refugees a day; Sweden recently revised its forecast for refugee arrivals from 80,000 to 29,000. To put this succinctly, Germany has the same population as Turkey but relies on Ankara’s willingness to welcome three times as many migrants. And Germany has a much older population. Turkey has 18 million students of its own; add now 1,3 million and a much smaller economy. And whether Turkey succeeds or fails in the social reintegration of Syrians is of profound significance for Europe.

While Europe is sometimes interested in the conditions of living for Syrian children in Turkey, there is a surge in right-wing xenophobia that is unprecedented. The “not in my backyard” feeling prevails. Until recently, how Turkey was addressing the challenge at hand was largely the subject of speculation. But, a recent study by Turkey’s largest think-tank, SETA, provides a glimpse not only to the challenges being faced now but also for the long-term policy implications.

The study is entitled “A Road Map for the Education of Syrians in Turkey.”New Europe spoke with one of its two authors, Ms. İpek Coşkun.

 What is the size of the challenge?

Due to the war in Syria, millions were internally displaced or forced to migrate to neighbouring countries. Turkey, as a result of its open door policy, is currently hosting approximately 3 million Syrians within its borders. According to the Directorate General of Migration Management’s (GİGM), there are 254,747 Syrians residing in 25 camps in 10 cities; there are an additional 2,470,190 Syrians making a living by supporting themselves in various cities of Turkey. That adds up to a population of 2,724,927 Syrians in Turkey. Approximately half of this population (1,277,018) consists of children between the age of 0 and 18 (GİGM, 2016).

 Are these children properly schooled?

More than half the Syrian kids are still out of school in Turkey. This trend is very similar to the current situation in Lebanon and Jordan. I don’t know what is going on in Germany or other European countries are hosting Syrian refugees. But I am not very optimistic about the situation in Germany. In any event, for Turkey, there are many factors at play.

Figure 1. The number of un/schooled Syrian children in Turkey (2015)


Socio-economic difficulties disrupt access to schools. Temporary schools (GEMs) require fees to pay for housing, staff, transport, food, and other expenses. Some Syrian families need their boys to work to make ends meet, usually in low skilled and low paid jobs in the informal sector; for similar reasons, girls get married early. That is why school attendance rates drop from primary to secondary education. If we improve the socio-economic conditions of Syrian families, children will stay at school.

Picture 1. Ms. İpek Coşkun and Syrian refugee children, Şanlıurfa-Gaziantep-Kili camp, 2015researcher

Another issue is the language barrier. Temporary schools have been unable to provide quality education due to the lack of educational material and lack of training in teaching Turkish as a foreign language. Although the teachers appointed by the Ministry of Education (MEB) do not have adequate training, they manage to teach reading and writing in Turkish, but comprehension remains weak.

Does that mean there is school segregation?

There is no segregation policy, but a segregated reality. The choice has often been between temporary schools for Syrians or no schools for Syrians. The sudden influx of three million refugees meant that Turkey had to adjust rather to emerging circumstances rather than plan and execute a plan. Hence the model of “Temporary education centres” emerged.

Figure 2. Types of education and schooling in Turkey for Syrian refugees (2015)


Temporary education centers’ – the Turkish acronym is ‘GEM’ – are primary and secondary schools that provide education to Syrian children and teenagers in Arabic, in line with the Syrian curriculum. Such schools can be found inside and outside refugee camps. Turkey provides an international certificate for those who graduate from these centers, following an examination in Arabic. The schools are established and often run by Turkish and Syrian NGOs. They Ministry of Education is building on this model, but there are in effect no comparable establishments elsewhere in the world. The GEM model is unique.

Picture 2. A Temporary Education Center (GEM) class, Turkey, 2015


Over the next three years, the Education Ministry of Turkey (MoNE) is planning to stop this de facto segregation and transform these centres into public schools with a Turkish curriculum. By law, all public schools in Turkey must have a Turkish-language curriculum.

Currently, 80% of Syrian students prefer studying at GEM schools; only 20% opt to study at public schools. The reasons are straightforward. Initially, both Syrians and Turkey expected the emergency period to terminate rather than drag on indefinitely. Syrian youth studying in GEMs, in Arabic, and following the Syrian curriculum, were in effect preparing to go home. Because the war keeps raging in Syria, since 2014, the Ministry of Education opened public school doors to Syrian students. Another issue at hand is language, especially for students that have been educated mostly in Arabic. Some Syrians still expect to return.

So, we are coming to the end of Arabic-only segregated education.

Surely, the current situation must change. Turkey can provide schooling for all Syrian children. In this sense, the GEM model can no longer apply because this is any longer an emergency and we cannot continue with Arabic-only education. We need a model that promotes long-term social integration. The Ministry has a three-year plan for transforming GEMs into the Turkish language public schools. That is challenging, but one way or another we need to strike a social balance between the host society and the Syrian community in Turkey.

Originally published by New Europe: