Sunday, September 16, 2007

Jordan extends deadline for Iraqi children to enroll

The Jordanian government, bowing to international pressure, has extended by two weeks a September 15 deadline for Iraqi schoolchildren to enrol in public schools, officials said Friday.

The move came after UN organizations reported a below expectation turnout on registration despite an announcement by the Education Minister Khalid Touqan that despite the country's limited resources, his schools were ready to accept 40,000 Iraqi schoolchildren this year.

The decision to extend the deadline to the end of September was meant to help Iraqi students who are having problems accessing the necessary official papers, education ministry spokesman Ahmed Shaheen said.

"Our announcement to allow Iraqi children into schools without residence permits was just before the start of the new scholastic year" on August 19, he added.

"It left little time for families to get school documentation prepared and, in order to be fair, we now give students the chance to enrol," he said.

He pointed out that his ministry had sent out a circular to schools around the Kingdom to inform principals that even children who cannot submit all papers are still entitled to enroll.

Save the Children, an international aid organization working closely with Iraqi children in Jordan, has put the number of registered Iraqi children to date at far les than what Touqan expected the public schools to absorb.

"The latest figure I know is around 21,000 students enrolled. This number includes around 14,000 students already in the system last year," Dennis Walto, country director of Save the Children, told the Jordan Times.

Save the Children, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the US Aid Agency for International Development (USAID) are the four agencies that form the educational task force for Iraqis in Jordan.

The UNHCR estimates that at least 250,000 school-age children are among the 750,000 Iraqis who have taken refuge in Jordan since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

"It is in my very rough estimate that there are currently around 250,000 school-age children living in Jordan. It will remain an estimate since there is so much movement and little official registration," UNHCR senior public information officer, Astrid van Genderen Stort, said at the end of August.

However, an earlier UNHCR press statement estimated a much higher figure of 375,000 as the number of Iraqi children on Jordanian soil.

Jordan's Education Ministry said that it was still early to speculate about the final number of Iraqis who will be enrolled at Jordanian public schools.

"We cannot give out numbers until there is a chance for all. The ministry will announce the final tally after September 30," Shaheen said.

Walto attributed the slowdown in registration to a number of factors, among them the fear that this could be a way to identify families who have overstayed visas as a prelude to deporting them.

"We hope that with time Iraqis living in Jordan will realize that this is a legitimate humanitarian gesture on part of the Jordanian government. We are spreading the word that this gracious decision will not be used in any punitive way," he said.

The inability of Iraqi families to pay the school fees, ranging between 20 and 30 Jordanian dinars (30 to 40 dollars), was also cited as a possible reason for the low turnout.

This also has been solved as UNICEF made an agreement with the education ministry that any child, Iraqi or Jordanian, who cannot pay registration fees will have the costs covered by the international community.

"We have made sure that a copy of this agreement was sent to all public schools around the Kingdom and are letting Iraqis know through existing Iraqi channels," Walto said. dpa ajm pmc

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