Former Greek prime minister George Papandreou has called for refugee host countries to invest in education for refugee children, to avoid wasting a huge human resource for the future.
"Investing in refugee children is not only investing in their personal, individual futures - they will become the architects, the engineers - but they will go back to Syria, many of them, and they will rebuild their countries," Papandreou, a former refugee, told IBTimes UK at the 2016 Global Education and Skills Forum. "Investing in education is a positive stimulus in our economy."
Ongoing conflict and political upheaval in the Middle East and North Africa is preventing more than 13 million children from attending school. In Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya alone, nearly 9,000 schools are out of use because they have been damaged, destroyed, taken over by parties to the conflict or are being used to shelter displaced civilians.
Papandreou, who led Greece from 2009 until his resignation in 2011 during the Greek government debt crisis, said the international community had a responsibility to invest in refugee children and integrate them into schools.
He said his own experience as a refugee in Sweden had shown him the benefits of investing in the refugee community. "I met Latin Americans, Africans, and they went back to their countries and rebuilt their countries, to be more democratic, more market friendly, more diverse."
After the fall of the communist government in Albania in late 1990 and early 1991, a large number of economic migrants from the country arrived in Greece seeking employment. Papandreou said Greece needed more schools and teachers to accommodate migrant and refugee children. "We opened our schools for the children, and today, they continue to contribute to our society," he said.
Papandreou recognised the pressure that the influx of refugees can put on education and health infrastructures in host countries, but said the investment would pay off long term. "Does that need extra investment? Possibly. Does it mean we have to revamp our schools or make sure we have more teachers or doctors? Why not? Is that so bad? We need this capacity," he said.
"I know services can be overwhelmed, hospitals can be overwhelmed, schools can be overwhelmed. I remember when we had a huge influx of Albanians to northern Greece the hospitals were overwhelmed but we dealt with it."
"We will be living in a multicultural world," Papandreou added. "The real question is do we want that multicultural world where we have polarised divisions, or do we want people to be inspired by our values and adopt and adapt to our value system? Europe has a chance here to spread its values through a wider area in the Mediterranean and the Arab world through investing in the refugees and I think that is very important."