All Children Need An Education: What Will Happen To Uneducated Refugee Children?

Children are the leaders of tomorrow. Whatever happens to them now defines what will happen to our futures. How they experience trauma and are raised, will, unfortunately, affect how we will be governed in the years to come. For refugee children, in particular, life in all aspects is uncertain. For no reason, they have been caught in the crossfire of adult decisions which is affecting them in all domains. Given that good education can positively affect the psychological, mental, emotional, and social situation of a child, emphasis on improving and ensuring education for refugee children cannot be underestimated.

Shocking statistics from UNICEF reveal that: “Children make up less than one-third of the global population, but almost half among the world’s refugees in 2020. Today, nearly 1 in 3 children living outside their countries of birth are child refugees; for adults, the proportion is less than 1 in 20. Those staggering figures reflect the unpredictability of millions of children who by no means of theirs, became caught in helpless conflict situations.

This is an indirect call for focus to be directed towards children’s issues, especially education. Imagine all of these children have ambitions and career dreams, but they do not see it coming to pass because they cannot attend schools. The numbers are predicted to continue rising and the international community cannot remain practically silent on how to support them.

The famous UNCRC has been ratified by 196 countries. It consists of 54 articles that define children’s rights and how governments should work together to make them available to all child refugees. On a more specific note, the UNCRC emphasizes that children and young people have the right to education no matter who they are: regardless of race, gender or disability; if they’re in detention, or if they’re a refugee. Articles 28 and 29 also include the duty of the government, which is very important in the case of refugees.

As if the UNCRC is not sufficient to decry the absolute right of education, the United Nations Convention for the Rights of Refugees in its Article 22, clearly states, regarding public education: “1. The Contracting States shall accord to refugees the same treatment as is accorded to nationals with respect to elementary education,” and “2. The Contracting States shall accord to refugees treatment as favorable as possible, and, in any event, not less favorable than that accorded to aliens generally in the same circumstances, with respect to education other than elementary education and, in particular, as regards access to studies, the recognition of foreign school certificates, diplomas and degrees, the remission of fees and charges and the award of scholarships.”

Additionally quoting from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in its Article 26: “(1) Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory,” and remembering the great inspirational words from late human rights activist Nelson Mandela, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

How can a force this strong and effective be inaccessible to refugee children? They do not deserve this unfairness and should partake in the benefits of their rights. Otherwise, we risk losing the generations of the future or we might be led to governments that continuously fail, and this failure would be linked to literacy. How can we avoid the future havoc of illiterate leaders who will rule our next generations without knowledge of who they are or their abilities? Most likely they will be acting out of bitterness because they were denied the opportunity to learn, and even if refugees won’t be in government positions, they will have people who grew up with them in those positions who care about them and will listen to their bitterness, and hopefully even share in it.

As of now, education is almost considered a minor issue for refugees, since the international community seems to focus more on other aspects. The effects of a lack of education on refugee children are numerous, and this is typical for millions of refugee children, but a language barrier is one of the most prevalent. Refugee children often experience the inability to efficiently express themselves in the language of their new host countries. The host countries might have provided easy access to schools, but how can they learn if they cannot understand the key languages of instruction?

General statistics have confirmed that the number of school-aged migrant and refugee children worldwide has grown by 26% since 2000 and will continue to grow uncontrollably (Menashy/Zhakaria, 2018). These rising numbers imply much has to be done to ensure these children are properly integrated into language programs where they can at least learn the basics.

A report from UNICEF has confirmed with verifiable field data that the role of language is key in refugee children’s adaptation to their country. For example, language reflects identity and is linked to the migration process (UNICEF, 2020). This means refugee children will never feel a sense of complete acceptance and belonging in their new country if they are not familiar with the language. They will continuously feel like they are migrants or wanderers because they are not able to communicate, even if they are sent to schools to learn the language, especially at the secondary and high school levels.

In addition, UNICEF remarked, language is linked to psychosocial well-being. This is directly connected to the first point above on psychological issues. Children will remain depressed and neglected if they are not able to communicate with ease and make new friends even if they are in a school environment like those in primary schools. On a similar note, UNICEF noted, language diversity challenges educators. This is particularly difficult for educators who have to teach a class where there are children who speak a variety of languages.

Furthermore, the education department of UNICEF is promoting the education agenda of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals. They contributed their research by pointing out pertinent gaps which language inadequacy is causing on refugee children. They include and are not limited to the following:

  • Lack of clearly articulated inclusive language in education policies
  • Inconsistencies about the language policy and practice
  • Uncertainties about the duration of displacement
  • Inadequate financial and learning resources
  • Teacher training
  • Lack of community participation in policy decisions (UNICEF)

These loopholes are severe and will continue to exist if nothing is done to address them on a deliberate note. There are 7097 living languages in the world and 40% of the world’s children do not have a chance to learn in their mother tongues. This goes with the UNICEF-formed slogan, “If you don’t understand, how can you learn?” As an addendum to this question, they emphasize that “children learn better in their mother tongue first.” Such reliable research from several countries and general context could be applicable to all refugee children around the world.

The unique role of language acquisition for refugee children cannot be understated in terms of the provision of education. “Language is at the centre of human life […] knowing a second language is a normal part of human existence; it may be unusual to know only one.” However, the hindrances to second language acquisition (SLA) are multiple and varied. Factors that may impede SLA include, among other things: first language interference, the discrepancies that exist between the mother tongue and the second language, the degree of complexity of the second language, and the learner-based factors. All of these things and the other difficulties that refugee children face in terms of education need to be discussed by the international community seriously in order to make any progress in helping the future generation.

Sarah Namondo


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