A report released by the Education Commission this year has identified troubling global progress made towards Sustainable Development Goal Four (SDG4) that aims to ensure all children receive a quality primary, and secondary education by 2030, as well creating affordable tertiary education for all adults by 2030. According to the report, “Transforming the Education Workforce: Learning Teams for a Learning Generation,” almost 70 million new teachers will need to be recruited globally if world leaders are to reach the goal set out in SDG4. The report also estimates that, globally, 260 million children remain out of school entirely. A major concern group affected by a lack of access to proper education and schooling are refugee children. The United Nations Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that out of the 7.1 million refugee children that were under its mandate as of 2018, 3.7 million were out of school.
The number of people seeking asylum globally has skyrocketed, with the global population of forcibly displaced persons increasing by 2.3 million people in 2018, bringing the total number of forcibly displaced persons to 70.8 million across the globe- a stark comparison to 2009 figures of 43.3 million. Of this number, 25.9 million people were refugees, 3.5 million people were asylum seekers, and children below the age of 18 years old constituted approximately half of the refugee population. A large proportion of refugee children risk the condemnation of further disadvantage in their futures in addition to the already precarious struggle of displacement as a result of educational shortcomings.
Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, recognised this fact in the UNHCR’s 2019 “Stepping Up: Refugee education in crisis” report. “For most of us, education is how we feed curious minds and discover our life’s passions. It is also how we learn to look after ourselves – how to navigate the world of work, to organize our households, to deal with everyday chores and challenges. For refugees, it is all that and more. It is the surest road to recovering a sense of purpose and dignity after the trauma of displacement. It is – or should be – the route to labour markets and economic self-sufficiency, spelling an end to months or sometimes years of depending on others.”
A comparison of the enrolment figures of refugee children and non-refugee children at various stages throughout the educational cycle reveals priority areas where international action must be targeted. Statistics released by United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 2017 and UNHCR in 2018 reveal refugees are significantly disadvantaged in comparison to their non-refugee counterparts at each stage throughout the educational cycle, and that as refugee children age, the likelihood of them remaining in educational systems declines. The statistics break down as thus; globally 91% of non-refugees are enrolled in primary school in comparison to 63% of refugee children, 84% of non-refugee adolescents are enrolled in secondary school, in comparison to 24% of refugee adolescents, and 37% of non-refugee adults are enrolled in higher education, in comparison to 3% of refugee adults. The Education Commission and UNHCR have identified key barriers preventing greater attendance rates across each of the three tiers of education, as well as proposed solutions for each, while the UNHCR has distinguished a need for particular targeted action on secondary and tertiary education attendance.
A crucial barrier to the obtainment of education for refugees is the simple fact that in certain circumstances children don’t have access to a school. When asylum seekers are expected to stay in a facility only temporarily for processing purposes- a process which can take several months or years- children are often unable to access formal education, and thus miss out on several years of schooling. For refugee children that do receive an education, educational resources are often stretched to breaking point. Often, in under-resourced host countries and regions, where millions of refugees are located, a lack of schools, qualified teachers and learning materials, overflowing classrooms, and a lack of basic facilities such as water and sanitation affects the quality of education received. In some cases, due to the unfolding chaos as people flee their homes, they often leave without important documentation required for them to gain entry into a local school in a new country. Furthermore, the procurement of these documents does not always guarantee a place in a foreign school.
Research conducted by the UNHCR found nil inclusion of refugees in a host countries’ national education system and policies decreases their likelihood of progressing to further secondary or higher education. When this barrier is broken down, and refugees are provided with appropriate nationally recognised pathways that provide students with a proper curriculum and certification, refugees’ chances of progressing to further education, and eventually obtaining employment, are enhanced. As children get older, however, further barriers to education relating to age present themselves, particularly in circumstances where parents are in vulnerable situations. The pressure to support the household by generating income and completing domestic chores can pull children from displaced families out of education, and the increased cost of secondary school in comparison to primary school can impact a parent’s ability to further their child’s education. In areas where educational resources are stretched, if teachers are not equipped with the right tools and facilities to deliver quality education, this can further impact on an adolescent’s decision to drop out of school and help their family.
Increased dropout rates of refugee students from secondary education inevitably lead to a decreased rate of refugees accessing tertiary education. Additional factors affecting refugees’ participation in higher education are language barriers, the cost of higher education, particularly for international students, and the loss of important vocational documents during displacement, or the non-recognition of documents that prove prior qualifications or learning. What’s more, UNHCR outlined in their report that around 50 per cent of refugee-hosting countries do not allow refugees to work, meaning they are either unable to work whilst studying or when they finish studying find themselves unable to secure work, deeming their efforts pointless.
Data released by the UNHCR in 2018 revealed that one-third of the global refugee population was hosted by Least Developed Countries, while 16% of refugees resided in developed regions. Turkey, Pakistan, Uganda, Sudan and Germany were identified as hosting the largest numbers of refugees worldwide. Action must target these areas in particular, especially those Least Developed Countries who are forced to hold a significant burden.
Progress has already been made in Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda and Pakistan, where pilot projects under the scheme, Secondary Youth Education Programme, were run to benefit not only refugee children but the entire community, through investment in teachers and schools, the development of community schemes to encourage enrolment in secondary schools, and the provision of financial support to refugee families. After receiving an influx of asylum seekers from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi, Rwanda implemented progressive government policies, that increased the capacity of local schools through the construction of new classrooms, the provision of school equipment and materials, the hiring and training of teachers, and the integration of refugee students into the national education system. The highly successful scheme was facilitated under the UNHCR’s Refugee Education 2030 strategy, a scheme that aims to enable refugees to perform equally alongside their non-refugee peers in pre-primary, primary and secondary education, as well as boost refugee enrolment in higher education to 15 per cent. Governments, private sector representatives, educational organizations and donors are set to meet in December of this year for the first Global Refugee Forum in Geneva, Switzerland, where burden and responsibility-sharing in terms of education for refugees will be discussed, and backing for the Refugee Education 2030 strategy by attendees is anticipated after international cooperation under the UN Global Compact on Refugees was agreed upon by member states in 2018. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), UNHCR and sixty leading charities across the globe have also partnered to forge ‘Education Cannot Wait’; an initiative which aims to raise almost $4 billion to provide quality education to more than 13.6 million children by 2021, and 75 million children by 2030.
Despite considerable efforts invested in the education of refugees by international actors, much more is needed to be done. Theirworld, an NGO working towards ensuring children have the best opportunities in life, released data showing that in 2015 less than two per cent of global humanitarian aid was dedicated to education, despite the globally agreed target for the minimum share of aid to be directed towards education being four percent. In 2015, funding needed for education in emergency situations had risen by 21 per cent since 2000, yet donor funding had fallen by 41 percent. Children in emergency situations, including refugees, are being failed by a significant gap in international humanitarian aid for education.
Greater funding from governments and the private sector needs to be penetrated into the training of new teachers, the training of underqualified teachers, and training initiatives targeted at equipping teachers with skills to meet the needs of refugee students. Funding must also be put towards the construction of more schools and the purchase of educational resources in host countries, including in refugee camps and processing facilities where children currently don’t have access to schools. Providing cash directly to households, thereby allowing them to cover the costs of sending their children to school is a must, particularly for those refugee families who would otherwise be forced to rely on the financial support of teenagers dropping out of school to get a job. The inclusion of refugees in host countries’ national education systems and policies, with appropriated policies implemented to meet their needs, as well as increasing the efficiency and speed of acquiring and processing documents necessary for the enrolment and naturalization of refugees will also greatly enhance refugees’ educational chances and prospects.
Universities and the private sector, in particular, can increase the number of educational opportunities afforded to refugees. Greater recognition of higher education qualifications and units achieved in home countries will provide greater opportunity for refugees to continue higher education streams that may have been stalled by displacement. Universities and other institutions that offer scholarships and support services for students from marginalized backgrounds should extend them to refugees, while the private sector can develop schemes that help refugee graduates find employment such as internships, mentoring programmes and where possible, jobs. Finally, the 50 per cent of refugee host countries that do not allow refugees to work must reverse this policy to allow refugees to financially support themselves if pursuing higher education and warrant the attainment of tertiary education qualifications by providing opportunities for employment upon completion of studies. In Saltillo, Mexico, UNHCR’s Relocation, Employment and Local Integration programme funds university tuition for refugees and allocates jobs to adults. The programme has successfully helped 92 per cent of refugees relocated in Saltillo to find a job.
Unfortunately, as the current ever-increasing refugee crisis has unfolded, the educational needs of children affected by the crisis has been shadowed by other pressing issues such as food, water, shelter, and protection. If serious efforts are not made to more highly prioritise the educational needs of refugees, entire generations of children will be denied the basic human right of education, locking them out of large swathes of the labour market, and denying them the right to economic self-sufficiency that can build a brighter future for them and their families. Denying the basic right of education to children also increases their risk of getting caught up in child labour, trafficking, child marriage or recruitment into conflict. A study conducted by UNESCO between 1986 and 2003 across 55 low- and middle-income countries showed that when educational inequality doubled, the probability of conflict more than doubled from 3.8 per cent to 9.5 per cent.
Children who have fled from circumstances which are very much out of their control, and as a result miss out on vital years of schooling, should not be subject to further risk of conflict as a result of the failure of the international community to adequately address the issue of education for refugees.