According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), today there are an unprecedented 70.8 million individuals around the world that have been forcibly displaced from their homes. This includes 25.9 million refugees who are under the age of 18. Being displaced does not just mean losing your home, it means becoming disconnected from your community, the national health system and the education system. 

Education is a basic human right, enshrined in the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child and the 1951 Refugee Convention. Education can protect refugee children and youth from entering forced recruitment, child labour, exploitation and child marriage. It can also empower these young people by giving them the knowledge and skills necessary to live a full, independent and productive life.

Yet current barriers are preventing these children from accessing education and in turn, making the likelihood of rebuilding their lives in their new country and situation, less likely. For instance, whilst primary-school aged refugees may find a school run by a charity such as UNICEF, the UNHCR or CARE within a displacement camp they arrive at, these ‘schools’ have such limited resources that some run triple shifts to fit in lessons for all those they need to teach. As such, lessons are squeezed, and vital skills and knowledge left out. 

For slightly older refugees that are forced to leave secondary education, they are also likely to find schools in camps but again, they will have incredibly limited resources. In addition, there are less likely to be teachers for the full range of required subjects available and yet even if these experts are present, the child will be under pressure to learn a new curriculum, often in a new language. And, if the child is forced to move countries several times, as many do, they are forced to repeat this process over and over, meaning their language skills never reach a standard that allows them to truly engage in the education programmes on offer and as a result, they fall through the cracks in the system.

Indeed, even if education is on offer, the need to provide for their family may take precedent. For example, refugee status means that for the majority, it is illegal to work in their new country until various bureaucratic hurdles have been jumped. Therefore, the whole family, including children may be forced to take whatever irregular, low-paid work they can to ensure they have enough food to eat. Therefore, they are at work, instead of at school, missing out on the potential to build the skills to lift themselves out of poverty. 

For older children, the refugees who were in further education such as university or college, there is almost no provision for studying at all in refugee camps. Although some programmes exist to try to help displaced students get into local universities, many are forced to halt their studies altogether and find a new path.

So, what should we, as an international community, do to help? Here are five strategies that would enable more children to achieve the education they deserve.

  1. Encourage refugee teachers to teach. There are many, many teachers among the world’s refugees, each qualified to teach at all levels and subjects. As these professionals are not allowed to work legally in their new country, provisions must be made to utilise their knowledge and ability, ensuring that the children that accompany them, to continue to learn. This could be done by ensuring that camp schools search for, and welcome teachers to practice, even on a voluntary basis, or find a way of supporting their paperwork to expedite the process to allow more teachers to educate the displaced youth.
    In doing so, refugee teachers could potentially earn money legally, reducing the pressure on their own children to contribute to the family finances. Jordan’s government, for instance is leading the way in this regard with an initiative that allows refugees to work legally within three “economic free zones”. This approach his has resulted in over 80,000 work permits for Syrian refugees in Jordan. The model is now going global and is available in Ethiopia, for example. In addition, the World Bank has created a new $2bn fund to support refugee teachers.
  2. Develop academic tests to prove education. When a refugee is forced to leave their home, they are also forced to leave behind medical, dental and education records. As a result, the refugee is often unable to prove their qualifications, preventing them from getting a job they are entitled to do. Until digital identification becomes widespread, allowing refugees to easily prove who they are, governments around the world need to work with universities to develop tests that allow them to assess the knowledge and potential of students without proof of their education. This test should be globally recognised as demonstrating that a student deserves a chance to continue their studies. 
  3. Improve funding for host education systems. UNHCR research shows ‘a lack of funding is the primary cause of refugee enrolment in secondary school’, and as a result, it is appealing to Government, the private sector, educational organisations and donors to provide investment to change the traditional approach to refugee education. Through its “secondary school initiative”, UNHCR aims to build or refurbish schools, as well as improve teacher training and assist refugee families with financial support so that they can cover the expenses of sending their children to school.
  4. Facilitate travel for studies. Whilst tertiary education is almost impossible to access for refugees, organisations such as Blue Rose Compass connects talented students with universities willing to offer them a place – it also finds funds to cover the costs. However, even if the place is offered, the organisation finds it very hard to secure a visa from the government for the refugee student in the university’s country. Preventing refugees to travel for education means that many academically talented refugees miss out from accessing high-quality education that could enable them to become future leaders in rebuilding their home country. Easing this process for students and the charities helping to support their education, could provide a myriad of future benefits.
  5. Expand vocational training. As many of the above changes will take too long to allow many children who are currently refugees to secure an education, vocational training is the best option for those who are too old to return to school. Some organisations, such as CARE are already helping refugees to become certified in trades with the support of various Western governments. For example, in the Azraq camp, in Syria, CARE coordinates a programme for residents to volunteer for up to three months of training within the camp, to maintain or develop their skills, and earn a small wage from various charities working in the camp. This could include making clothes and jewellery. In other camps, CARE provides training in entrepreneurial or construction skills to allow workers to get back into employment as fast as possible. 

Becoming a refugee is life-changing and often harrowing. It is the responsibility of host governments, the private sector and organisations around the world to ease the process of refugee settlement as much as possible and central to this, is enabling education systems to support refugees continue to work towards a prosperous future. While some effort has been made to allow refugee children to continue their studies, far more work and support is needed to help an ever-growing number of people, all around the world. 

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