December 13, 2019

Global forum offers hope of real action on refugee education crisis

Children at the Wadajir preschool in Ali Addeh refugee camp in Djibouti

Photo credit: UNHCR / Petterik Wiggers

Ewan Watt

Online Editor, Theirworld

Governments, international organisations and businesses have the opportunity to deliver solutions for the 3.7 million refugees who are not in school.

Theirworld's vision is to end the global education crisis and unleash the potential of the next generation. Our #WriteThe Wrong campaign is about raising awareness of the 260 million children out of school and the millions more not receiving a quality education.

If the crisis is to end, millions of refugee children affected by conflicts and disasters around the world must be in school and have a safe place to learn.

Next week, national governments, international organisations, the business community and refugees themselves will come together at the first Global Refugee Forum.

Theirworld President Justin van Fleet said: "In a world with the highest refugee population since World War II and 75 million children out of school due to emergencies and crises, the Global Refugee Forum offers an opportunity for real action and commitment to the most marginalised children. 

"Whether refugees in distant lands, arriving on the shores of Europe or crossing the border into the United States, every single young person has the right to the best start in life and a safe place to learn." 

Ahead of the forum, we look at the refugee crisis, how it affects education and what can be done to give every child hope for the future.

Many children in Ethiopia are missing out on an education

Photo credit: UNICEF

What is the Global Refugee Forum?

The event is the first of its kind and will be held on December 17 and 18 in Geneva - then every four years. It is co-hosted by the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR and the Swiss government.

It's an opportunity for countries, international organisations, businesses and other stakeholders to pledge action and innovative solutions for more than 70 million people currently displaced by violence and persecution. 

It follows on from the 2018 Global Compact on Refugees, a blueprint for governments, organisations and others to help refugees thrive in exile. It has four key objectives:

  • Ease pressure on host countries
  • Enhance refugee self-reliance
  • Expand access to third-country solutions
  • Support conditions in countries of origin for refugees to return in safety and dignity 

Host communities and refugees themselves will be at the heart of the forum, which will focus on six themes including education. 

Theirworld has campaigned for several years for education to be high on the global agenda and was one of 60 organisations and countries that called last year for a Global Framework for Refugee Education, which has been designed to guide the pledging process for the Global Refugee Forum.

Venezuelan children wait in the queue at the migration centre in Cucuta, Colombia

Photo credit: UNICEF

Why is the forum needed?

An average of 37,000 people leave their homes every day to escape violence, conflict and persecution.

They include 26 million refugees who have fled to another country - including 6.7 million from Syria, 2.7 million from Afghanistan and 2.3 million from South Sudan. There are other major refugee populations such as those displaced from Myanmar, Somalia and Venezuela.

Half of all refugees are under 18 and 3.7 million of them are not in school. They desperately need quality education to prevent them being left behind and trapped in a life of poverty and discrimination.

Almost three million school-age refugee children live in just five countries - Turkey, Lebanon, Pakistan, Sudan and Uganda.

“Refugee situations send ripples across entire regions and beyond,” said UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi. "Dealing with displacement challenges cannot be done alone and requires unity of vision and ambition among all countries coupled with real, concrete action."

Refugee children from Burundi at Furaha Primary School in Nduta Refugee Camp in western Tanzania, study in a makeshift classroom under the trees

Photo credit: UNHCR / Georgina Goodwin

Why is education so important for refugees?

There are 7.1 million refugee children of school age under UNHCR’s mandate - and more than half of them get no education. Only 63% of refugees are enrolled in primary school, dropping to 24% in secondary.

Unless education is prioritised, millions of children face the prospect of dropping out of school early or never going to school at all. This will have catastrophic effects on their futures and those of their communities. It will even affect their country's ability to rebuild after refugees return home.

Refugee children who are out of school are at risk of early marriage, child labour, recruitment, exploitation and other forms of discrimination. 

"Education’s critical role is not in dispute. We already know it protects, stimulates, nurtures, develops and strengthens the lives of children, adolescents and youth," said Gordon Brown, the UN Special Envoy for Global Education, in UNHCR's 2019 report Stepping Up: Refugee Education in Crisis. "Not to do everything in our power to give these children an education would be a reprehensible dereliction of duty."

The UNHCR report said many countries have made significant progress, such as Uganda, Chad, Kenya and Ethiopia in sub-Saharan Africa, as well as Pakistan, Iran, Turkey and Mexico. That includes making school timetables more flexible, giving special help on missed schoolwork or new languages, and training more teachers.

Magician and Theirworld Ambassador Dynamo went to Lebanon to see the impact on children who have been left out of school.

What role does Theirworld play in refugee education?

We were at the forefront of attempts to tackle the refugee education crisis caused by the Syrian conflict. Theirworld was the first organisation to develop a blueprint for schools in Lebanon to host a double-shift system to accommodate the number and education capabilities of local children and Syrian refugees. 

“We hope that continued support from the international community and additional support from non-formal education partners makes it possible to surpass last year’s targets of about 300,000 non-Lebanese students benefiting from education in Lebanon," said van Fleet. 

"We will continue to campaign for the international community to ensure every refugee is in school."

Now Theirworld is helping to tackle the crisis on the Greek islands, where refugee children from many countries live in containment camps and urgently need education. 

With the support of the Dutch Postcode Lottery, Theirworld is working with Education Cannot Wait to provide education for 5,500 out-of-school children and youth.

Annemiek Hoogenboom, Country Director Great Britain of the People's Postcode Lottery, visited the Greek islands with Theirworld recently. She said: "Children risk their lives in overpopulated camps on Lesvos and Kos. While we should do what we can to support safe routes that protect vulnerable children and ensure they don’t fall into the hands of smugglers and traffickers, we need to provide education to give them a chance in the future."

What progress has been made on education in emergencies?

At the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016, Theirworld's Global Youth Ambassadors Anoka Abeyrathne, Wanja Maina and Courage Nyamhunga handed the #SafeSchools petition to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. 

After campaigning by Theirworld and other organisations, the world's first fund for education in emergencies was born - against the backdrop of 75 million children out of school because of conflicts and disasters. 

Education Cannot Wait has so far reached almost two million girls and boys - many of them refugees - and is on course to help educate another seven million children and youth by 2021.

About the Global Refugee Forum, ECW Director Yasmine Sherif said: "Will this be an opportunity to turn the tide, at least for the millions of refugee children and youth forced to flee, yet holding on to a dream? Let us hope it becomes a turning point for action."

Education Cannot Wait has reached 1.9 million children so far

What challenges remain?

Financing for education in humanitarian emergencies is woefully inadequate. The internationally-agreed minimum target is that 4% of humanitarian aid should go towards education.

But Theirworld's 2018 Safe Schools report revealed that "despite being a record total, the $450 million invested in 2017 still constituted just 2.1% of the total $20.7 billion spent on humanitarian aid that year". 

There are also "hidden crises" that have largely gone under the radar. In the four years since Venezuela's economy crashed, 4.6 million people have left the South American country.

Of the hundreds of thousands of children who fled over the border into Colombia, about half are not in school. Caroline Kennedy, an overseer with the International Rescue Committee, said: "They are hungry and scared. They are often sick and malnourished. Many have been separated from their families and have missed months or years of school."

Another "hidden crisis" is in Chad, where Mouna Issahk is one of seven mothers at her secondary school. Now aged 20, she grew up in a remote camp near the town of Iriba, where about 25,000 Sudanese people have lived since fleeing conflict in Sudan's Darfur region in 2004. 

Most girls marry as teenagers and spend a lifetime growing food and fetching water. But a programme that helps refugees attend universities is getting more people in school - especially girls and young women.

"Our husbands want us to stay home - but if you want to take good care of your children you have to be educated," said Issahk, who dreams of becoming a doctor.

Parisa, 16 (right), and her sister Parimah, 14, are undocumented Afghans attending school in Esfahan, Iran

Photo credit: UNHCR / Mohammad Hossein Dehghanian

What is the Global Refugees Forum likely to achieve for education?

The forum will give governments, development and humanitarian partners, and the private sector the chance to discuss and report on efforts to provide more, better coordinated and systematic funding for refugee and host community education.

Good practices from various countries will be showcased and it is hoped that pledges and contributions will include education for girls and inclusion of students with disabilities.

Theirworld believes that a quality education response plan must be in place for every emergency and to help build education systems that are resilient to shocks. 

Strategies should be inclusive to reach the most marginalised and innovative - with greater risk-taking, evidence generation and knowledge-sharing to try new approaches and understand how to take to scale.

The hope is that action from the Global Refugees Forum will help millions of young people have the opportunity to learn and thrive. Like Syrian refugee Sidra, who fled Aleppo in 2013. Her family fled to Turkey, where she mastered a new language and graduated top of her year in high school.

Now studying to be a dentist, 21-year-old Sidra said: “The day I went back to school was beautiful. If children don’t continue their education, they won’t be able to give back to society.”

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