Earlier this year, I travelled to the Kutupalong refugee settlement in Bangladesh, which is now host to hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who have fled horrific violence in Myanmar. With the monsoon rains hammering on the roof, I watched girls and boys learn the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic for just two hours a day. After that, it was time to hand the room over to the next group of children.
It was heart-rending to witness this faint semblance of proper schooling — all the more so because the children clearly valued their education. Without it, their future, and that of their communities, will be irreparably damaged.
More than half of the world’s refugees are children. Yet, among school-age refugees, more than half are not getting an education. All told, four million young minds are not receiving the schooling that they need to realise their potential. And, worse still, the number of out-of-school refugee children has increased by 500,000 in the last year alone. If current trends continue, hundreds of thousands more refugee children will be added to the ranks of the educationally deprived.
Clearly, there is an urgent need for more investment in refugee education. As part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, United Nations member-states have pledged to promote “life-long learning opportunities for all”. And in the 2016 New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, governments pledged to share responsibility for the world’s refugees, and to improve access to education for refugee children. These were important commitments, but they will ring hollow until young refugees have the same opportunities as others to go to school.
Acts of violence and persecution that drive people from their homes, destroy stable family lives, and force many into poverty can also damage children’s physical and psychological well-being. As the world’s refugee crises deepen and multiply, children are often the worst affected.
But children are extraordinarily resilient. By learning, playing and exploring, they find ways to cope. And if given the opportunity, they can even thrive. That is why we at the UN Refugee Agency regard education as a fundamental part of refugee response. Because displaced populations now spend years and even decades in exile, a refugee child could live out his or her entire childhood before returning home.
Moreover, young refugees tend to be displaced several times before they cross a border. For children whose lives have been disrupted in this manner, school is often the first place where they start to regain a sense of security, friendship, order and peace.
Regardless of their nationality or legal status, or that of their parents, refugee children have the right to the formal lessons that will enable them to prosper. But two hours per day is not enough. Children need a proper curriculum all the way through primary and secondary school, so that they can acquire the qualifications needed for university or higher vocational training.
For that to happen, refugee children must be included in their host countries’ national education systems. In Bangladesh, many Rohingya girls and boys are going to school for the first time. This is a welcome progress, but the lack of trained teachers and formal curricula will severely limit their future prospects.
Of course, the power of education runs deeper than academic qualifications. Learning can help young people heal and revive entire countries. Refugee children who are afforded a proper education will grow up to contribute both to their host societies and to their homelands whenever peace allows them to return.
This long-term potential makes education a key tool for solving the world’s crises.
The problem is that 92 per cent of the world’s school-age refugees are hosted by developing countries with woefully underfunded schools. But to succeed, they will need far more support to expand the necessary infrastructure.
The solution to the refugee education problem cannot be to shunt children into a parallel system of schooling that relies on outdated materials, makeshift classrooms, or untrained teachers. Improvised education will never be good enough.
That is why humanitarian organisations, governments and the private sector must come together to increase funding for education, and to design innovative and sustainable programmes to support refugees’ particular educational needs. We must build on the promise of the New York Declaration and start turning words into deeds.
Later this year, the UN General Assembly will adopt the Global Compact on Refugees, which outlines a framework for achieving the New York Declaration’s goals of improving refugees’ self-reliance and easing the burden on host countries.
To that end, any effort to transform the lives of refugees must include a concerted push for more educational opportunities and resources. That is the only way to restore refugees’ futures — and one of the best ways to ensure a better world for us all.
— Project Syndicate, 2018
Filippo Grandi is the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.