Refugee children face some of the highest barriers to education in the world, and 3.5 million of them had 0 days in school during the year 2016. With almost 20 million refugees under the UNHCR’s mandate, the world is facing the biggest refugee crisis in recent history. The UNHCR is chronically underfunded and understaffed, making it difficult to provide even basic services. However, even for displaced children enrolled in school, the quality is notoriously poor. Education for refugees under the UNHCR mandate is in crisis.
By the numbers
Developing countries face the brunt of the refugee crisis, hosting 84% of the world’s refugees. Nearly 30% of refugees are hosted in the world’s least-developed countries, which significantly worsens the crisis. Education is a long-term pursuit, and refugees ideally learn side-by-side with children from their host country. However, inclusion becomes difficult in low-income countries where resources are already spread very thin.
Refugees have significantly lower access to education – just 61% of refugee children attend primary school compared to 91% of children globally. The statistics get worse as education progresses – 84% of adolescents attend secondary school compared to just 23% of refugees. In low-income host countries, the number of adolescents enrolled in secondary education is just 9%. Refugee girls can also face gender discrimination when pursuing education, and enrollment rates are significantly lower for girls. For every 10 refugee boys, there are less than 8 girls in primary school and less than 7 in secondary school.
Just 1% of refugees attend post-secondary schooling, compared to 36% of people globally. Often times the only way to reach university is through limited scholarships such as DAFI, offered through the German government, or a number through the World University Service. However, demand far outpaces availability, turning access to college education into a lottery system with only a few lucky winners.
Why are refugee children so disproportionately affected?
The painfully obvious answer is money – and programs are grossly underfunded. However, the issue is complex and convoluted, and simply throwing money towards it will not provide an easy fix. Refugees are disproportionately made up of children, making up more than half of the total global number of refugees. This makes education difficult to provide for a multitude of reasons.
On a logistical level, there is the sheer number and diversity of children. Children in refugee camps are displaced from different countries, speak different languages, and have diverse backgrounds and varying levels of previous education. Everything from the curriculum to the language in which the material is taught can prove contentious in the context of racial and ethnic power structures.
Even if education services are being provided, there is no guarantee that children will take advantage of them. Sometimes the opportunity cost of going to school can seem higher than the long-term benefit. When humanitarian programs fall short of providing basic needs, sometimes the burden of providing the family with resources can fall on children. This means that if a child is in school instead of finding food or working a family might go without something. Additionally, there are often labor laws in host countries that make work permits illegal for refugees, and pursuing an education can seem pointless if there is no tangible hope of later applying the knowledge or earning economic stability.
To some, education can frequently be seen as an auxiliary need. Though education is considered a Human Right, it is less important in an immediate sense than needs like food, water, and safety. Vital services such as the World Food Program, which provides rations to refugees, are underfunded and unable to provide enough to everyone who needs it. In this environment urgent needs are not being fully provided, a conundrum develops where needs like education sit on the backburner. However, education plays an important role in holistic and lasting well-being, and ignoring it contributes to long-term dependence on humanitarian projects.
The role and importance of education for refugees
There are both moral and practical concerns associated with refugee education. If we fail to provide refugees access to education, there is a systemic injustice because the world has relegated them to an underclass by virtue of their immigration status. However, there are practical effects to educating refugees that have the potential to improve economic and social outcomes.
Education is multipurpose and more than mere knowledge acquisition. Primary education is key to developmental growth and helps to provide a consistent environment for children in refugee camps, which is exceptionally important since their lives can be significantly more stressful and unstable. Secondary education provides a space for adolescents to remain focused on their goals and stay away from early, unwanted pregnancies or addiction.
There are also clear economic benefits from pursuing education – even within the limited mobility that refugees find themselves. Each additional year that refugee children in Uganda spent in school increased their income by 3%. The skills that children learn in school can prove extremely valuable as they fight for a limited number of available jobs, repatriate to their country of origin, or apply for resettlement.
The UN has recently reiterated the importance of education and outlined goals for improvement with broad international support. However, the actual effect of this support may be less than extraordinary – particularly with President Trump threatening to pull funding from departments that do not serve US interests.