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Time to act on refugee education

Daniel*, aged 14, understands the value of education. One year ago he was part of the human exodus that saw 1 million refugees fleeing South Sudan’s murderous war for the safety of northern Uganda. After two days of walking he arrived carrying only the clothes on his back and his most treasured possession – a science book retrieved from his school before he fled.

I met Daniel in the sprawling refugee settlement of Bidi Bidi. He told me a heart-wrenching story about the violence he witnessed, which included the abduction of his mother and the burning of his home. But what struck me most about Daniel was his relentless capacity for hope, his extraordinary resilience, and his passion for education. “I’m going to become a scientist,” he told me, “that’s why I have to be in school. Without learning I have no future”.

Meeting at the United Nations General Assembly in New York this week, world leaders have an opportunity to do something useful for children like Daniel – and for the millions of refugee education now locked out of education by political indifference. Having endlessly reaffirmed their commitment to refugee education, they could adopt a practical plan of action to get all refugee children into school.

Education is the birth-right of every child, but refugees have a special claim on the international community.

Many of these children have been traumatised by violence and loss. They have been uprooted and forced to flee across border. Education can provide refugee children with a sense of normality and stability. It can help address trauma. Above all, education is a source of hope for the future and the passport to a better future.

As a global community, we are currently starving refugee children of that hope. Over half of the world’s 25 million refugees are children. If those children were a single country, that country would be the country with the world’s worst education indicators. More than half of refugee children – 4 million in total – are out of school. Just one-in-five make it to secondary school. To make matters worse, many of those in school are receiving an abysmal education.

Denied access to education, millions of refugee children are trapped in a cycle of destitution. Syrian refugees as young as 12 are working as child labourers in Turkey, or as street traders in Beirut. Young refugee girls who should be is school are being pushed into early marriage. From the Rohingya camps in Bangladesh to Lebanon, Pakistan and Uganda, adolescent refugee boys who are out of school are a prime target for groups seeking armed recruits.

Time to act on refugee education
Daniel, a quietly spoken but fiercely smart 14-year-old, who fled South Sudan wearing just the clothes on his back and carrying his most prized possession – a science book he grabbed from his school before leaving.


So why are we failing the world’s refugee children?

As the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has shown, the neighbouring countries into which refugees move are being overwhelmed. That’s true not just for the poorest countries like Uganda and Bangladesh, but also for middle-income countries on the front-line of the Syria crisis like Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. Woefully under-funded education systems are buckling under the strain that comes with integrating refugees.

Aid donors have pledged the provide a new deal for refugees, but delivery has fallen far short of the promise. In 2017 only around half of the funding needed to respond to the education needs of Syrian refugees had been delivered – a fall from 71 per cent the previous year. Countries like Uganda, which has maintained an open door despite the size of its refugee population, have been short-changed in education funding. Globally, less than 3 per cent of humanitarian aid is directed to education – and most of that aid is short-term, volatile and unpredictable.

Finance is just part of the problem. Education is a politically sensitive area, with host governments often overseeing strict rules on curriculum, the language of instruction and teacher recruitment. One consequence is that many refugee teachers are left unemployed, while refugee children are being taught an unfamiliar curriculum in a language they barely understand.

Add to this mix the proliferation of small, under-financed projects that comes with every crisis, and you have a recipe for fragmentation, inefficiency and under-delivery.

This is where the UN General Assembly could make a difference.

On 26th September 2018, UNHCR and Save the Children are convening a High-Level Meeting on Action for Refugee Education, which will bring together refugee hosting states, donor governments, multilateral institutions, the private sector and civil society to agree how to accelerate and improve efforts to deliver quality education to refugees – meeting the promises made in the New York Declaration and Global Compact on Refugees.

In a report published ahead of this meeting, Save the Children has drawn up a plan of action aimed at delivering universal education for refugees. The cost is around $4.3bn a year, or less than one day’s worth of military spending. On any measure of peace, security and future prosperity, that price tag represents a smart investment.

Secured funding would make effective planning possible. Agencies like the World Bank, UNHCR and the Global Partnership for Education all have a critical role to play in delivery. One missing piece in the architecture is an agency charged with developing a single, coordinated plan of action for universal refugee provision spanning finance, teacher provision, curriculum and teacher support.

There is a ready-made option in the form of Education Cannot Wait. Created as a global fund with the express purpose of supporting children in emergencies, the agency has reached over 650,000 children in its first year, combining strong leadership with real delivery on the ground.

Of course, none of this is enough. With global aid flows static or shrinking, we need to find innovative ways of funding the resource-starved education systems serving refugees. That’s why Gordon Brown’s proposed International Finance Facility for Education (IFFEd), which would expand multilateral financing through a mix of risk guarantees and interest-rate subsidies, is so critical, if done right.

UN General Assembly summits have a reputation for serving as talking shops, providing a platform for governments to deliver high-sounding principles, and hot air. This is an opportunity to break the mould, and to show children like Daniel that, whatever else divides the international community, we are capable of coming together to support refugee children who deserve our help.

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