Access to education is a basic human right, yet as students across Canada attend classes on a daily basis, the same can’t be said for millions of refugee children around the world who are out of school. From primary to post-secondary education, access to all levels of schooling sadly remains an aspiration rather than a reality for far too many forcibly displaced children and adults.
According to the 2021 education report released by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), close to half of all refugee children—48 per cent—remain out of school. UNHCR data suggests that while 68 per cent of refugee children attend primary school, gross enrolment plummets at the secondary level to an average of 34 per cent. The statistics also reveal that girls lag behind boys when it comes to access to education. While 35 per cent of refugee boys were enrolled in secondary education, only 31 per cent of girls were. According to the UNHCR Her Turn report, refugee girls often encounter greater challenges to find—and keep—their places in the classroom as social and cultural conventions often result in boys being prioritized over their female peers to attend school. What’s more, refugee girls face greater marginalization as they get older in addition to a growing gender gap in secondary schools.
The state of post-secondary schooling paints an even starker portrait of how few refugees are pursuing higher learning. Only five per cent of young refugees are enrolled in some form of higher education, compared to 37 per cent of their non-refugee counterparts globally.
UNHCR was created in 1950 during the aftermath of the Second World War to help rebuild the lives of millions of Europeans who fled or lost their homes during the conflict. Seven decades on, the number of people who have been uprooted due to conflict, violence, and persecution has soared to record highs, and doubled in the past decade from 41.1 million in 2010 to 82.4 million in 2020. Of that total, more than 26 million are refugees—around half of whom are under the age of 18.
A substantial proportion of refugees are living in prolonged refugee situations which have lasted 20 years or more, implying that significant numbers of refugee children are living in these environments for the entirety of their school-age years. What’s more, COVID-19 has further heightened challenges for accessing education.
Prior to the pandemic, a refugee child was already twice as likely to be out of school as a non-refugee child. There are concerns those figures are set to worsen, as many prospective students may not have opportunities to resume their studies due to school closures, difficulties affording fees, uniforms or books, lack of access to technologies, or because they are being required to work to support their families.
Just as students and educators across Canada have found resourceful ways and means to ensure studies can continue during COVID-19 lockdowns, refugees, teachers, governments, and UNHCR’s partners in countries have done the same. From a mobile classroom pilot project in Bolivia for Venezuelan refugee and migrant children, to lessons broadcast from a local radio station at Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, and the distribution of smart devices preloaded with content for use as exam study aids for students in Uganda, there are countless inspiring examples of innovation, invention, and collaboration to help displaced children continue their education during the pandemic.
UNHCR is mandated to provide international protection and humanitarian assistance to displaced people around the world. But safeguarding the rights and wellbeing of refugees and displaced communities doesn’t happen in isolation, and UNHCR’s work in support of education is no different.
Working in tandem with governments and international organizations, UNHCR seeks to ensure quality protective education for refugee children and young people everywhere. To help address the significant hurdles displaced children may face in pursuing education, UNHCR has worked to improve access and retention of children in primary school through cash grants and vouchers, capacity building for teachers, expansion of safe learning spaces, and strengthening partnerships with key education partners.
At the secondary level, UNHCR supports a range of initiatives designed in close consultation with refugee youth including: Accelerated Education (AE) programs for those who may have missed out on substantial amounts of schooling; improved quality of education through digital technology; relevant technical and vocational training and basic literacy and life skills courses.
UNHCR is staunchly committed to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development adopted by the UN, which includes 17 Sustainable Development Goals essential to promoting peace and prosperity while also seeking to protect the planet. Among them, UNHCR continues to strive towards Sustainable Development Goal 4 to help ensure inclusive, equitable quality education and promotion of lifelong learning opportunities for all.
The framework for achieving this critical milestone is outlined in Refugee Education 2030: A Strategy for Refugee Inclusion. The comprehensive strategy aims to: ensure refugees are increasingly accounted for in education sector planning goals and action plans; that both refugee and host community students are prepared to succeed in national systems wherever they live. The strategy also strives to address the learning needs of refugee and host community students by expanding existing programs and partner investments in support of innovative local solutions.
Partnerships will play a key role in ensuring the objectives of the strategy are met. UNHCR points to the “significant sector expertise” among teacher unions, host country and donor governments, the private sector, and other crucial collaborators that can potentially be identified and leveraged in meaningful ways for the benefit of students in displacement areas.
UNHCR and its partners are also working toward boosting the number of refugees enrolled in post-secondary studies. The 15by30 target seeks to ensure 15 per cent of young refugee women and men, or approximately 500,000 refugees in total, can access higher education by 2030.
With the Aiming Higher campaign launched in 2021, UNHCR is seeking private sector support to bridge the severe funding gap of its refugee tertiary scholarship program (DAFI). The program offers qualified refugee and returnee students the possibility of earning an undergraduate degree in their country of asylum or home country.
Esraa Ahmad was just 16 when she was forced to flee Syria and initially faced considerable challenges in starting a new school and life in Jordan. Although she had aspirations as a child to study medicine, the scarcity of scholarships in this field forced Esraa to think of another future. She decided to study computer engineering at Amman Arab University and graduated in mid-2019 after three years of studies facilitated by UNHCR’s DAFI scholarship program.
“Those years were the best years of my life. I got to know people who will remain in my life forever. Jordanians, Syrians, best friends,” said Esraa, 23, who is currently working as a freelancer, creating websites from scratch for small businesses in Jordan and around the world.
Nouraldin Uzbek was forced to flee his homeland of Afghanistan in 2007. “My family was threatened in Afghanistan. There was a lack of life security in our home country and there was a real danger if we had stayed,” recalled Nouraldin, whose was seven years old when his family arrived in Turkey.
He had held a long-time interest in law which was bolstered after an incident struck close to home. “When I was in high school, a close family friend of ours and his family were deported to Turkey, despite having lived in Afghanistan peacefully for years and having committed no crime,” said the 21-year-old. “My interest in law increased and I started to make more effort to study this discipline. After this incident, with the increase of asylum seekers in the country where I live, I thought that the best discipline was law in order to help the asylum seekers and raise their awareness. So, I decided to study law.”
Nouraldin initially faced significant challenges in accessing education, including financial difficulties while studying due to the limited number of people working in his family and not having a regular income.
“At that time, my sister and I were studying at university and my three other brothers were studying in middle and high school. Therefore, I had to work in parallel. There were books I could not buy. They were simply too expensive.”
Because his home was far from the university, there were times when he didn’t attend classes with low credit to save on transportation. During his first year, UNHCR was able to support Nouraldin with cash assistance which helped ease the financial burden. For his second year and beyond he was accepted into the DAFI scholarship program, “which really helped me to study more comfortably,” he noted.
“I want to finish university successfully,” said the fourth-year law student at Selçuk University. “Then I plan to start my master’s degree and continue my academic career. In addition, I want to establish a social association in order to help other asylum seekers not to experience the difficulties I have experienced.”
Displaced children and young adults leave behind so much when forced to leave their homes. While it is impossible to bridge the gap of saying goodbye to loved ones, their communities, and treasured possessions, much can be done to help them ease the transition as they begin building their lives anew. Education plays a pivotal part in protecting refugee children and youth from forced recruitment into armed groups, child labour, sexual exploitation, and child marriage. It empowers them with knowledge and skills to live productive, fulfilling, meaningful, and independent lives. And it enlightens and enriches them to learn more about themselves and the world around them as they continue on their life journeys.