Losing out on learning: Action to ensure refugee children get an education

By Joseph Nhan-O’Reilly, Head of Education Policy & Advocacy and Sébastien Hine, Education Research Adviser at Save the Children

peace 1The world is now witnessing the highest levels of displacement on record. According to UNHCR, an unprecedented 65.6 million people around the world have been forced from their homes. Among them are nearly 22.5 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18. A new Save the Children report, Losing Out On Learning, tracks progress made in the countries that pledged at the Leaders’ Summit at the UN General Assembly last year. It shows only modest advances have been made in a year. Slow progress leaves refugees with an uncertain future and the countries that host them with inadequate support.

The refugee education crisis
The state of provision for refugee education around the world is its own emergency, as the 2019 GEM Report being drafted on migration, displacement and education will confirm. More than half of all the refugee children in the world – 3.5 million – are not in school. In the last year alone refugee children have missed more than 700 million days of school, with this figure increasing by 1.9 million days every day.

peace day 2Missing out on education means children are missing opportunities to learn, which we ordinarily do everything possible to minimise, including via national laws. When children are out of school their learning is not only no longer advancing but is also likely to regress. In fact, the longer children are out of school the more they lose skills and knowledge they have already acquired.

The case for education for refugees
There are lots of reasons why closing the education gap for refugee children should be a priority.


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Congolese refugees in Kigeme camp. © UNHCR/Frederic Noy

Education gives all children a place of safety, and can also reduce early marriage, child labour, and recruitment by armed groups all of which refugee children are vulnerable to. It enables refugees to fulfil their potential, improving their job prospects, as well as boosting their confidence and self-esteem.

It is central to building peaceful and prosperous communities, either where they seek refuge, or on their return to their country of origin.

Refugee children put a premium on education
But the key driver for our prioritisation of education in emergencies and in refugee contexts is the priority which refugee children and their families put on getting back to school.

Having lost the homes and often their family and friends, refugee children see education as one of the few things on which they can build their hopes and they consistently ask for it to be prioritised. It’s time we listened to them.

Global commitments off track

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6 year old Zarpari from Afghanistan is studying at a community school in Pakistan set up by Aqeela Asifi, herself a refugee and winner of UNHCR’s 2015 Nansen Refugee Award. © UNHCR/Sara Farid

At UNGA 2016 two events secured progress for refugees and their education. The first was the New York Declaration, which expressed the international community’s commitment that no child migrant should be out of school for more than a few months from being displaced. The second was the Leaders’ Summit on Refugees, at which eighteen countries, including the United States, Canada, Germany and Mexico, made significant pledges to support refugee education – fourteen refugee-hosting countries and four donor countries. In total, these pledges should enable 1 million refugees to attend school.

One year on, Save the Children’s report Losing Out On Learning tracks progress made in each of these eighteen countries. It finds that, since the Leaders’ Summit, modest progress has been made against these pledges but that the burden of responsibility falls disproportionately on low and middle income countries. Progress is notable in countries such as Turkey, Jordan, and Ethiopia, which have created an additional 290,000 school places, and Chad, which has made progress on textbook provision and refugee teacher accreditation.

Need for responsibility sharing

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7 year old Khadija from Syria returns home after attending class at the open accommodation site of Volos, Greece. Our assessment found that Syrian child refugees in Greece had been out of school for an average of 26 months. © UNHCR

With 89% of the world’s refugees in low and middle income countries, and frequently in the poorest regions of those countries, it is unreasonable to expect refugee-hosting countries to get all refugee children into school without sufficient support from the international community. These are countries that already struggle to provide good quality services to their own populations, especially already marginalised groups. Responsibility must be more evenly shared globally.

Given what we know about the challenges in providing quality education to refugee populations, especially in developing countries, which host most of the world’s refugees, we know that focussed attention, urgent reinforcement and sustained commitment is required.

But we also believe that getting all refugee children the opportunity to learn once again is possible.

We’ve identified four areas for action to deliver on that promise:

  • Increased investment – The funding gap must be closed with additional resources. Funding must recognise the protracted nature of many refugee crises by being predictable, multi-year, and flexible. Funding should reach all refugee crises, not just the most high-profile cases, and incentivise governments to include refugee education in national education sector planning.
  • Refugee inclusion – Host country governments should develop plans and enact policies to ensure that all refugee children, regardless of documentation status, are able to access relevant, quality education, which is part of and recognised by the national system.
  • Educational improvement – Existing refugee education provision must be improved to ensure student learning and well-being. This includes scaling-up provision at all levels, especially pre-primary, building teacher professional development, and creating certification pathways.
  • Improve accountability – The commitments to move to comprehensive planning and response, and globally shared responsibility will not be achieved without focused action and accountability. The international community should establish a results and accountability framework for the delivery of the New York Declaration pledges on education that has time-bound, measurable outcome targets and indicators that are reported on annually.

A global plan which backs action at the national level

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Two Rohingya girls head to class at the Kutupalong refugee centre in Bangladesh in 2013. © UNHCR/Shafiul Mostafa

We are calling on member states and international institutions to develop and back with the necessary funding and technical support a global plan to ensure all refugee children have access to quality education.

We must also support host country governments to develop national refugee education action plans.

Such plans would help host country governments to develop a widely shared understanding of the situation regarding refugee education in their country and set out a policy and delivery framework for ensuring all refugee children are in school in learning.

The international community should commit that no credible National Refugee Education Action Plan should go unimplemented for lack of resources.

Education for refugees is within our reach
We are convinced that fulfilling the commitment to quality education for all refugees in practice is possible.

That’s not to say we don’t understand the challenges which are multiple and varied.

It’s just that with sufficient political will, and a commitment to creativity and innovation, they can, and must, be overcome.



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