By Joseph Nhan-O’Reilly on behalf of a coalition of organisations working to support education for refugees including the Initiative on Child Rights in the Global Compacts, a coalition of 30 UN, civil society and philanthropic organisations that are working to ensure that children’s rights are promoted in the two global compacts on migrants and refugees.
On September 19, 2016 the United Nations General Assembly unanimously adopted the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants. The Declaration was hailed as the foundation of a new approach by the international community to large movements of refugees and migrants, as well as to protracted refugee situations.
It sets out a Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF), with specific actions needed to ease pressure on host countries, enhance refugee self-reliance, expand access to third-country solutions, and support conditions in countries of origin for return in safety and dignity.
In adopting the Declaration, UN member states also called on UNHCR to develop a Global Compact on Refugees. The Compact will combine the CRRF with a Programme of Action that sets out actions for both Member States and others to ensure the full implementation of the promises made in the Declaration.
Consultations on the Programme of Action begin again this week in Geneva and will focus on measures to help meet the needs of refugees and host communities, including to education.
A commitment to education for refugee children
In the New York Declaration, all Member States committed to ‘ensure all children are receiving education within a few months of arrival’ and to ‘prioritise budgetary provision to facilitate this, including support for host countries as required’.
States also promised to provide quality early childhood, primary and secondary education, as well as accelerated learning, tertiary and vocational education.
Much to do
If you are a refugee child, the odds are that you experience the double jeopardy of losing both your home and your education. Half of all refugee children of primary school age are out of school and fewer than one in four refugee children get to go to high school.
Refugee children often face discrimination and exclusion as they seek to rebuild their futures far from home. As a result, they are five times less likely to attend school than other children in the countries in which they are displaced.
Even for those who do have access to education, the quality is often very poor. The situation is especially bleak in countries where a third generation of children has been born into displacement, and where the prospects of a safe return to their countries of origin seems like a distant dream.
Action to close the refugee education gap
Given the promise in the New York Declaration to provide all refugee children with education, the Compact’s Programme of Action must deliver a step change in the way the world deals with the needs of refugees, and supports the communities that host them, including how they ensure the right to education.
International and local organisations working to support education for refugees have welcomed the initial commitments in the Programme of Action, including, the recognition that refugee children and particularly girls, face obstacles to educational access and learning and that host countries should include refugee children and youth in national education systems within three months of displacement.
However, the Programme of Action must become an actionable plan to give all refugee children access to quality learning. We have developed a three-point plan with specific actions that we argue should be in the Programme of Action and designed to improve:
- Inclusion of refugees in national education systems
The inclusion of refugees in the national education system of the country in which they have sought protection is the most practical and sustainable way to enable displaced children access to accredited learning opportunities. The Programme of Action should rapidly increase technical and material support to countries that are committed to including refugees in their national education sector plans. Many countries are adopting this approach but their already stretched education systems often struggle to include large numbers of refugee children. Inclusive plans and their implementation should be supported via joint technical assistance from UNHCR, the Global Partnership for Education and Education Cannot Wait.
- Financing for refugee education
86% of the world’s refugees live in low- and middle-income countries whose education systems already struggle to meet the needs of the marginalised children. These countries need international support to scale up provision of local services and to provide alternative educational opportunities for refugees – so that responsibility for large movements of refugees is properly shared. We believe that a costed global plan for refugee education, based on national cost estimates in refugee hosting countries using common cost benchmarks, would be a useful starting point for mobilising the funding necessary to deliver education to refugee children and the children in the communities that host them.
- Learning outcomes for refugee and host community children
For education to have an effective impact, it must be of sufficient quality: enable genuine learning outcomes, support student wellbeing and be relevant to the lives of students. At present, the quality of education available to refugee boys and girls is almost invariably poor. This is putting their development, learning and well-being at risk, while also leading to high dropout rates. The challenge of improving learning outcomes for refugee children is compounded by the fact that the education needs of refugee students are complex; many have experienced distress or severe trauma, may have missed years of schooling and may be unfamiliar with the local curriculum and the language of instruction.
We are calling on refugee-hosting states, donors, UN agencies, NGOs and the private sector to commit in the Programme of Action to:
- improve foundational literacy and numeracy in the early grades and support holistic learner assessments;
- increase resources for psychosocial support and social emotional learning;
- recognise that early learning should become standard practice in refugee responses;
- mainstream protection into all policies and initiatives related to education, to ensure barriers that prevent the most vulnerable refugees, including girls, from accessing education are removed; and
- collect refugee education data to inform policy-making, budgeting, implementation and accountability.
Refugee parents and children consistently identify access to quality education as one of their highest-priority concerns. Despite the enduring hardships they face the determination of refugee communities to provide their children with an education is genuinely inspiring. The consultations this week in Geneva on what will be in the Programme of Action that will form part of the Global Compact on Refugees is a unique opportunity for the international community to match the determination and creativity of refugee communities, alongside the generosity of hosting states, with practical action to deliver what the world has already promised: access to quality education for refugee children.