Education should not stop when you are a refugee — Sara Al Soodi
Among the turmoil of displacement and uncertainty, education often offers a sense of stability to many refugee children. The opportunity to continue with their schooling gives them a sense of independence and choice in their future. It protects them from the dangers surrounding vulnerable children who were forced to leave their home behind. Yet, there are challenges which young refugees face when it comes to continuing their education. These are being steadily acknowledged and tackled, ensuring that greater proportion of refugee children have access to a world of learning and opportunities.
Challenges faced regarding education for refugees
According to the UNHCR, 48% of refugee children continue to be out of school. While figures from 2019 showed primary education enrolment at 77%, secondary education enrolment for refugees remained low at 31 %, and higher education at 3%. Education past the primary classes seems to be lacking amongst the refugee community and various factors contribute to this.
To take one example, Syrian refugees in Jordan portray the challenges dealt with by others too when trying to access education. Before the civil war in 2009, 94% of Syrian children attended primary and lower secondary education, yet by 2016 only 60% did. A 2020 report conducted by the Human Rights Watch found that the main causes for the low enrolment of Syrian refugees ranged from lack of affordable and safe transportation, to the poor quality of education offered in schools for refugees. Administrative issues and later on limited job opportunities in Jordan were also on the list. Such difficulties within the education system dissuade many Syrian refugees from continuing schooling. It is a far more agreeable alternative to go out and work, actively helping their family sustain themselves. University programmes or higher vocational training are not easily attainable for a Syrian refugee in Jordan. Only 3% of Syrian refugees end up in higher education there. Syrian refugees must pay greater fees at universities in Jordan since they are regarded as foreign students. Even those who successfully graduate end up facing restrictions in the professional world. This puts education on the backbench for many other refugees in similar situations.
COVID-19 brought further problems too. Around 23% of Syrian refugees in Jordan have no internet at home, while only 2/3 receive limited phone data packages to use for their classes. Mobile phone companies there have provided free data, for access to an online learning platform constructed by the Jordanian government. However, videos that consume large amounts of data are being sent by teachers, counteracting the solution. The pandemic has only resulted in an aggravation of previous problems faced by refugees regarding their education. This would require a new approach and support from both the host countries and the international community.
Besides, inconsistent funding and donations for education programmes also pose an issue. For instance, between 2015 and 2018, UNICEF was able to help 55 000 children through funding, but this was lowered to 10 000 children as there was not enough funding available. Due to this, 25% of the refugee children who no longer had support stopped their schooling.
Why education is important for a refugee
Education is a basic human right, as described in the 1951 Refugee Convention. The UNHCR also highlights the key purposes of education, which are to protect, empower and enlighten. To break it down, education protects refugee children against recruitment into armed groups, as well as child marriages and sexual exploitation. Through the knowledge and abilities they earn, refugees are able to obtain a sense of independence. They will be less likely to rely on others for their future and needs, and will be capable enough to make their decisions based on the facts around them.
Their journey as refugees, particularly the children, puts them in a vulnerable position. A stable education provides them with a solid foundation from which they can build their futures once more. The routine of schooling creates a sense of hope and reassurance, after having been forced to flee the place they called home.
Indeed, if the parents are also aware that their child is gaining a valuable education, then they will be more encouraging too. Thus, their home environment will also become favourable to the concept of education. Through education they will be taught how to read, write, learn. They will have gained knowledge about their rights, citizenship and support available. This opens new doors, which a refugee lacking education is less likely to reach.
Human Rights Watch states how economic opportunities and economic development are affected for refugee children with no secondary education. This lowers their chance to escape poverty. According to Human Rights Watch, humanitarian education has neglected both the secondary school stage children, and those aged between 16–18. While enrolment into primary schools has been prioritised under a UN coordinated education response, secondary education less so. The impact of this can be seen among the Syrian refugees once more. Girls under 18 getting married among Syrian refugees has escalated from 13% in pre-war Syria, to 36% afterwards. The importance of keeping the window of education open for refugees for longer, is emphasised by the impact of negligence in not doing so.
Current Solutions and What Should Could Be Done Next
UNHCR has set out a list of priorities for schooling of refugees. Education systems of countries should adjust so they can cope with the increasing number of refugees worldwide. Greater focus should be placed on older students who have missed school due to displacement, by potentially providing accelerated education programmes. This puts these young people on a similar pedestal as other students their age, allowing them to integrate better within their new schools. Decisions on their future course of education, whether vocational or not for example, would also be available. Thus, the independence which education offers young refugees through the potential of programmes as such is important. Helping them restore the time they have lost outside education, increases their confidence too. No longer at a greater disadvantage to their fellow peers, this can encourage more refugees to continue their education further.
According to an estimate from the Global Cost of Inclusive Refugees, refugee education costs no more than 1% of annual public spending on primary and secondary education, in over 50% of the countries studied. The countries with greater spending were Lebanon and Jordan, where more refugees settled. However, these estimates precede the pandemic, and so they may have increased slightly. Yet, as the report summarises, these estimates are proof of the fact that education for refugee children is attainable, nonetheless. It provides scope for further realistic solutions. As long as there is cooperation and understanding from the host countries, the global players and refugees themselves, increasing the rate of education among refugee children is achievable.
There are current education programmes which have shown to be successful. A certified programme for Syrian children over the age of 13 who are out school is available. Once enrolled, they aim to study for a class 10 certificate. They need to learn for final exams from home, without school classes, but with resources made available. However, the data determining how successful this programme was is limited, yet it does provide an alternative to no education.
As seen earlier, lack of donations and funding can have a negative effect on the schooling of refugee children. Indeed, it is the duty of humanitarian agencies, NGOs and foreign donors to ensure a regularity in the support offered. Stabilising the aid offered can ensure a less uncertain future for many young refugees. Additionally, this funding should aimed at a clearer scheme of education programmes. This will help ensure a greater focus on secondary and higher education too.
Education can change futures
The benefits of education go beyond learning to read, write, or solve mathematics. It provides security in an unstable environment, a form of coping mechanism against the displacement and trauma these children endured. Education helps them regain control of their lives and futures, directing them in endless directions. Learning poverty is ripe, and in working towards eliminating it, refugee children should not be left out.
Children like Parisa, an Afghan refugee in Iran, continue to persevere with their schooling. Despite having to share one smartphone with her sisters for lessons, missing out on certain things, she continued to get good grades.
Congolese refugee Dr. Jonas Havugimana, fled the Democratic Republic of Congo when he was young, ending up near Rwanda. There, he attended large classes of roughly 80 children each, till he won a scholarship at a state school for maths, chemistry and biology. Later on, with the DAFI higher education scholarship from the UNHCR, he attended the University of Rwanda, and interned at the Byumba hospital. He stated how “Being a refugee, education has made me strong”.
Kourosh, who lived in the refugee camps in Lesbos managed to enter one of the top general high schools there, making him one of the first refugees at the school. Despite initial language barriers and the issues with online schooling, he achieved his goal with the support of SOS Children’s educational programme.
Perseverance and support come hand in hand here. Encouraging young refugees to continue their education and aim for the bright futures they are all capable of is crucial. The various means of aid that provided are often life changing for many and can define the course of their childhood and schooling. These examples are a reflection of how important education is to young refugees and how their perseverance, with support, can create a new generation of hope and stability.
This article was first published on the BizGees website here.