Millions of refugee children missing out on education, report says

Millions of refugee children missing out on education, report says

The United Nations is urging the international community to invest in secondary school education for refugee youth to empower them with skills and knowledge — and give them a better shot at ending a vicious cycle of living in limbo and depending on others.

“For many refugees, becoming a teenager is also the moment where the educational journey comes to an end. If there is no hope of continuing one’s studies much beyond primary, families are more likely to question the usefulness of sending their children to secondary school,” Gordon Brown, UN Special Envoy for Global Education, said in his report, “Stepping Up,” to be released Friday.

“Secondary education plays a crucial role in the protection of young refugees when they are at a particularly vulnerable age. If they have nothing to occupy their day and no clear employment prospects, adolescents are more vulnerable to exploitation and more likely to turn to illegal activities out of desperation.”

According to the 56-page report, more than half of the world’s 7.1 million refugee children are not in school because no schools are available or it is too dangerous for them to go to class due to “bombings, partial or total occupation by armed groups, abduction, rape and forced recruitment.”

In 2018, only 63 per cent of refugee children went to primary school, compared to 91 per cent globally. While around the world 84 per cent of adolescents get a secondary school education, only 24 per cent of refugees get that opportunity. Just 3 per cent of refugees have access to post-secondary education and training versus 37 per cent globally.

“School is where refugees are given a second chance,” said Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, in a prepared statement to plead with all governments, the private sector, educational organizations and donors to lend their support to a new initiative aimed at boosting high school education for refugees.

“We need to invest in refugee education or pay the price of a generation of children condemned to grow up unable to live independently, find work and be full contributors to their communities.”

The initiative will focus on investing in teachers and schools, community programs to encourage refugee families to enrol their kids in school and offer them financial support to do so. It’s part of the UN refugee agency’s education campaign to get more refugee children into school and to increase enrolment in higher education to 15 per cent by 2030.


Last year, almost four in every five refugees were in prolonged displacement with many children doomed to remain in limbo for much if not all of their childhood, meaning they are likely to go through an entire school cycle — from age 5 to 18 — in exile.

“There may not even be a school to attend. Where one exists, it may already be stretched to breaking point — with overflowing classrooms, a lack of teachers, a shortage of basic facilities such as water, sanitation and hygiene, and insufficient teaching and learning materials,” Brown, a former British prime minister, said in his report.

In Upala, Costa Rica, local students study side by side with Nicaraguan asylum-seekers.

“A big part of the problem is the sheer lack of secondary schools in many refugee-hosting areas, making the transition from primary a practical impossibility,” he added.

Progress in refugee enrolment has been slow, with the number in primary school up just two percentage points from 61 per cent in 2017 to 63 per cent last year, while secondary level enrolment rose marginally from 23 per cent to 24 per cent in the same period.

Some refugee-hosting countries such as Uganda, Chad, Kenya, Ethiopia, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey and Mexico have made strides by giving refugee children access to local schools, introducing flexible timetables, offering tutoring help and language training, hiring more teachers, injecting more resources and helping children adjust to the challenges of life as a refugee.


In Rwanda, thousands of refugee children have been enrolled in primary schools thanks to progressive government policies and targeted funding from donors. In Uganda, 23,000 over-age refugee learners who previously dropped out of school are now participating in primary education through accelerated education programs.

Turkey, which hosts one million school-age children, many from Syria, has implemented a Turkish-language program — along with new learning materials and subsidized transport among other measures — to prepare these newcomers for the Turkish school system. Ecuador has made school enrolment more accessible for Venezuelan refugee children and youth.

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As of January, UNHCR offices in more than 20 African countries were working with education authorities, UN agencies and other groups to support refugee children.

“Higher education is not a luxury — it is an essential investment for today and for the future,” the report concludes. “It gives young refugees the perspectives, maturity and experiences they need to become peace builders, policy-makers, teachers and role models.”

Nicholas Keung

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