Educating refugees: Old ways of working aren’t good enough

By Aaron Benavot, originally posted on Promising Practices for Refugee Education

2The plight of refugees is in the news every day, and not a moment too soon. Refugee children and adolescents suffer from having almost all of their rights taken from them at one point or another, if not all at the same time. Addressing their needs requires new thinking, and fast.

Thanks to the media coverage, the scale of the matter will likely not come as a surprise. The fact is that by mid-2015, there were 15 million refugees under the global mandate of the refugee agency, UNHCR – 5 million more than in 2010.

These children urgently require access to education and supportive teachers. The GEM Report showed in a joint paper with UNHCR, No more excuses, that half of refugee children are out of school. A quarter of adolescent refugees aren’t enrolled in school either. These children and adolescents are five times more likely to be out of school than their non-refugee peers.


The progress that countries have in providing education to refugee children varies dramatically, as we saw when we looked at diverging enrolment rates across nine refugee sites (see figure, right). All sorts of factors contribute to progress in some contexts and worsening in others, including differences in refugees’ rights to education and certification according to national legislation, the difficulty in dealing with large influxes of displaced people, language differences, and the difficulty of sustaining education in protracted refugee situations.

This blog examines a few of these factors, hoping to contribute to the valuable initiative just launched by Save the Children, UNHCR and Pearson, Promising Practices in Refugee Education, aiming to shine a light on innovations occurring in response to the challenges of educating refugees.

Malaysia, for example, has achieved significant reductions in the number of refugees from Myanmar who are out of school. This is thanks to NGOs and community groups setting up learning centres, catering for children who were not being included into the free primary education in public schools. As a result, in Kuala Lumpur, the capital, enrolment rates increased from 4% to around 40% in just eight years.

In Eastern Chad, where Sudanese refugees have spilled over the border from Darfur, as well as refugees from the Central African Republic and Nigeria, several initiatives have contributed to notable progress. These include, for example, integrating refugees into the national curriculum, adequate training of refugee teachers, and certification of refugee students’ attainments.

We have limited data on refugees

Making tangible progress on refugee education begins by collecting data on enrolment rates of forcibly displaced groups, which is far from easy. Since these groups are often invisible in national education sector plans, their education receives little or no budget allocation.

Some countries have taken steps to better monitor refugees’ education status. Chad developed an integrated system to improve refugee education data management, with the aim of eventually integrating the data in the national EMIS (Education Management Information System). The system, developed as an offline spreadsheet tool, includes a set of data collection forms for each camp, covering preschool, primary, middle and high school, as well as non-formal literacy programmes and higher education. Data quality has improved as a result, ensuring harmonised data collection, entry and compilation.

In Malaysia, refugees are not allowed to access the formal education system but instead attend community learning centres spread across Kuala Lumpur. UNHCR has mapped these centres to improve monitoring of enrolment, attendance and performance. A generic and open source online system was applied to 40 centres, which can now input data independently, improving the coverage and quality of data for this dispersed urban refugee population. Its use has led to more accurate data management, facilitating education programme design, implementation and monitoring.

ICTs can also provide crucial monitoring and information as we showed in a recent blog. They can be used to collect data, such as by surveying teachers, which can be shared with all those working in a crisis setting. OpenEMIS Refugees developed by UNESCO, for instance, tracks education data in emergency settings, and has been used in Jordan to collect information on displaced children attending schools.

IDP, refugee and stateless communities lack skills for work

Countries that have addressed this have used flexible, post primary education. For instance, the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Youth Education Pack offers a one-year, full-time intensive course, which trains 15- to 24-year-olds in literacy and numeracy skills, livelihood skills geared toward self-employment, and various life skills. It has been implemented in 13 countries, ranging from Afghanistan to Timor-Leste. At the end of the course, graduates receive a start-up kit to help them set up a micro-business.

Refugees need assistance to enter higher education

Higher education opportunities for refugees have historically been extremely limited with less than 1% of refugee youth able to access universities.

Scholarships are one tool being used to encourage access. The German government-funded DAFI supported more than 2,200 students across 41 host countries with higher education scholarships in 2014, for example. The number of Syrian refugee students accessing higher education doubled between 2014 and 2015, with new programmes opening in Lebanon and Turkey thanks to an expansion of the donor base.

Distance and e-learning are also being used, blended with on-site tutoring, providing students with certification from an accredited institution.

Teachers in refugee camps are often poorly paid, lack recognition, and work in demanding conditions

For teachers who have been volunteering for years, incentive pay can be a welcome change. In 2015, Turkey trialled incentive payments with more than 4,000 Syrian refugee volunteer teachers, giving €130–190 per month, funded by donors, which has increased their morale and sense of professional value.

An overlooked issue is that refugees and resettled persons, who could work as teachers, are often unable to provide evidence of qualifications. In 2007, the Supreme Court of Ontario, Canada, set an important precedent by ruling that the Ontario College of Teachers must find a way to assess the qualification of a resettled refugee who could not produce an original government-certified proof of her academic qualifications.

ICTs in emergencies can support displaced teachers, providing training opportunities for some.  The International Rescue Committee launched ‘Connect to Learn’ in Iraq, targeting forcibly displaced Syrian teachers and giving them access to teaching and learning, while also addressing the needs of children experiencing psychosocial distress. Many teachers are learning to use ICTs in refugee education, to strengthen the way they interact with learners, thereby improving motivation. Free instant messaging applications, such as WhatsApp, are widely used for communication between teachers and students, teachers and parents, and among students, for example. Text messaging can also be a safe learning space, enabling school staff to hear quickly about danger near schools.

This blog gives a snippet of the sort of investigations the GEM Report will be doing as it works up to its 2019 Report on migration and education. We will be launching an online consultation for that Report quite shortly, which we hope those working on this issue will feed into. We have no doubt that the research being done by Save the Children, UNHCR and Pearson for their new initiative will be an invaluable resource for our work.

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