The ur­gency of refugee ed­u­ca­tion

The Jakarta Post - - HEADLINES - PROJECT SYN­DI­CATE/ GENEVA Filippo Grandi The writer is the United Na­tions High Com­mis­sioner for Refugees.

The world’s refugee cri­sis is most of­ten mea­sured in num­bers. But for young refugees miss­ing out on an ed­u­ca­tion, the cri­sis can also be tracked by an ir­re­versible met­ric: the pas­sage of time.

Of the 17.2 mil­lion peo­ple that the United Na­tions High Com­mis­sioner for Refugees (the UN Refugee Agency) is re­spon­si­ble for pro­tect­ing, roughly half are un­der the age of 18, mean­ing that an en­tire gen­er­a­tion of young peo­ple, al­ready robbed of their child­hood, could lose out on a fu­ture as well.

School-age chil­dren form a large share of the world’s dis­placed pop­u­la­tion. At the end of 2016, there were an es­ti­mated 11.6 mil­lion refugees ex­pe­ri­enc­ing “pro­tracted dis­place­ment”: they have been away from their homes for more than five years and have no “im­me­di­ate prospects” of re­turn. Of th­ese, 4.1 mil­lion have been refugees for at least 20 years, longer than the amount of time the av­er­age per­son spends in school.

The case for refugee ed­u­ca­tion is clear. Child­hood should be spent learn­ing how to read, write, count, in­quire, as­sess, de­bate, cal­cu­late, em­pathize, and set goals. Th­ese skills are es­pe­cially im­por­tant for those who will be called upon to re­build their coun­tries when they re­turn home.

More­over, ed­u­ca­tion pro­vides refugee chil­dren a safe space amid the tu­mult of dis­place­ment. And ed­u­ca­tion can even help en­sure the peace­ful and sus­tain­able de­vel­op­ment of the com­mu­ni­ties that have opened their doors to dis­placed fam­i­lies.

Un­for­tu­nately, for many of the 6.4 mil­lion school-age refugees cur­rently un­der the man­date of the UN Refugee Agency, ac­cess to ed­u­ca­tion re­mains a lux­ury. Whereas 91 per­cent of chil­dren world­wide at­tend pri­mary school, en­roll­ment among refugee chil­dren is just 61 per­cent, and falls to 50 per­cent for in low-in­come coun­tries, where more than a quar­ter of the world’s dis­placed peo­ple live.

As refugee chil­dren get older, the ed­u­ca­tion gap widens. Just 23 per­cent of refugee ado­les­cents are en­rolled in sec­ondary school, com­pared to 84 per­cent glob­ally. In low-in­come coun­tries, a mere 9 per­cent of refugee chil­dren are en­rolled in sec­ondary school.

As for post-sec­ondary ed­u­ca­tion — the cru­cible in which to­mor­row’s lead­ers will be forged — the picture is dis­mal. About a third of young peo­ple around the world pur­sue a col­lege de­gree or ad­vanced train­ing; but, de­spite schol­ar­ships and other in­cen­tives, the per­cent­age of refugees who do so is a mere 1 per­cent.

In Septem­ber 2016, politi­cians, diplo­mats, of­fi­cials, and ac­tivists from around the world gath­ered at the UN to chart a path for­ward for ad­dress­ing the plight of the world’s refugees.

The re­sult was the New York Dec­la­ra­tion for Refugees and Mi­grants, signed by 193 coun­tries, which em­pha­sized ed­u­ca­tion as a crit­i­cal el­e­ment of the in­ter­na­tional re­sponse. Fur­ther­more, one of the UN’s 17 Sus­tain­able De­vel­op­ment Goals, which are aimed at end­ing poverty and pro­mot­ing pros­per­ity by 2030, is de­signed to de­liver “in­clu­sive and qual­ity ed­u­ca­tion for all and to pro­mote life­long learn­ing” (SDG 4).

But, de­spite over­whelm­ing sup­port for the New York Dec­la­ra­tion, and for the prin­ci­ples set out in SDG 4, young refugees re­main in danger of be­ing left be­hind. The in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity must now match its rhetoric with ac­tion.

Ed­u­ca­tion must be­come an in­te­gral part of the emer­gency re­sponse to any refugee cri­sis. Class­room learn­ing should be given high pri­or­ity, to help pro­vide a pro­tec­tive and sta­ble en­vi­ron­ment for the youngest refugees. Be­cause ed­u­ca­tion not only im­parts life skills, but also pro­motes re­silience and self-reliance, and helps ad­dress the psy­cho­log­i­cal and so­cial needs of chil­dren im­pacted by con­flict, it is a ba­sic need for refugees.

Pro­vid­ing ed­u­ca­tional op­por­tu­ni­ties to dis­placed young peo­ple will re­quire long-term plan­ning and in­vest­ment; it can­not be an af­ter­thought. Fi­nanc­ing for refugee ed­u­ca­tion must be sus­tain­able, pre­dictable, and holis­tic, both to en­able ed­u­ca­tion sys­tems in refugee-host­ing coun­tries to plan ac­cord­ingly, and to en­sure that chil­dren’s school­ing is not sus­pended when a new cri­sis erupts some­where else.

It is also crit­i­cal that refugee chil­dren are in­cor­po­rated into the na­tional ed­u­ca­tion sys­tems where they re­side. Refugees, like all young peo­ple around the world, de­serve a qual­ity ed­u­ca­tion — one that fol­lows an ac­cred­ited cur­ricu­lum, and is based on a rig­or­ous sys­tem of eval­u­a­tion and ad­vance­ment.

Host coun­tries are best suited to pro­vide that. Where the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity can help is by do­ing more to sup­port ed­u­ca­tors, es­pe­cially teach­ers, by en­sur­ing suit­able pay, ad­e­quate teach­ing ma­te­ri­als, and ac­cess to ex­pert as­sis­tance.

The ed­u­ca­tion of refugees is a shared re­spon­si­bil­ity. Last year, with the New York Dec­la­ra­tion, gov­ern­ments around the world made a col­lec­tive prom­ise to in­vest in refugees and the com­mu­ni­ties host­ing them.

As the UN Gen­eral Assem­bly con­venes for its an­nual meet­ings in New York this week, global lead­ers must recom­mit to that pledge. Young refugees have no time to lose.

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