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Educating Refugee Youth Will Make the World Safer and More Prosperous

Refugee children are five times less likely to attend school than other children. Alice Albright, head of Global Partnerships for Education, explains why refugee education is more than a moral duty – it is an investment in stability and long-term development.

Written by Alice Albright Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
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Nigerian girls who fled Boko Haram at a school set up by UNICEF at the Baga Solo refugee camp in Chad, on March 4, 2015.AP/Jerome Delay

Chad, a country hosting more than 370,000 refugees, sits at the juncture of several major humanitarian crises. Food scarcity, a financial crisis precipitated by declining oil prices across the Sahel region, and conflicts in neighboring Cameroon, Central African Republic, Libya, Niger, Nigeria and Sudan exacerbate an already dire situation both for the local population and refugees alike.

In Uganda, refugees continue to stream daily into a country that is already the third-largest refugee hosting country in Africa. There are nearly 790,000 refugees in Uganda, around half of them fleeing civil war in South Sudan, and others from Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Somalia and Rwanda.

Chad and Uganda are just two of the many countries that host the surging number of people in the world today who have been forcibly displaced from their homes. Globally, more than 21 million have fled as refugees to other countries and tens of millions more are displaced within their own countries. Notably, more than half of all refugees worldwide are under the age of 18, and, according to the Overseas Development Institute, there are 17 million school-age refugees and internally displaced children in countries affected by conflict.

Countries like Chad and Uganda, which have almost no capacity to take on the complex and costly task of educating refugee children, deserve immense credit for trying to give refugee children within their borders an education – even as they struggle to educate their own children.

It’s no easy task. In 2015, 50 percent of the world’s refugee children did not get a primary school education, and they are five times less likely to attend school than other children. More than 20 percent of countries hosting refugees place formal restrictions on refugee children entering their schools, and a shockingly tiny proportion of humanitarian aid – only 2 percent – has historically gone to education.

This is why global leaders, including the U.N. special envoy for global education Gordon Brown, UNICEF’s executive director Anthony Lake and Julia Gillard, board chair of the Global Partnership for Education (GPE), launched the Education Cannot Wait fund earlier this year, to ensure more resources to help countries educate children in humanitarian crisis.

Every child in the world has the right to a quality education. But the case is even more compelling for child refugees. Education gives them the security and normalcy that can help them cope with the chaos in the short run, and it can reverse a lifelong, downward spiral of illiteracy, poverty and powerlessness.

Children at a UNICEF-supported school in Aqrah, Iraq, on October 19, 2016. (Jens Kalaene/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images)

Children at a UNICEF-supported school in Aqrah, Iraq, on October 19, 2016. (Jens Kalaene/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images)

So how can we turn our backs on these children? For many countries refugee education is a moral obligation. But with an average length of conflict-induced displacement of 17 years, some countries also realize that educating refugees in their midst is an act of self-preservation and long-term development.

Abundant empirical research confirms that better-educated societies are less likely than others to face the instability, tensions and weak governance that can drive conflict and displacement in the first place.

Teachers I met at the Kiryandongo refugee settlement in Uganda when I visited earlier this year, spoke passionately about the importance of education for these refugee children so they can help rebuild a more peaceful and prosperous society when they return to their home country one day.

Countries like Chad and Uganda have turned to and received help from a number of external partners, including the Global Partnership for Education, which allocates about half of its grant funding to support education in countries that are affected by fragility and conflict.

Chad’s approach has been to improve a school system that was weak even before hundreds of thousands of refugees arrived. In the Lake Chad region alone, where refugees are concentrated, 62 percent of Chad’s children were out of school, the average primary school class size was 75, and the rate of adult illiteracy is 95.8 percent.

With a $6.95 million GPE grant, Chad not only addresses the immediate humanitarian needs of the refugees but also creates a stronger, more enduring infrastructure that benefits all children – Chadians and refugees alike. That includes more classrooms and essential facilities, food and nutrition, new, culturally appropriate school books and training to expand the pool of teachers qualified to ensure kids actually learn.

With a four-year grant of $100 million, Uganda has, like Chad, formally mapped out how it will strengthen its schools, and has begun implementing that plan. It wisely spells out how it will accommodate the many refugees who stream into the country each day.

Educating the surging number of refugee children today is one of our greatest generational challenges. The international community, in collaboration with countries like Chad and Uganda, has an obligation to take on that challenge – not just for the sake of those children but for the future prosperity and stability of the world.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

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