Until recently, refugee education was planned with the singular purpose of preparing students to return to their countries of origin. Refugees hoped for and planned for a return home. Many still do.
Yet, returning home is increasingly unlikely. The average length of exile for refugees from many protracted crises is now 25 years. For a refugee child, that period of time engulfs the whole possibility of education, and beyond. Even if refugees do return, their “home” has changed, as have they. In this context, what is the purpose of refugee education?
This is the question that has preoccupied my research over the past 10 years. My team of phenomenal doctoral students and former master’s students have undertaken research in 18 nation-states and many more local and sub-national regions, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. We interview children, families and teachers, and observe what goes on formally in school classrooms and in the in-between spaces and times that are often even more telling.
Refugee children always have a clear answer for our question. The purpose of education is to help them make a future.
As children do everywhere, they look to adults to help them understand what the parameters of that future might be and how they might prepare for it. In refugee contexts, the adults have little more insight than the children into what the future will hold. Indeed, for refugees, the future is “unknowable.” How can education help refugee children make their future in the context of such “radical uncertainty”?
Policymakers’ answer to this question is to integrate refugee students into national education systems.
This is a relatively new strategy. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had no formal relationships with ministries of education in countries hosting refugees before the launch of a new UNHCR Global Education Strategy in 2012. By 2016, UNHCR had formal agreements with education ministries in 20 of the 25 largest refugee-hosting countries, which included access to national schools and coordination mechanisms between governments and the U.N. agency.
The goals of integrated refugee education are both short-term stability and longer-term opportunity. In theory, educating refugees within a national education system provides more stability than creating a separate system for refugees: school buildings already exist, teachers are trained and the curriculum is established. At the same time, refugee students at national schools may receive greater opportunities over the longer term: recognized certification, knowledge and skills that are valued in their place of exile, and the language needed to navigate that place of exile.
In practice, integration of refugees into national education systems often does not live up to its goals. There are four important areas of future work to better equip refugee children for productive futures.
First, all refugees need access to both primary and secondary education. In 2014, 50 percent of refugees had access to primary school, compared with 93 percent of all children. Only 25 percent of refugees had access to secondary education, compared with 62 percent of all children.
Second, “integration” for refugees usually does not involve attention to relationships between refugees and nationals. In the refugee camps of Kenya, “integration” does not involve interacting with Kenyan national students. Given the isolation of the camps, the schools are de facto segregated, even though students do follow the Kenyan curriculum, in English (the official language of instruction in Kenya), and sit for the Kenyan Primary and Secondary Completion Exams. In Lebanon, “integration” similarly means isolation from Lebanese students. Refugee students use the national curriculum in the national languages of instruction and in the same school buildings, but they are temporally segregated in a different afternoon shift. By contrast in Egypt, Syrian refugee children attend national schools and are physically together in school with Egyptian children. But this integration is available only for Syrian refugees, not for refugees from other countries.
Even when refugees and nationals are together in schools, we find frequent bullying and violence takes place. Now that UNHCR has formal relationships with education ministries, work on integration should shift to focus on the experiences of refugee and national children in schools and classrooms, including the building of inclusive relationships of belonging among them.
Third, integration of refugees into national education systems can lead to decontextualization and depoliticization of refugee children’s experiences. Refugee education, through the 1960s and 1970s, focused on preparing young people to return to their countries to be leaders of newly independent nation-states. Refugee education at present is usefully focused on preparing students for an unknowable future. Yet to do so requires equipping refugee students with the competencies to make that future knowable and to create ways to live productively within it.
One such competency is the ability to understand the causes and consequences of conflict. Yet refugee-hosting schools are often spaces that ignore or sanitize histories of conflict and flight. Instead, schools should be central places in which refugee children try to make sense of the conflicts they have experienced (and often continue to experience) as well as their new and ever-changing situations.
Fourth, very few teachers of refugees have the skills to address the trauma that their students may have experienced, the marginalization they may experience during life in exile and in their new classrooms, and their deep sense of uncertainty about the future.
Education should counter the exclusion and isolation that many refugee children feel. To do so requires very skilled teachers. As a global community, we must invest in teachers more than ever before, and to do so requires a shift in thinking. Teachers of refugees are not a private, national good but a public, global one. Teachers who have the skills to address each student’s needs, to build welcoming communities, and to help children chart their pathways to the future, even amid uncertainty, are not only good for refugee children but for all children. The future of inclusive, safe and productive communities may depend on them.
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