Blog post by Shahariar Sadat and Arafat Reza *
Maya Ghazal fled Syria and arrived in the United Kingdom at the age of 15. However, after being rejected by many schools due to her English not being good enough or her previous schooling in Syria not being recognised, she realised she had a mountain to climb to gain access to education.
Refusing to give up, she taught herself English and overcame every other obstacle in her path, eventually graduating with a degree in Aviation Engineering and Pilot Studies. She is now employed as a Research Engineer. Maya became the first female Syrian refugee pilot at the age of 21. She is also a recipient of the Princess Diana Legacy Award.
Without a doubt, her story is one of perseverance and hard work, but it also demonstrates the value of education in empowering refugees like her to realise their dreams and become responsible global citizens.
Regarding the importance of education in her life, she once stated at an event, “My education, what I have learned, has lifted me when I was down. It has given me the strength to speak in front of people, to share my struggles in front of young teenagers and most importantly, it helps me to get my message out there.”
Indeed, education bears immense significance in the lives of refugees for three reasons. Firstly, it provides them with the knowledge and skills one needs to live a productive, fulfilling, and independent life. Secondly, it enlightens them by allowing them to learn about themselves and their surroundings. Finally, it offers protection to refugee children from various types of violation of their rights and strengthens community resilience. Thus, it can also be said that education can play a crucial role in the implementation of the three durable solutions promoted by UNHCR: voluntary repatriation, third-country resettlement, and local integration.
Given that education is even more important in enabling refugees to build a prosperous future, it is perhaps noteworthy that it is available to them as a right under a number of key international legal documents, including the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 1951 Refugee Convention, and the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child. Many of these documents have been signed by major refugee origin and hosting countries. The right to education of refugees and its importance has been reaffirmed in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the Global Compact on Refugees, and the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants. Also, UNHCR and partners have set a target of 15% enrolment in higher education for young refugee women and men by 2030.
However, although the right to education has received considerable attention on paper, it remains a distant dream for the vast majority of the global refugee population.
Refugees have significantly less access to education than non-refugees. At all stages, the gross enrolment rates for refugees are lower than the global average, particularly when compared to the average of wealthier countries.
According to a UNHCR report published in 2019, 63% of refugee children attended primary school, compared to 91% of their non-refugee peers. Only 24% of refugee adolescents received secondary education, compared to 84% of non-refugee adolescents. In comparison to the global average of 37%, only 3% of refugees were able to get higher education.
Average gross enrolment rates in the 2020-2021 academic year for refugees were 42% at the pre-primary level, 68% at the primary level, 37% at the secondary level and only 6% at the tertiary level. While the data presented above show some progress, refugee enrolment remains far below global levels, particularly when compared to wealthier countries.
It seems conclusive that globally we have so far failed to protect the right to education of refugees, and that much work remains to be done. Thus, it is crucial to shed light on the key challenges of providing education to refugees, as well as potential solutions.
Firstly, there may be a lack of political will on part of the host country government to provide education to refugees, except in limited circumstances. The decision by Lebanon’s Education Ministry to suspend afternoon classes attended by Syrian refugee students in Lebanon’s public schools reflects this attitude, which many believe was made “seemingly by choice, not necessity.”
Secondly, funding for refugee education has long been a neglected issue. In fact, the sharp decline in refugee enrolment between the primary and secondary levels is directly related to a lack of funding.
Thirdly, low- and middle-income countries host 74% of the global refugee population, while the least developed countries provide asylum to 22%. These countries, particularly low income countries, lack the necessary number of educational institutions and manpower to provide education to refugees.
Furthermore, refugees often have to leave important documents like ID cards, transcripts, and certificates behind when they leave their country of origin. So, when they fail to show these documents, they are denied admission to educational institutions in the host country. Many Afghan children in Delhi, for example, are unable to attend school due to a variety of factors, including a lack of necessary documents. Again, their prior educational qualifications may not be accepted by educational institutions in the host country, as was the case for Maya in the UK.
Moreover, when refugees are forced to flee to another country, they lose their source of income. So, they are forced to live in poverty. For example, according to a study conducted prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, approximately 80% of Syrian refugees in Jordan were living in poverty, with only 2% having savings and nearly all being in debt. Thus, finding some form of livelihood opportunities becomes their top priority, and they prefer to send their family members (even children) to work rather than to educational institutions.
Last but not least, Refugees may come from a country with a completely different learning culture and language than the host country. This makes it difficult for the relevant bodies to determine appropriate curriculum and pedagogy.
The way forward
Firstly, the international community should work closely with hosting countries to honour their commitments to provide education to refugees under the Global Compact on Refugees and other relevant instruments.
Secondly, the report Stepping Up: Refugee Education in Crisis shows that a number of countries have made great progress in this regard, including Uganda, Chad, Kenya, Ethiopia, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, and Mexico. These countries have, among other things, made school schedules more flexible, given students extra help catching up on missed assignments or learning new languages, trained more teachers, and provided more academic materials. These success stories must be showcased with other host country governments so that they can understand the benefits and be encouraged to take similar progressive measures.
Thirdly, when it comes to the documents required for enrolment and accepting prior educational qualifications of refugees, schools, universities, the education ministry, and other relevant authorities in the host country should take a more flexible approach.
Furthermore, opening up education to all refugee children and including them in national education systems can be accomplished at a global cost of $4.85 billion per year. This is a pre-pandemic estimate and likely to have increased with the creation of more refugees in recent years. Thus, it is critical that governments, the private sector, educational organisations and donors provide adequate financial support to refugee education initiatives and interventions at various levels.
Moreover, in comparison to the number of students in need of education, the number of scholarships available exclusively to refugees is nearly non-existent. So, more such scholarships and waivers must be made exclusively available to refugees worldwide, particularly at the tertiary level, where enrolment is significantly lower than at other levels.
Finally, efforts should be made to improve social cohesion, combat xenophobia, racism, and discrimination against refugees, and promote tolerance in the host society. This will help to create a more welcoming and favourable learning environment for refugees in educational institutions and beyond.
About the authors:
Shahariar Sadat joined the Centre for Peace and Justice (BRAC University) in April 2021 as the first Director, responsible mainly for the two areas- Academic and Legal Empowerment. He is an Advocate of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh and an accredited mediator and master trainer on mediation. Prior to joining CPJ, he was the Head of Programme of Human Rights and Legal Aid Services (HRLS) at BRAC.
Arafat Reza is a journalist and researcher based in Dhaka, Bangladesh. He is currently serving as a Research Associate at the Centre for Peace and Justice (BRAC University).
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