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Back to School – Refugees and Education

Back to School – Refugees and Education

As we’re all getting ready to go back to school, let’s take a look at refugees and education. How many refugees are in school? What are schools like in refugee camps? How can you support a refugee student at your school?

Education is a right, not a privilege. The 1951 Refugee Convention, the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the 2015 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals all state education as a basic human right. Especially when considering the level of globalization the world has achieved and the technological advancement that we benefit from today, it makes it clear that every child has the right to a quality education. Education empowers not just individuals but communities. For individuals, even just basic literacy makes the entire world accessible; teaching an individual to read and write opens up navigation, communication, consumption and sharing of knowledge and histories, work opportunities, and more. And education beyond just basic literacy has the opportunity to teach an individual about themselves – their rights, their values, their history, their culture. For communities, education lifts marginalized groups out of poverty, gives communities a voice, and gives them the tools to succeed. Aside from the benefits of an education for the sake of an education, there are other, there are over 30 million children in the U.S, one of the world’s wealthiest countries, who rely on their schools for breakfast and lunch each day. Schools that provide meals for students help them avoid hunger and help to alleviate some financial burden for their parents. This rate would realistically be higher for refugee students because of typically higher rates of poverty. The pros of education are undeniable, and the sheer amount of educational resources in the world, there is no excuse for any child to have to go without an education. 

Do refugees have access to education?

In 2018, 92% of children worldwide were enrolled in primary school (ages 6 through 11).  Compared to that rate of 92% worldwide for primary school enrollment, only 61% of refugees attend primary school. And as they get older, that number goes down. For all school-aged refugees, only 40% (less than half) are enrolled in school. For secondary school (middle school and high school), only 23% of refugees are enrolled, as compared to 84% of the world’s secondary school age population. When we get to the college level, only 3% of refugees in the world are enrolled in a tertiary education program. There are a number of plausible reasons for these shockingly low rates. Barriers to entry into education for refugees are higher than for citizens of a given country. Not only is there often a language barrier for a refugee student attending school in a new country, but cultural barriers that may result in bullying and isolation can often serve as a real deterrent for refugee students. The cost of attending school, for example books, uniforms, transportation, can prove to be too much for the student’s parents, and parents who have younger children may need their school-aged children to stay home to watch their siblings so that the parents can work to provide for their family. These are some of the reasons that refugees have a harder time getting an education in a host country, but even refugees who are living in camps have a lower rate of enrollment.

What is education like in a refugee camp?

Schools are often set up in refugee camps by UNHCR or UNICEF in order to provide education to the children who will be there temporarily while awaiting resettlement. Regardless of the duration of the stay intended when the refugee camps are created, refugees very often stay in camps much longer. This means that the infrastructure of the camp is not equipped to accommodate the amount of refugees there. Schools, included, end up needing to accommodate more students than they are built for. Because of this, students need to share books, share chairs or sit on the floor, and be limited to one classroom with one instructor for a large group of mixed ages at mixed education levels. Aside from space, another very limited commodity in refugee camps is wifi. Because of either a complete absence of wifi or an absence of quality wifi, most refugee camp schools need to rely on outdated textbooks and materials that students need to share and can only use in the classroom. Another issue for schools in refugee camps is that students lack the means to get there – either the school is too far for them to walk, they can’t afford the enrollment fee, they need to stay home to help their parents, or they’re simply unaware of the importance of an education. With little to no perspective of the world outside of the refugee camp, it’s difficult for refugee children to understand the importance of an education. Despite the earnest efforts of organizations that set up schools in refugee camps, the camp schools are really not built and not equipped to provide a long term, quality education. 

How can I support a refugee student at my school?

The best way for you to support a refugee student at your school is to walk up and say hi to them. It’s important to remember that many refugees have undergone any number of difficult, stressful, or traumatic experiences to be where they are. The new student may not speak English very well – help them! They may not know how to do things that seem simple to you, like asking for a bathroom pass before leaving the classroom, or using an electric pencil sharpener; it’s important that you stay open-minded and understanding of their differences instead of making fun of them. There’s also a chance that the student and their family are new to your community, so invite them over for dinner, or to play soccer in the park! It can be scary moving into a new community and trying to make friends. If they’re willing to talk about it, you can ask them about what their home is like, or what they remember about their family or favorite foods back home. If you notice them being very quiet during class, you can ask them if they’re struggling with the lesson work. Finally, many refugees may not be able to get their driver’s license or a car right away, so their parents may be struggling to drive them around. If it’s appropriate, and if they don’t have a better way to get to school, ask your parents/guardians if you can drive them! This could help to make sure that they attend class every day, and could be even more helpful for things like sports games, field trips, birthday parties, and more activities that take place on weekends or in the evenings, outside of school bus driving hours! It’s very common for refugee students, or any new students, to get made fun of by other students who are not understanding of differences. The most important thing is to be there for your new friend and let them know you support them. 

How can I support refugees through educational empowerment?

Donations for education can go a long way. In 2018, with USA for UNHCR donor support, UNHCR helped over 250,000 refugee children across a dozen countries enroll in primary school. Another 42,000 refugees participated in accelerated learning programs. Because education is so important, there are many organizations that accept donations of money or goods to help make education more accessible to refugees. Some of these organizations help to fund the building of schools in or near refugee camps, some of them donate textbooks and writing materials to schools for the students and teachers to use, and some help in more creative ways by providing transportation to students or providing menstrual products to school-aged girls so that their menstruation isn’t a barrier to their education. Here are some places to get started, but we encourage you to do your own research and find other organizations that interest you! 

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Education Donation Portal

Support Girls’ Education with UNICEF

Other UNHCR Educational Empowerment Information

Impact Hope, Give The Gift of Education

You can also support us and our mission of supporting refugees at where we donate one item of clothing to a refugee for every item of clothing sold, which is another thing that helps refugee students be able to go to school.