Benin - a textbook case of education in refugee emergencies

News Stories, 26 July 2005

© UNHCR/J.Leduc
Togolese refugee students between classes at Agame camp, Benin.

LOKOSSA, Benin, July 26 (UNHCR) It was 11:30 am, and a studious silence pervaded the college schoolyard in Lokossa, 100 km west of Cotonou. Some 1,850 students, among them 60 Togolese refugees, were sitting their biology exam, one of many exams towards obtaining the BEPC certificate of studies for the first stage of secondary education.

What seemed like a student exchange programme over three days last week was really the result of coordinated efforts to make sure that Togolese children who recently fled into Benin can continue their education even in exile. The prompt action taken by the Beninese government, various aid agencies and refugee teachers is a textbook example of ensuring access to education in refugee emergencies.

Of the 24,427 Togolese who left their country amid post-election violence in late April and sought safety in neighbouring Benin, some 40 percent are of school-going age. For UNHCR and its partners, the top priority was to salvage the academic year. Thanks to the quick intervention of Benin's government, more than 2,100 Togolese refugee children are now continuing their lessons in camps and one quarter of them will participate in the second session of exams organized in Benin in September to the relief of refugee students and their parents.

This programme could not be realized without help from Togolese refugee teachers in the camps. "We began our teaching activities in the second week of May," said the headmaster of the school in Agame camp near Lokossa. "Given the time constraints, we have focused our activities on previous exam topics. There is a chance that, except for a few details, the curricula are almost the same," he added, noting that he has met with authorities at the primary and secondary schools to discuss these issues.

The teaching programme has also benefited from the support of academic counsellors from Benin's Minister of National Education. Lessons are held in makeshift classrooms in Agame camp, while the counsellors take care of the younger children registered in nursery school.

Life in exile has reaped unexpected gains for some street children who never attended school in Togo now have the chance to study in Benin.

Beyond educational concerns, going to school also helps young refugees pass their time productively in camps while setting a routine to resume some degree of normalcy to their lives. Ideally, the games and sports offered at school should also help them deal with the trauma linked to their flight from Togo. In this context, UNHCR and UNICEF are planning to introduce peace education in Agame and Come camps. Socio-educational activities have been implemented and refugee involvement is encouraged in all camp activities such as teaching, food distribution and medical assistance.

But difficulties remain. "Pupils do not have the same level. They come from different schools and different areas," said a UNICEF manager. "The lack of teachers, particularly for some subjects like German, makes the task even more difficult."

Other problems include a lack of classrooms, teaching material and teachers' qualifications. Holiday courses and retraining teachers are possible ways of ameliorating these problems.

Even then, not every refugee can enjoy his or her fundamental right to education, like Togolese university students who could not join the Beninese education system as they arrived too late to enrol.

© UNHCR/J.Leduc
Togolese children with their school kits in Benin.

At 12:30 pm, the bell rang in the Lokossa college schoolyard, putting an end to the biology exam. The yard was abuzz with discussions as the students waited for the maths exam in the afternoon. Alice, a young Togolese refugee, found the exam accessible. Nearby, another refugee disagreed: "It is complicated because we did not study everything at school," before concluding confidently, "But we have it sorted out."

Meanwhile in Ghana where there are another 15,500 Togolese refugees living with host families, UNHCR is providing support to more than 400 Togolese refugee children who have begun informal schooling in the towns of Obuasi, Kute, Pampayuie, and Peny in the Volta Region, taught by refugee teachers. Initially a local initiative, the informal schools will be receiving notebooks, pens, pencils and blackboards from the refugee agency.

By Julie Leduc
UNHCR Benin