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Sondous, 8, a Syrian refugee who has lived in Zaatari camp, Jordan, her whole life.

The COVID-19 Global Education Recovery tracker (GERT) is a joint effort between the World Bank, UNICEF, and UNHCR to track the operational status of schools over the last two years. The most recent data reflects responses collected from 167 countries and territories. While only a few questions are specific to forcibly displaced and refugee students, the data collected reveals important information on education access for this group as we start to emerge from the throes of the pandemic.

The tracker is an essential tool since data on education access for the forcibly displaced during and after the pandemic is scarce. A wealth of evidence on COVID-19 and education focused first on the impacts of previous pandemics/epidemics (e.g., Ebola) and associated school closures on education outcomes (Bakrania et al., 2020; Memon et al., 2020). The second area of evidence focused on monitoring education continuity during the pandemic (World Bank, UNICEF, OECD & UNESCO, 2020), while a more recent third effort has aimed to understand the impacts of the pandemic on education outcomes, including re-enrolment and learning (Azevedo 2020a; 2020b; Moscoviz & Evans, 2021; Patrinos et al., 2022). Most studies have documented negative impacts on children’s learning, particularly among the most vulnerable (Patrinos et al., 2022). None of the aforementioned literature had any findings specific to the forcibly displaced or to refugees in particular. [1]

GERT reveals that while refugees are allowed access to national education systems in a significant number of countries, access to remote learning opportunities and remedial measures for the forcibly displaced has been less widespread. In 108 out of 167 countries (65%) – refugees and/or displaced persons are enrolled in national education systems, indicating there is a favourable policy environment for refugee inclusion in national education systems. These figures highlight the progress in including refugee learners in national education systems, a strategy featured in UNHCR’s Education Strategy 2030. UNHCR’s Global Compact on Refugees indicator report likewise highlighted that 75% of reporting countries had policy/national legislation explicitly indicating that refugees could access primary education under the same conditions as nationals in 2021 (UNHCR, 2021), indicating generally favourable policy environments. However, learning levels are still a major concern.

In countries where refugees are enrolled in national education systems, in-person education best describes education provision for displaced / refugee learners. The data reflects school status across countries between May 2022- June 2022. The overwhelming majority of countries selected in-person education provision in this period, with 77 out of 107 countries (72%) selecting this modality as a relevant education response for refugees/displaced persons. Only 9% chose hybrid education as a relevant education response for this group, and 2% selected remote education.

Figure 1 compares education provisions for the forcibly displaced / refugees and nationals at the primary and lower secondary levels. A higher share of countries reports the provision of all forms of education for host country nationals at the primary and lower secondary levels in comparison to displaced/refugee learners. For example, while 83% of countries report in-person education provision at the lower-secondary level, 72% of countries report the same for refugees.

Figure 1: School status of countries between May ’22 and June ’22

Source: Authors’ calculation based on data from the COVID-19 Global Education Recovery Tracker

The data indicates that remote education is not widespread, and refugees are only partially included. Only 73 out of 166 countries (44%) reported that remote education is offered at some (or all) grade levels. Out of those 73 countries, in only 35 countries – roughly half – do refugees/displaced learners have access to different teaching modalities, including online platforms, television, radio, mobile phone strategies, take-home packages, and tutoring. The limited provision of remote modalities for learning continuity for the forcibly displaced and refugees, in particular, has been highlighted in forthcoming work by UNHCR focusing on education continuity for the forcibly displaced during COVID-19. Findings reveal a noticeable disparity in the extent to which forcibly displaced children engaged in learning activities during school closures.  These results, which apply to households with children who were enrolled or attended school prior to school closures – range from a low participation rate of only 10% of IDP households in Iraq engaging in some form of learning activities during school closures associated with the pandemic (World Bank et al., 2021); to over 90 per cent engaging in learning activities in contexts like Costa Rica and Mexico (UNHCR, forthcoming).

Widespread school closures caused due to the COVID-19 pandemic have led to unprecedented learning losses and shock to education systems worldwide. Before the pandemic, the learning poverty rate, which can be defined as the share of children who cannot read and comprehend a simple text by age 10, was estimated at 57% for low- and middle-income countries (World Bank, 2018). The recent projections as of 2022 estimate the rate to be as high as 70% and higher still in regions where schools were closed for longer durations, i.e., South Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean (World Bank et al., 2022).

These losses have disproportionately affected children who were already struggling to access inclusive and equitable education (Caarls et al., 2021) and had suffered learning losses due to displacement and conflict (UNICEF, 2022). Displaced learners were already at risk of being marginalized before the pandemic. As discussed earlier, there is a disparity between access to education modalities between refugees and host country learners. Even though schools have reopened for in-person learning in most education systems/countries worldwide, it is essential to explore measures that will help keep students in school and catch up. More importantly, especially for refugees and displaced learners, who constitute some of the most vulnerable learners, we must ensure that these catch-up measures reach students and help bridge learning gaps.

The data reveals that country responses to remedial measures vary based on their implementation scale and the grades benefitting from these measures. An average of 65% of countries that responded are not implementing any remedial measures to support learners. Of the countries that implemented any remedial measure, an average of 13% of countries reported including refugees and displaced learners. The remedial measure most countries were extending to refugees and displaced learners was increased instructional time, followed by student tutoring and coaching (Figure 2). In an already inequitable education landscape, many countries continue to not focus on the refugees and displaced learners, let alone prioritize them to catch up on the pre-pandemic learning gaps. 

Figure 2: Proportion (%) of countries where remedial measures include refugees and displaced learners

Source: Authors’ calculation based on COVID-19 Global Education Recovery Tracker data. The number of countries that selected each measure varies.

While higher enrollment rates for refugees and displaced students may be one way to measure the success of global policies and efforts toward inclusion, the lack of evidence on the impact of the pandemic and school closures over the last two years for this specific population tells another story. Evidence suggests that equity can only be achieved when the response to the crisis includes all the groups and communities and their needs (UNHCR, 2020). Thus, as countries devise strategies to move toward lessening learning loss, it is crucial to include and plan for all learners in the country, with a particular focus on the most vulnerable.

[1] While a separate stream of publications has focused on this population, it has explored the socio-economic impacts of the pandemic, with some of these studies including impacts on education, but not exclusively.