GENEVA – More than half of the world’s 14.8 million school-aged refugee children are currently missing out on formal education, risking their future prosperity and the attainment of global development goals, according to a new report published by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.
The 2023 UNHCR Refugee Education Report draws on data from over 70 refugee-hosting countries to provide the clearest picture yet of the state of education among refugees globally. It reveals that by the end of 2022, the number of school-aged refugees jumped nearly 50 per cent from 10 million a year earlier, driven mostly by the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. An estimated 51 per cent – more than 7 million children – are not enrolled in school.
Refugee enrolment in education varies dramatically by education level in reporting countries, with 38 per cent enrolled in pre-primary level, 65 per cent in primary, 41 per cent in secondary, and just 6 per cent in tertiary. In all but the lowest-income states, the difference between enrolment rates among refugees and non-refugees is stark, with far fewer refugees attending school, showing how lack of access stimies opportunity.
“The higher up the educational ladder you go, the steeper the drop-off in numbers, because opportunities to study at secondary and tertiary level are limited,” Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, writes in his foreword to the report.
“Unless their access to education is given a major boost they will be left behind. This will not help meet other goals for employment, health, equality, poverty eradication and more.”
With 20 per cent of refugees living in the world’s 46 least-developed countries and more than three-quarters living in low- and middle-income countries, the costs of educating forcibly displaced children fall disproportionately on the poorest.
“We need fully inclusive education systems that give refugees the same access and rights as host-country learners,” Grandi added. “Where refugee-hosting countries have implemented such policies, they need predictable, multi-year support from global and regional financial institutions, high-income states, and the private sector. We cannot expect overstretched countries with scarce resources to take the task on by themselves.”
This year’s report, titled ‘Unlocking Potential: The Right to Education and Opportunity’, not only reveals the scale of the challenge of refugee education but also the extent of the potential of school-aged refugees when their access to education is secured.
The report highlights examples of refugee learners from Afghanistan, Iraq and South Sudan, who have overcome obstacles, seized opportunities and excelled. It also takes a deep dive into the educational situation for school-aged refugees in the Americas and from Ukraine. And it proposes important steps that donors, civil society, other partners, and refugee-hosting States can take together to support refugee education.
Among the positive global developments identified include near gender parity among refugee learners on average when it comes to access to education in reporting countries (63 per cent for males and 61 per cent for females at the primary level, and 36 per cent for males and 35 per cent for females at secondary), although data for individual countries reveals that some still have significant gender gaps. There is also evidence from national examinations that refugee learners excel when given access to quality education.
If refugees are left behind, the UN Sustainable Development Goal of ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education for all will not be achieved, but when school-aged refugees are given access to education, they can thrive, with benefits for individuals, host states, and home countries.
As Monicah Malith, a South Sudanese refugee studying law at the University of Nairobi in Kenya, says in the report: “By empowering us through education we can break the cycle of hardship and provide a path towards a brighter future.”
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