International community unites to bolster education opportunities for refugees
At UN General Assembly, country leaders and humanitarian organizations join efforts to make education a priority in the refugee crisis response.
NEW YORK – When she had to leave Rwanda in 2001 with her family and became a refugee in Malawi, six-year-old Amelie Fabian was determined not to miss out school. In Malawi she had to beg her parents to allow her to attend class. She was bullied by peers and teachers for being a foreigner. She had to switch schools several times. “I never even for a second considered dropping out,” she said.
Amelie's excellent grades allowed her to become one of the 80 refugee students who every year are granted access to university studies in Canada through its Student Sponsorship Program (SRP). After graduating from McGill University in Montreal, Amelie recently started working as an accountant at the consulting firm Deloitte.
“I long for the day when my story ceases to be the exception and becomes the norm,” she said. “The international community must strive harder to provide refugee children, especially refugee girls, with the education they deserve.”
“As refugees, education equips us with the power to determine our own fate.”
Amelie shared her inspirational story in front of a room filled with humanitarians, international policy makers and country leaders at UNICEF House during the UN General Assembly in New York. The Action for Refugee Education meeting aimed to catalyse support to ensure that refugee children’s right to education is fulfilled.
Today, over four million refugee children are out of school. This is an increase of half a million children from 2016. Only 61 per cent of refugee children attend primary school – compared with a global average of 92 per cent. As refugee children age, the obstacles to education increase. Just 23 per cent of refugee children are enrolled in secondary school and only one per cent of them attend university.
UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi highlighted Fabian’s story as an example of how education can “bring you out of a very difficult situation.”
“She is unique in her skills, her intelligence, her eloquence, but she should not be unique in the opportunities she is given,” Grandi added.
In her address to the leaders in the room, Amelie stressed that education is essential for the future of refugee girls, who might be at risk of marrying too young if they lack other opportunities.
“As refugees, education equips us with the power to determine our own fate,” she added.
“Education taught me I have a voice.”
Education “holds the key for a better life for children and young people,” said UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore. She noted that many collective benefits come from better education for all, like enhancing economic growth and reducing the likelihood of conflict.
The international leaders in the room agreed on the importance of integrating refugee children into national school systems, ensuring that both local and displaced communities can benefit from further development.
Countries in developing regions host 92 per cent of the world’s school-age refugees. Many struggle with education infrastructure and need more sustained financial support from the international community.
The Global Compact on Refugees, to be endorsed by the UN General Assembly at the end of 2018, would mobilize more direct financial support in the hosting communities to meet the specific education needs of refugees.
Beyond supplying school books and teachers, Save the Children CEO Helle Thorning-Schimdt said it is also essential to invest in psychosocial support for refugee children. “A traumatized child will have a hard time learning,” she said. “We need to focus on those children.”
“When they receive proper education, refugees become leaders.”
Foni Joyce Vuni is a South Sudanese refugee living in Kenya, as well as the co-chair of UNHCR’s Global Youth Advisory Council. She has conducted consultation with over a thousand young refugees and their needs, for whom more formal and informal education opportunities are paramount.
“When they receive proper education, refugees become leaders,” she said.
Foni recently joined a delegation of refugees who participated in the South Sudan peace negotiations – something she could never have achieved without education, she said.
“Education taught me I have a voice,” Foni said.
International leaders expressed their commitment to strengthening collective responses to ensure that all refugee children have access to quality education.
“It is the challenge of our generation, facing this refugee crisis,” said Gordon Brown, UN Special Envoy for Global Education and chair of the Education Cannot Wait fund. “We can win it, by acting together.”