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Starting Out - Why education for refugees matters

Starting Out - Why education for refugees matters

Despite great progress in enrolling more refugee children in primary education, refugees are still lagging behind their peers in their host countries.

Early childhood and primary education form the foundation of the lifelong learning cycle that is at the heart of UNHCR’s Education Strategy.

At the global level, UNHCR estimates that half of the 3.5 million refugee children of primary school-age do not go to school. In collaboration with ministries of education, UNHCR and the Education Above All Foundation work with a vast array of other partners to address this unacceptable situation. The Educate A Child programme aims to increase the quality of, and access to, primary education for out-of-school refugee children and improve retention by supporting innovative approaches to education, infrastructure, teacher training and development, as well as better provision of teaching and learning materials. Since 2012, over 400,000 additional out-of-school children in 12 countries have been enrolled in school thanks to this partnership.

First and foremost, school should be a safe haven. Schools also play an important role in identifying refugee children at risk of abuse, sexual and gender-based violence, and forced recruitment, and they can help connect them with appropriate services.

Only 50 per cent of refugee children attend primary school.

Quality education is the anchor that will keep children in the classroom, encouraging them to continue to the end of primary school and transition to secondary and beyond. For that reason, education has a protective effect only if it is of good quality. Knowing that their children are learning is an incentive for parents to send their children to school and make sure they attend regularly. The key to quality lies in sound and inclusive education policies as well as motivated and well-trained teachers. However, teachers are often in short supply where there is an influx of refugees, even in high income countries.

Despite great progress in enrolling more refugee children in primary education, refugees are still lagging behind their peers in their host countries. In Chad, Kenya, Malaysia and Pakistan, for example, the percentage of refugee children in primary education is about half of that of their host country peers. This does not point to lack of good will or restrictions on access. Reasons for low enrolment rates vary greatly and include, among other factors, low absorption capacity in local schools, the distance a child has to travel to get to the classroom, and a plethora of social, cultural and economic factors according to context.

Where conflict erupts, the effects on countries with effective and established educational systems can be disastrous. The violence in Syria is a case in point: whereas in 2009, 94 per cent of Syrian children attended primary and lower secondary education, by June 2016 only 60 per cent of children did so, leaving 2.1 million children and adolescents without access to education. In neighbouring countries, more than 4.8 million Syrian refugees are registered with UNHCR, among them approximately 35 per cent of school age. In Turkey, only 39 per cent of school-age refugee children and adolescents were enrolled in primary and secondary education, 40 per cent in Lebanon, and 70 per cent in Jordan. This means that nearly 900,000 Syrian school-age refugee children and adolescents are not in school.1

Quality education is the anchor that will keep children in school.

UNESCO research finds that low levels of access to education and high levels of inequality in education in turn heighten the risk of violence and conflict, creating a vicious cycle of lost educational opportunities, conflict and displacement. Observed over 21 years, regions with very low average rates of education had a 50 per cent chance of experiencing conflict.

A place of transformation

A teacher who manages a classroom that includes refugee learners will walk into perhaps the toughest classroom in the world.

Among the class will be children who have seen their homes destroyed and their relatives injured or killed. Some may have disabilities, either from birth or as a result of the violence in their home countries. There may be a former child soldier, a survivor of sexual abuse, someone who made the journey to safety when their brother or sister did not. Their education will have been interrupted for weeks, months or even years. On average, UNHCR estimates that refugees miss out on three to four years of schooling because of forced displacement.

The classroom will probably be crowded, even if the school operates a double shift system, with children from the host country rubbing shoulders with refugees. These arrangements enable more children to attend school but the long hours place an extra burden on teachers and other staff. In some countries, lessons may be held in a language that the refugee children are only beginning to understand.

Yet this classroom can transform children. They can learn reading, writing and mathematics, the foundation of lifelong learning, and they can learn how to learn. This underpins further development in language, literature and maths as well as the sciences, geography, history, religious studies and other subjects as children move into secondary school and beyond. Besides academic subjects, they can learn about basic health care and hygiene, citizenship, human rights and where, how and from whom to get help. From the first lessons through to university, education helps refugees stand on their own feet, allowing them to prepare for the future, whether that is in a host country or in their own country upon their return.

Focus on: The need for inclusion

UNHCR has learned from many years of working with refugee communities that refugees should be included in national education systems and follow national curricula rather than pursue parallel courses of study that cannot be supervised or certified by the host country. National education ministries are, therefore, vital partners in ensuring all children and youth, regardless of their legal status, have the opportunity to study and obtain recognized qualifications. To support such efforts, UNHCR has formalized its collaboration with the Global Partnership for Education to work towards the systematic inclusion of forcibly displaced children and youth in national education sector plans, budgets, programming and monitoring.

In some countries, such as Cameroon, Chad, Islamic Republic of Iran, Lebanon, Rwanda or Uganda, the inclusion of refugees is well established, either in national schools or in camp or community schools that follow the host country’s curriculum and are administered by the relevant education ministry. While most host countries2 do not place any formal legal or administrative barriers to refugees accessing their national education systems, the degree to which refugees are included varies greatly. In some countries, refugees do face various restrictions on their enrolment in national schools and have access only to unregistered schools. Such parallel courses, leading sometimes to exams that are not recognized by any country, mean that subsequent inclusion in national systems at secondary and tertiary level becomes almost impossible. Refugees must be allowed to take accredited examinations and to benefit from teaching that meets established national standards, at all levels of education.

Without sufficient information about the advantages of such inclusion, refugee communities can at first be reluctant to have their children study foreign curricula when this raises the unwelcome prospect of prolonged displacement or seems to weaken ties to their native countries, cultures, religions and identities. But following a new curriculum does not mean forgetting one’s roots, and refugee communities have shown themselves to be adept at maintaining close ties to their own cultures and languages outside the classroom.

Refugee communities have shown themselves to be innovative.

UNHCR’s education policies include extending opportunities to children and youth from the host community as well as to refugees. With the arrival of refugee children, teachers can suddenly face considerably more complex classrooms than they were used to and need support if they are to ensure that the learning environment remains safe, inclusive and fair to everyone.

With the number of refugees growing rapidly all over the world, many countries need support in expanding and strengthening their formal education systems to cope. Where necessary, particularly where children and adolescents have been out of school for several years and find the formal system inaccessible, they should also provide certified accelerated education programmes. These give older students the opportunity to cover the same ground as standard-age learners, but at a faster and more intensive pace with a condensed curriculum. Accelerated education is certified by an accredited institution so that learners can then integrate into mainstream education if they wish (in the right class for their age), transfer to the next level (normally secondary), or switch to technical and vocational courses of study.

The inclusion of refugees in national education systems requires strong partnerships and a significant investment of time and resources to support children and youth to succeed in the new system, with training in the language of instruction where needed. However, it is an investment with rich dividends for the refugees, their host communities and the wider region.

1Enrolment and population figures for Turkey are provided by the Ministry of National Education.
2Sixty-four out of 81 refugee hosting countries analysed by UNHCR do not place formal restrictions on refugees accessing national systems.