Left Behind: Refugee Education in Crisis

By | November 28, 2017

This report draws attention to the urgency of refugee education around the world by providing the number of refugee children worldwide in schools comparing it to the global percentage of schooling across levels.  Of the 17.2 million refugees under UNHCR’s mandate, half of them are reported to be under the age of 18 which refers to the compulsory school period.  Among 6.4 million school-age children, only 2.9 million are enrolled in primary or secondary education. More than half of them – 3.5 million- did not go to school.
The following table was produced to demonstrate the variance across education levels globally as well as comparing the access of refuge children in general with the ones in low-income countries.

Enrollment Rates

Global Rates Refugees Globally Refugees in Low-income Countries
Primary Education 91% 61% 51%
Secondary Education 84% 23% 9%
Tertiary Education 36% 1%

(Based on UNHCR data)


  • Education is an integral part of the emergency response to refugee crisis because it provides a protective and stable environment in times of chaos, equips with life-saving skills, and protects students from forced recruitment into armed groups, child labor, sexual exploitation and child marriages.
  • Related to empowerment through education, it is reported that spending an extra year in school in Uganda increases the income by 3%.
  • By suggesting strongly to integrate refugees into national education systems which enables them to take exams leading to the next phase of their schooling, UNHCR underlines that parallel systems are poor substitutes and even counter-productive that stops pupils from proceeding.
  • In a setting lacking fundamental facilities with full of hopeless children, teachers are the only sources who can cultivate hope and make a difference. As the most integral part of refugee educations, teachers should be provided with suitable pay, the right materials in sufficient quantities, and expert assistance.
  • Bridging programmes which include intensive language learning have proven highly effective as vehicles of inclusion.
  • Enrolment levels for refugees drop sharply as they move from primary to secondary education due to the fact that secondary schools simply do not exist, are too costly or are too difficult or dangerous to reach.
  • To help refugees bridge the gap of many years of schooling, more flexible forms of education are needed such as:
    • Accelerated learning: It comprises condensed curriculum so that students can complete it in half of the number of years normally required for that level. Then, students take accredited exams to be integrated into mainstream education, transfer to the next level or move on to skills-based technical and vocational education.
    • Catch-up and bridging programmes: They either help students learn content they missed or give them the knowledge and skills they need to adapt to a different system.
  • As concrete efforts to support refugee children, the followings are exemplified:
    • DAFI scholarships: This UNHCR higher education programme is supported by Germany to undertake tertiary education in 37 host countries. In 2016, more than 4,300 refugees received DAFI scholarships
    • In Zone: It is an initiative which was first established in Kenya’s Kakuma refugee camp in 2010. It provides distance education which fosters regular engagement between tutors and students whether online, face-to-face or via social media. This programme aims to keep students engaged and on track. In 2016, it was implemented in Azraq with Princeton history course. These days, Purdue university is delivering an engineering course.
    • Connected learning programmes: UNHCR offers refugees connected learning programmes with accredited courses through partnerships with academic institutions, using a mix of onsite and online interactions with instructors, tutors and their peers. It is reported that connected learning has been particularly successful in remote places where resources are low and it is hard for refugees to physically attend university.
    • Massive open online courses: MOOCs are sometimes perceived as an acceptable substitute for refugees, yet they have extremely high dropout rates. Unlike connected learning programmes, they lack personal and onsite support. Learners find the material short on relevance or are put off by the impersonal nature of sitting in front of a computer and watching a video lecture.
    • Homework support groups: They were introduced by UNHCR and its partner organizations to help refugee students keep up in school and encouraging them to attend regularly. More than 2,500 children were involved in homework support programmes in Lebanon in the 2016-17 academic year.
    • Teachers for Teachers: It is a training and mentoring programme started by Columbia University. It has been implemented in Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya by giving teachers support and engagement from both international and local coaches to overcome the many challenges they face. Trainings begin face to face and go on with distance support from global mentors comprising of volunteers from around the world with teaching experience. They provide regular, real-time support via mobile apps such as Whatsapp.

UNHCR (2017). Left behind: Refugee education in crisis. Retrieved from http://www.unhcr.org/left-behind/.

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