Community-based education programs like this one in Kabul, Afghanistan are often the only opportunity for refugee children, especially girls, to receive an adequate education | Copyright: Paula Bronstein for HRW
Community-based education programs like this one in Kabul, Afghanistan are often the only opportunity for refugee children, especially girls, to receive an adequate education | Copyright: Paula Bronstein for HRW

In a new report, the UN refugee agency has highlighted the education crisis among refugee children: Some 3.7 million, or more than half of all refugee minors, don't go to school. Saying a lack of money was the main culprit, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi urged the international community to provide more money and build more schools.

In its fourth annual education report, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) said that less than half of the world's refugee children are getting a sufficient school education. The UNHCR also warned of dire consequences that host countries could face because of their lack of investment in this area.

"We need to invest in refugee education or pay the price of a generation of children condemned to grow up unable to live independently, find work and be full contributors to their communities," said Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees in the report titled 'Stepping Up: Refugee Education in Crisis.'

An estimated 3.7 million children among 7.1 million school-age refugees do not go to school at the present, the Geneva-based UNHCR said in its report, which was timed to be published as children across the northern hemisphere were heading back to classes after their summer holidays.

"School is where refugees are given a second chance," Grandi said. "We are failing refugees by not giving them the opportunity to build the skills and knowledge they need to invest in their futures."

Only 63 percent of refugee children reportedly get to attend primary school, compared to the global rate of 91 percent. The rate drops sharply in high school years, as only 24 percent of refugees get an opportunity to receive a secondary education — far below the global 84 percent.

UNHCR said the steep decline between primary and secondary school education is "the direct result of lack of funding for refugee education."

With this in mind, the UNHCR called on governments around the world, the private sector, educational organizations as well as private donors to fund a new initiative to build more secondary schools, train teachers and cover education costs for refugee families.

Without school or job prospects, "adolescents are more vulnerable to exploitation and more likely to turn to illegal activities out of desperation," the UNHCR report said.

It noted that children from host communities also stand to profit if additional schools are built.

Case study: Greece

In the report, UNHCR highlighted several countries where education for displaced children is inadequate. The Greek islands, for instance, are reportedly struggling to provide adequate schooling for thousands of asylum-seeking children: More than three quarters of the 4,656 school-aged children who lived in reception centers there did not attend school.

"Every child should have real access to formal education as early as possible. More should be done if they are to avoid falling behind," said Philippe Leclerc, UNHCR Representative in Greece.

The reported highlighted condition on the Greek island of Kos in the southeastern Aegean Sea: Around 1,800 asylum seekers currently live at the reception center there under crammed conditions. The center was originally set up for temporary stays accommodating a maximum of just 800 people.

According to the report, accommodation in Kos now extend to include makeshift shelters held together with sticks, and several people there report that the overcrowding and lack of adequate facilities meant the center was not safe. This is a particularly stressful situation for children living there.

Afghan refugee and asylum seeker Samir in the corridors of KEDU an informal school he attends on the Greek island of Kos  Credit UNHCRSocrates BaltagiannisSamir's story 

"The camp is awful," 11-year-old Afghan Samir told UNHCR. Like most other refugee children, Samir and his friends say they want to get back into school as soon as possible and make up lost time "before the gap becomes too large to bridge."

Even though his overall education was disrupted because of the security situation in Afghanistan and his subsequent journey overland to Turkey and then on to Greece by boat, he is now finally back at school. Thanks to KEDU, a non-formal schooling initiative on Kos run by a Greek NGO, he has started to learn Greek.

Around 112 children attend KEDU daily. According to UNHCR, there are no exams, homework or certificates to show the progress as it's an informal school. According to the UNHCR,  however, a certified school that is based on the national curriculum should be accessible for all refugee and asylum-seeking children in Greece. 

"School routine helps restore normality after the trauma many young refugees have," the report said, calling for refugees to be included in national education systems instead of being "corralled into unofficial parallel schools."

Formal curriculum as 'springboard'

To that end, the UNHCR said that refugees needed to be able to follow a "normal, recognized curriculum all the way through pre-primary, primary and secondary school." This would give them the "recognized qualifications that can be their springboard to university or higher vocational training," the report further stipulated.

The UNHCR also criticized the counterproductive approach of schools, universities and education ministries requiring documentation of education. In practice, this leads to refugees being barred from the classroom as they left behind exam and course certificates as well as their ID documents when they fled their homes, the UN refugee agency explained.

"Even when these documents are available, some host countries refuse to recognize certification issued in refugees' country of origin," UNHCR said, urging countries around the world to provide refugees easier access to school without documentation or certification, as having missing documentation was one of the main reasons why refugee children were not in school in the first year. Another major barrier, the UNHCR highlighted, was a lack of funds to attend school.

Few refugees enrolled in higher education 

While 63 percent of refugee children globally manage to attend primary school and 24 percent receive a secondary education, the situation for refugees attending universities is particularly bleak: Only one percent of the refugee population worldwide is enrolled at an institution of higher education. Among non-refugee populations, that number rises to 37 percent.

In its report, the UNHCR urged universities to be more flexible about expecting migrants and refugees to produce education certificates and reports, as many leave such papers behind while fleeing violence or persecution.

Chelia from Kenya one of the refugees students portrayed at the photo exhibition The Other 1 Percent - refugees at institutions for higher education worldwide  Photo UNHCRAntoine TardyGermany, for instance, reportedly continues to present refugee minors with bureaucratic hurdles when it comes to the recognition of diplomas and other official certificates, especially with regard to those seeking to access higher education opportunities. Another obstacle in Germany is the tedious process of assembling all documents required to apply, the study further specified.

On an encouraging note, however, a poll from March 2019 suggested that more refugees than ever are finding out about, and signing up to, German universities. Moreover, officials are beginning to grant recognition to more and more foreign professional degrees, as Germany is trying to fill critical gaps in its skilled workforce. 

Last year, Germany recognized 36,400 professional degrees issued to individuals abroad — 20 percent more than it did in 2017.

With material from dpa


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