Malian refugee children study at an UNHCR-supported primary school in one of the refugee camps in Burkina Faso (May 2016) | Photo: © UNHCR/Paul Absalon
Malian refugee children study at an UNHCR-supported primary school in one of the refugee camps in Burkina Faso (May 2016) | Photo: © UNHCR/Paul Absalon

COVID-19 presents a serious risk to refugee education worldwide, according to the UN refugee agency UNHCR. It warns that the virus threatens to cause a ‘pandemic of poverty’, which could reverse hard-won progress made in refugee school enrolment.

The coronavirus pandemic could reverse some of the "hard-won increases" in education enrolment of refugees that have been made over the past few years, the UNHCR says. In some cases, these set-backs could be permanent.

In a report titled “Coming Together for Refugee Education” the refugee agency notes that half of all refugee children worldwide are out of school. Already disadvantaged before the pandemic, these vulnerable groups will be further sidelined after lockdowns end, the report warns.

School closures are affecting billions of children across the globe -- UN estimates put the figure at approximately 1.6 billion learners worldwide, including millions of refugees, who have had their education disrupted.

But the long-term effects will be even more dire for refugee children, the UN warns. It says the COVID-19 pandemic will hit the most vulnerable communities hardest, threatening to cause a “pandemic of poverty” which will impact generations to come.

Before the pandemic, a refugee child was twice as likely to be out of school as a non-refugee child and this is set to worsen. Many may not have the chance to resume their education due to school closures or because they are being required to work to support their families, according to UNHCR.

Refugee families on low incomes and in precarious livelihoods will be less able to afford fees, uniforms, textbooks, travel, mobile data and digital devices, on top of food and shelter, the report adds.

Girls particularly at risk

Girls will be more affected by the negative implications of the pandemic than boys, the UN predicts. The Malala Fund (organization working to strengthen girls' education) estimates that half of all refugee girls in school will not return when classrooms reopen in autumn.

"I am especially concerned with the impact on refugee girls. Not only is education a human right, but the protection and economic benefits to refugee girls, their families, and their communities of education are clear. The international community simply cannot afford to fail to provide them with the opportunities that come through education,” says Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

UNHCR states that in countries where refugee girls’ secondary enrolment was already less than 10%, all girls are at risk of "dropping out for good."

UNHCR says that without greater support, one of the global development goals set by the UN -- to ensure education for all -- will be in serious jeopardy and generations of refugee children will be deprived of an education. 

In the report the UNHCR calls on governments, the private sector, civil society and other key stakeholders to join forces and find solutions for strengthening education systems and securing funding for education. 

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