around 3.5 million refugee children did not go to school in 2016
around 3.5 million refugee children did not go to school in 2016

Refugee children are five times more likely to be out of school than non-refugees and the UNHCR warns that children worldwide are being deprived of their most formative years. Shortfalls for funding are part of the problem.

Around half of the 17.2 million refugees under the UNHCR's mandate are under the age of 18. In a recent United Nations report called "Left Behind: Refugee Education in Crisis," Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees says that time is running out for many of these children: Instead of learning and developing, they are being robbed of these important formative years.

"It amounts to an investment in the future, creating and nurturing the scientists, philosophers, architects, poets, teachers, health care workers and public servants who will rebuild and revitalize their countries once peace is established and they are able to return," he says.

But Grandi goes further, arguing that education is vital to host countries as well: "The education of these young refugees is crucial to the peaceful and sustainable development of the places that have welcomed them..."

Current situation

According to the UNHCR, around 3.5 million school-aged refugee children did not attend any school at all in 2016. Refugee children worldwide are five times more likely to be out of school than non-refugees.

With so many missing out on a basic primary education, there are less children who go on to secondary education: 84 percent of the world's adolescents attend high school, compared with 23 percent of the world's adolescent refugees.

This further compounds at a tertiary level, with only one percent of refugees gaining a tertiary education.

It's all about funding

The UNHCR argues that even in countries where some education is provided, an emergency situation should not translate into children receiving "emergency education." This means having adequate infrastructure and materials, with structured learning that includes examinations and certification. To achieve this, "education needs to be woven into planning and funding for refugee emergencies, at national and international levels, and systematically included in national development and education sector planning and budgeting," the refugee agency says.

Broken promises?

In 2015, the Sustainable Development Goals were endorsed by the international community. As Gordon Brown, UN special envoy for Global Education wrote in his article for the World Economic Forum, "The Global Goals were a solemn declaration by the entire international community. They included a promise to every girl and boy that by 2030 they would be guaranteed not just a quality primary education, but a secondary education too."

Brown argues that there needs to be a better international response to funding the educational needs of displaced and refugee communities. With humanitarian aid used to fund the necessities for survival and development aid usually pledged for long-term projects, "education spending is often the first to be diverted and the last to be prioritized when disaster strikes," he says.

"With (refugee) children cheated out of first a home and then an education, 2017 will go down in history as the year when - even as the crisis worldwide worsened - society’s youngest and most vulnerable members were all but forgotten as public attention moved elsewhere," says Brown.

A recent Human Rights Watch (HRW) report on education funding for Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan has drawn similar conclusions. It found that 530,000 Syrian children in these countries are not receiving any education at all.

In early 2016, donors such as the European Union, United Kingdom, Germany, Norway, US and Japan pledged 1.4 billion dollars in funding for educating Syrian children in Syria and neighboring countries. Yet the HRW report found that there has been a 97 million dollar shortfall for funding to Lebanon and a 70.5 million dollar shortfall for funding to Jordan. The report did not mention the current situation in Turkey.

As Gordon Brown points out, "Commitments made at pledging conferences are but words - a reminder of the gap between rhetoric and reality, and a painful truth for millions of children."


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