Education for refugees: New research on the experience of three countries

A new report by GPE and UNHCR looks at the contributions of government leadership, partner engagement and financing of refugee education in Bangladesh, Rwanda and Turkey.

January 05, 2021 by Ann Scowcroft, UNCHR, and Anna-Maria Tammi, Global Partnership for Education Secretariat
5 minutes read
Children singing a song at the DAM learning center in Camp 4 in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, in early September 2019. Credit: GPE/Stephan Bachenheimer
Children singing a song at the DAM learning center in Camp 4 in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, in early September 2019.
Credit: GPE/Stephan Bachenheimer

Imagine this: you are no longer safe in your home country because of conflict, violence or persecution. You gather your family and cross the border into a neighboring country that offers you international protection.

Perhaps you saw this coming and had the foresight to gather the documents necessary to prove who you and your family are, and what your achievements and qualifications have been so far. Perhaps you didn’t have the luxury of time. Among the things that you have left behind: your home, your livelihood, extended family and friends, your access to social services including school, your sense of belonging.

In the host country, the government or UNHCR provides you with the “basics”: a place to shelter, access to water and sanitation, emergency health services, food. As soon as you have those, the missing basics become apparent: your children’s education is among these. If you are still pursuing studies yourself, perhaps this includes your education also.

Education as a basic need for refugees

Education cannot be handed out at a distribution center. Education has to be planned, coordinated, budgeted, implemented, monitored and certified for transferability. In crisis contexts, it needs to take into account the social and emotional issues that affect learning for displaced students and their hosts.

In rural communities especially, it needs to take into account that both host and displaced students and teachers might not understand or regularly use languages of instruction like Arabic, English, French or Portuguese. It needs to take into account that missed years of education or no previous access to education require accelerated, remedial or other adapted programming. It needs to notice and address learning needs of disabled students, which are compounded in displacement.

The international community cannot ignore the growing refugee challenge

There is increased recognition that the international community needs to more effectively and strategically support governments to provide education for displaced populations. The 2018 Global Compact on Refugees set an ambitious goal: that governments should be positioned to include refugee children and youth in national education systems within three months of displacement.

There has been a consistent increase in both internal and refugee displacements. Between 2005 and 2010, displacement increased by 109%. Between 2010 and 2019, it increased again by 165% to nearly 80 million people. One percent of the world’s population – or 1 in 97 people – is now forcibly displaced. Refugee displacement is also becoming increasingly protracted, which is defined as 25,000 or more refugees from the same nationality being in exile for at least five consecutive years in a given host country. UNHCR estimates that 15.7 million refugees (77%) were in a protracted situation by the end of 2019.

Most governments do, or are willing to, include refugees in national education systems, and the international community’s commitments in the Global Compact on Refugees has opened the door to innovations in policy, financing and programming that can benefit all learners in refugee hosting regions and neighborhoods.

New research in Bangladesh, Rwanda and Turkey

GPE and UNHCR, building on their collaboration and 2016 Memorandum of Understanding, commissioned research in three countries with three very different refugee education policy and practice profiles: Bangladesh, Rwanda and Turkey. Each has something to contribute to good practices.

The two research objectives were to:

  • document what factors in the early stages of a refugee response seem to determine whether refugees are included into national education systems as opposed to separate systems
  • identify factors for further study that could shed light on essential program and policy actions that lead to greater effectiveness and sustainability of refugee education responses.

This research looks at how government leadership, partner engagement and financing from humanitarian and development sources contribute to inclusion at different stages of a refugee response: prior to an influx of refugees, at the outset of a crisis, and during the response.

The importance of government leadership

The research shows the importance of investing in the national education system itself during the emergency phase, as well as accounting for refugees in sector planning and monitoring.

Across the three countries, respondents to the study highlighted the centrality of having a national policy on the inclusion of refugees in the education system. The findings also underline the advantages of deferring to ministries of education for refugee education planning issues, as opposed to having education as a service placed in the remit of an emergency response ministry.

In Rwanda, for example, respondents noted the success of the whole government approach, whereby the Ministry of Education was engaged to ensure that planning and budgeting of refugee education was in sync with national and district priorities.

Findings in all three countries point out that when ministries of education are not involved, support for refugees is more dependent on short-term strategies and humanitarian funding is not reported against the sector plan.

Collaboration as a critical tool

In the three countries, we have observed that humanitarian and development partners and financing can positively influence inclusion at all stages of a response. Understanding the challenges in the host community as well as the refugee community was found to be critical in order to use the humanitarian response as a way to strengthen the education system for everyone. The research found that it helps when partners leverage long-term and established relationships with government counterparts and have strong working relationships and shared goals among themselves.

The research also highlights the importance of building in inclusion from the outset of the response, even if a separate system of education provision is selected. The consensus from respondents in all three cases was that educational provision for refugees should be designed in a way whereby they could be eventually included in the national system, even if there is no intention to do so immediately.

More research needed

We hope that this study is useful to the education community as a first step to documenting lessons learned on refugee inclusion in three countries. It would be good if the research could be replicated in other contexts, allowing us to build a robust evidence base on the how, why and important variables that influence the inclusion of refugees in national education systems.

We also hope that the report encourages the practice of embedding process research from the start of refugee education responses. Understanding how governments, humanitarian and development partners make decisions about education during emergencies is important because those decisions have medium and long-term impact on education access, quality and equity for refugees and host communities. If we can understand better how governments and partners sequence humanitarian-to-development support, then we can better address the SDG 4 goals of improved education access and quality for all learners, including those affected by displacement.

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Very good analysis and conclusion. Genuine constructive education development responses should be integrated within the existing educational infrastructure.

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