This op ed by Alice Albright, GPE CEO, was originally published in the Financial Times.
Forced to flee their homes in a heartbeat, with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Sleeping under bushes at night, trembling with cold and with fear of being discovered. Walking dusty roads for days on end, until their shoes fell apart and their feet bled. Losing parents and siblings to the horror of war.
During visits to a number of refugee settlements around the world, I have heard these and many other harrowing stories like them from children who have been forced from their homes and into turmoil. No one — let alone a child — should have to live through such trauma. But, even amid the chaos of displacement, there is something that can give these children immediate stability and long-term hope: the opportunity to attend school, learn and build skills for the future.
Yet more than half of the world’s refugee children are being denied this essential right. Nearly 4m refugee children and 17m internally displaced school-aged children worldwide are missing out on the opportunity of a quality education. Refugee children are five times more likely than other children to be out of school. Girls are disproportionately affected. The older children get, the less likely they are to return to school.
This is a crisis we cannot afford to ignore. As the number of people forced to flee their homes due to violence or persecution grows to record levels each year, so does the risk that millions of displaced children will become a lost generation. If they do, social unrest and instability will be likely to rise. Moreover, the world will be deprived of the technological and scientific breakthroughs they might have otherwise produced, their contributions to the local and global economies, the comfort and care they might have brought us as parents, healthcare providers or first responders and much more.
There is no time to waste. More than three-quarters of all refugees (nearly 16m) have been in supposedly temporary exile for five or more years, and almost 6m have been displaced for 20 years. That can be an entire childhood, the relatively short moment when our learning is most optimal.
So it is exasperating and unacceptable that the resources to educate refugee children are almost never sufficient. For many years, less than 3 per cent of humanitarian funds available for refugees have gone to education, much lower than funding for other vital services. That is a formula for continued failure.
The imperative of educating refugee children was especially obvious to me when I recently visited Cox’s Bazar, the port city in south-east Bangladesh where approximately 1m Rohingya have fled since they were forced to flee their homes in Myanmar in 2017. Half are aged under 18.
The government of Bangladesh, the international community (including the Global Partnership for Education, which I lead) and local partners, have mobilised quickly over the past two years to give Rohingya children educational opportunities. Today there are more than 3,000 learning centres operating across the 34 camps in Cox’s Bazar. And yet, 25,000 children there are still not attending any learning programmes, according to UNICEF, and 97 per cent of Rohingya youth between the ages of 15 and 18 are not attending any type of educational facility — which reflects patterns worldwide.
Another challenge is that more than 92 per cent of the world’s school-age refugees are hosted by developing countries, putting enormous strain on already scarce resources for education. When I visited a primary school for Bangladeshi children near Cox’s Bazar, I was shocked to learn that there were only five teachers for a student body of 490.
That is why we must support alternative approaches such as those being implemented in Chad, which hosts more than 450,000 refugees. In the Lake region, where many refugees live, 62 per cent of children are out of school. With support from the GPE and other international partners, Chad is not only integrating refugee children into the public school system, it is also creating a stronger and more sustainable education system for all children there — building more schools, providing school meals and nutrition programmes, and trying to increase the supply of qualified teachers.
For these and other reasons, I am joining advocates this week at the first Global Refugee Forum in Geneva to urge global leaders to accelerate more financing to deliver quality education to refugee children and increase support for the countries and communities that host them. The world must prevent today’s children from becoming tomorrow’s lost generation by substantially stepping up the commitment to educating the ever-growing number of child refugees — and indeed, all the world’s poorest children. We must work together to deliver solutions that are life saving in the immediate run and life sustaining for many generations to come.