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Closing the Refugee Education Gap

Over the past year, the share of young refugees enrolled in school has ticked up, with relatively pronounced improvements at the higher-education level. But unless refugee enrollment at the secondary level rises significantly, the pathway to success will remain blocked for far too many students.

GENEVA – Nowadays, making an investment – whether in shares, bonds, property, gold, lottery tickets, or the latest startup – is quick and easy. But when it comes to investments in people, the dividends are not always as clear, nor is the means by which one can measure the returns.

One might be doubly wary of investing in people who have been uprooted from their homes, stripped of their livelihoods and possessions, possibly separated from their families, and forced to start all over again. But, in fact, refugees are one of the best investments out there. Educating those who have been displaced by conflict and upheaval is not an expense, but a golden opportunity.

For most people in advanced economies, education is how one feeds one’s curiosity, discovers one’s passions, and learns to look after oneself, navigating the worlds of work and civic and social life. For refugees, education performs the same functions, but also does much more. It is the surest road to recovering a sense of purpose and dignity after the trauma of displacement. It also is – or at least should be – a route to economic self-sufficiency. At a time when governments are wasting trillions of dollars on conflict, investing in those who have been forcibly displaced is a no-brainer.

In its latest annual report on refugee education, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) finds that gains in educational enrollment have extended life-changing opportunities to tens of thousands of refugee children, adolescents, and youth. The share of refugees enrolled in primary school has increased from 61% to 63% in the past year, while secondary-school enrollment has risen from 23% to 24%. Most notably, the share of refugees accessing higher education has reached 3%, after being stuck at 1% for the past several years.

Higher education is what turns students into leaders. By harnessing young refugees’ creativity, energy, and idealism, it positions them to become role models, and furnishes them with the means to amplify their voices and enable rapid generational change.

That said, the low level of secondary-school enrollment should trouble us. The proportion of refugees enrolled in secondary education (24%) is more than two-thirds lower than the level for non-refugees globally (84%). This shortfall will have devastating effects. Without the stepping stone of secondary school, the progress made over the past year will be short-lived. Millions of refugee children’s futures will be thrown away.

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Consider the case of Gift, a South Sudanese boy, now living in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who was so determined to go to school that he learned French and engineered his own solar-powered light to study after dark. His hopes of progressing to secondary school are likely to be dashed, because there simply are no such schools in his area.

Likewise, Hina, who excelled in primary school, then discovered that only one of the 500 spots available at a secondary school in Peshawar was available to a refugee like her. And I myself have witnessed similar situations in Bangladesh, where far too many refugee children are unable to attend official schools and follow an accredited curriculum.

As if it weren’t bad enough that refugee children are being denied a route to higher, technical, and vocational education and training, failing to provide secondary education also makes it more likely that they will be pulled into child labor or criminal activities. When girls are in school, they are less likely to be coerced into early marriage and pregnancy.

Unless the international community ensures universal access to an inclusive secondary education, it will fail to meet several of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. In addition to SDG 4 (to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”), global commitments to eradicate poverty, promote decent work, and reduce inequality will also be imperiled.

It is thus imperative that refugee children be included in national education systems, where they can acquire recognized certifications. In the classroom, refugee children and young people can develop their potential in peaceful coexistence with one another and with local children. In a world where conflict seems to come more easily than peace, that is an invaluable lesson.

Investing in refugee education is a collective responsibility with far-reaching collective rewards. That is why governments, businesses, educational institutions, and non-governmental organizations must come together to improve the provision of education at all levels (particularly secondary) and ensure that refugees have the same access as host-country citizens.

The UNCHR’s ambition over the next decade, as outlined in our Refugee Education 2030 strategy, is for refugees to achieve parity with their non-refugee peers in pre-primary, primary, and secondary education, and to boost their enrollment in higher education to 15%. I am therefore proud to announce the formal launch of the Secondary Youth Education Programme ,a new initiative to improve secondary-education opportunities for refugees. Having run pilot programs in Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, and Pakistan since 2017, we now plan to expand the initiative substantially in the coming years.

The focus will be on investment in teachers and schools, and facilitating community schemes to boost enrollment and attract financial support for refugee families. By increasing secondary-level enrollment, we can increase the likelihood that both refugees and their host-community peers will progress to higher studies. If young refugees have confidence that a full education is possible, they will be more motivated to attend school and stay. And because the program is geared toward to refugees and the community alike, all children will benefit from the new opportunities that emerge.

With the UNCHR’s Global Refugee Forum approaching in December, my hope is that governments, the private sector, educational organizations, and donors will come together in support of this initiative. Collaboration and a sense of shared responsibility are at the heart of the Global Compact on Refugees. Through education, young refugees will be more prepared to help build a resilient, sustainable, and peaceful world. There could be no higher return on investment than that.

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