From 2018 to 2020, almost a million children were born as refugees. Right from the start, these youngsters face spending their childhoods, even their entire lives, outside the countries they should call home. The impact of COVID-19 on their lives will be profound. UNESCO estimates that since the start of the pandemic, more than 1.6 billion learners have been affected by the closure of their school or university.
For sure, this unprecedented disruption to education affects all children. But for young refugees, who already face significant obstacles to education, it could dash all hopes of getting the schooling they need. At all levels, refugee enrolment is lower than that of non-refugees. As refugee children get older, however, the picture rapidly worsens and those at secondary level are at the greatest risk of being left behind.
Data from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) suggests that 68% of refugee children around the world are enrolled in primary school. By contrast, the gross enrolment for refugees plummets at secondary level, being just 34% on average.
But there are wide regional differences; in some countries, the secondary school enrolment rate for refugees is in the single digits. That is why the focus of UNHCR’s 2021 Education Report is on secondary education. The report highlights the demand, benefits and gaps in the provision and opportunity of quality secondary education.
For refugee adolescents, the pressure to drop out of school and support their families can be intense – this pressure has intensified thanks to the pandemic’s economic devastation. The risk of boys and girls being subjected to child labour, including its more exploitative forms, is acute.
Yet without a secondary education, young people who should be embracing an important phase of growth, development, and opportunity, instead face huge risks. Denying them a secondary education is like removing a large section of the bridge that leads to their futures – the bridge to better financial prospects, greater independence, and improved health outcomes.
It is also the bridge to higher education.
UNHCR has set an ambitious target of 15% for refugee enrolment in higher education by 2030 under our 15by30 campaign. The good news is that the most recent enrolment level for higher education is at 5%, up from 3% year-on-year and 1% only a few years ago.
Effects of Covid-19
That progress, and all other educational advances for refugees, is nevertheless under grave threat due to COVID-19. While it is too early to grasp the full impact of the pandemic, the damage is likely to be terrible. Estimates from UNHCR offices in 37 countries indicate that refugee learners lost an average of 142 days of school up to March 2021 because of closures of schools, universities, and other institutions. This is an enormous deficit to recover.
It’s true that many students and teachers have adapted quickly. Online resources are endless, and over the past few months, we have seen technology and digital learning make rapid advances. Yet inequality is present in the virtual world, too. Digital learning is more achievable if you have an internet connection, a suitable device, the money to afford such things and somewhere quiet to listen and learn.
For thousands of refugee learners who live in unconnected regions, who do not have access to digital devices (or must share them with others), and who live in crowded conditions, such resources are unrealistic.
Confronting this challenge requires a massive, coordinated effort, and it is a task we cannot afford to shirk. For all children and youth, especially the most vulnerable, we need a worldwide “back-to-school” campaign. For refugees, in particular, states must ensure that they are part of national educational systems and planning, including catch-up programmes.
Where resources are stretched – bearing in mind that 27% of refugees are in the world’s least developed countries – host states need international support to build capacity at secondary level: they need more schools, appropriate learning materials, teacher training for specialised subjects, separate facilities for teenage girls, and more.
And we need to close the digital divide with better and more affordable connectivity as well as low-tech or no-tech educational platforms. These are all clear action points that will have demonstrable results.
The pandemic has given many of us a taste of what refugees endure on a daily basis: isolation, restrictions on movement, economic uncertainty, and the sudden denial of basic services. Hundreds of thousands of children are born into this life year after year.
We are losing ground in the effort to ensure full, quality education for all. But with coordinated action, we can make up for lost time and reach our ultimate target, which is to give all children and youth, including refugees, the education they deserve.
This article was originally published in the World Economic Forum.