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Refugee education

Too many camps do not have schools

Basic childhood education and adult literacy training are fundamental rights of refugees, but those rights are often violated. Administrators of refugee settlements and international donors should allocate more funds to make the promise of refugee education a reality.
Adult education workshop in Kakuma. QB Adult education workshop in Kakuma.

Education is a basic human right, according to the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child and in the 1951 Refugee Convention. Further, the UN’s 2016 New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants identifies education as a key part of aiding refugees. In addition, Sustainable Development Goal 4 calls for inclusive and quality education for all as well as promoting lifelong learning.

Beyond the legal instruments, policy makers agree unanimously that refugee education at all levels – primary, secondary, tertiary and continuing adult education – benefits both individuals and society. It en­ables displaced people to regain some sense of normalcy, develop citizenship skills, resist radicalisation and acquire the means of eventually integrating into society and earning a living.

Considering all this support for the idea of educating refugees, it seems somewhat surprising that refugee education is severely lacking at all age levels. Often even basic instruction is not offered to refugees – or it is offered only under such dire circumstances that learning is nearly impossible. In almost all instances, education of refugees is under-funded. As a result, a generation of children is being left behind, and millions of adults are denied an essential means of improving their lives.

Data collected by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) tell the story. In a 2020 report titled “Coming together for refugee education”, UNHCR says that of the 19.9 million refugees under its care, 7.4 million are of school age. Of these, 4 million – more than half – are unable to attend school.

Adolescents largely left to themselves

When the figures for non-access to schools are broken down by age group, the data show that the older the child or adolescent, the less likely he or she is to be enrolled in any kind of educational programme. Tertiary (university) education and adult literacy programmes show the lowest percentages of refugee participation. The reduced participation of adolescents and adults is largely due to a lack of funding.

All of this represents an enormous missed opportunity. “School is where refugees are given a second chance,” says Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. “We are failing refugees by not giving them the opportunity to build the skills and knowledge they need to invest in their futures.”

The neglect of refugee education is already having negative effects. Refugee children are falling years behind the literacy levels appropriate for their ages. Adolescents, already frustrated by prolonged stays in camps, are losing hope about their prospects. In some cases the frustration leads to drug abuse, crime, and participation in armed militias. In Kenya, for example, some young refugees based in the Kakuma and Dadaab camps have joined militias to fight in Somalia and South Sudan.

Quality concerns

Primary and secondary schools in refugee camps generally are staffed with teachers who are poorly trained, badly paid and ill-equipped. A lack of discipline typically marks camp schools, resulting in part from teachers’ lack of professional skills and in part from students’ frustration with low-quality instruction. Students come and go at will, even in voluntary adult literacy programmes.

“Adult students turn up for class whenever they have time, and attendance is very inconsistent, making cumulative learning in a group setting very difficult,” says Yasin Mohamed, an adult education tutor who has worked at the Kakuma camp.

Classes for children take place under difficult circumstances. In Uganda, which hosts about 1.4 million refugees in 11 settlements across the country, classes usually involve a teacher standing in front of a group and using a chalkboard to show, for example, how to write. In theory pupils should copy down the information, but most do not have pencils or notebooks. Books are in short supply as well.

Similar challenges arise in the sprawling Bidi Bidi camp in north Uganda. More than 285,000 refugees lice there – mostly women and children who fled the civil war in neighbouring South Sudan. Schools are overcrowded and under-resourced. Most pupils have to walk a long distance to get to school.

Konga Mouch, a teacher in one of Uganda’s refugee camps, says school conditions are among the worst he has seen anywhere. “Children sit on the floor under a makeshift covering and that is our classroom,” he says. “There is also a shortage of toilets.” The lack of toilets causes many girls to drop out as soon as they start to get their periods.

The Lebanese scenario

Overcrowding is a particular problem in schools in Lebanon’s refugee camps. Lebanon hosts an estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees, almost half of them children. Most of those children have never been to school or have been out of school for years. The settlements simply do not have enough schools.

The few Lebanese camps that have schools lack adequate books and other teaching materials. “We try to teach students and tell them about Lebanon without using the usual school materials,” says Suha Tutunji, director of refugee education at Lebanon’s Jusoor camp. “We had to find other methods.” To its credit, the Jusoor camp aims to prepare refugee students to transition into Lebanese schools, but its funding limitations make that goal difficult to achieve.

For camp administrators, the risk is that spending more of the funds they have on education will come at the expense of spending on food, medicine and other necessities. Some camps, however, benefit from innovations in delivering education and training despite their severe funding shortages (see box).


Encouragingly, in some settlements, refugees are stepping up to close educational gaps. In Bangladesh’s sprawling encampments in Cox’s Bazar, for example, some Rohingya refugees from Myanmar have started their own adult literacy programme, using refugee teachers. The programme relies partly on volunteer work and partly on small donations. A separate, more comprehensive schooling programme – involving 400 learning centres to serve the approximately 400,000 school-age children in Cox’s Bazar – is run with contributions from UNICEF and international donors.

Another self-help operation began in Kenya’s Kakuma camp, where refugees, using charitable donations, started adult education centres that have internet-connected computer facilities. Last year UNHCR, which runs the camp, stepped up its support for the project and opened additional cyber cafés. This has helped refugees to gain valuable information-technology skills.

Such initiatives point to a promising development: a focus on supporting skills training and psycho-social development of refugees, rather than trying primarily to meet day-to-day physical needs. Innovations and self-help initiatives are not a substitute for adequate funding for systematic education programmes, of course, but they show a path to a better educational result for millions of refugees.

UNHCR 2020: Coming together for refugee education.

Qaabata Boru is an Ethiopian journalist and former resident of the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. He is the founder and editor-in-chief of Kakuma News Reflector (Kanere), a refugee-led online newspaper.

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