More than half of refugee children worldwide were not enrolled in primary or secondary school last year, says a recent report from the United Nations’ refugee agency, UNHCR.
That means 3.5 million children under UNHCR protection are out of school, says the report, “Left Behind: Refugee Education in Crisis.” The report, released last month, outlines the state of refugee education in 2016 compared with the previous year using data from UNHCR’s education surveys and population database and UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics.
The crisis in education for refugee children is getting worse, not better, the report says. “The gap in opportunity for the 6.4 million school-age refugees under UNHCR’s mandate is growing ever wider,” the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, Filippo Grandi, says in the report.
Today, a refugee child is five times more likely to be out of school than a child from a non-refugee background, the report says.
As the year of schooling goes up, the proportion of refugee children enrolled declines, the report also shows. Sixty-one percent of refugee children attended primary school, while only 23 percent attended secondary school.
That 61 percent of children attending primary school was up from 50 percent the year before. The increase was largely due to efforts by countries bordering Syria to enroll more refugee children in schools and other learning programs, as well as stepped-up enrollment efforts by European countries that have spare capacity, the report says. But the 61 percent contrasts poorly with the 91 percent of children globally attending primary school.
Despite increased investment in scholarship programs for refugees, a mere 1 percent of young refugees of university age are receiving a university education or other postsecondary training, the report says, compared to 36 percent of young people globally.
Pressure continues to build to keep up with the rising tide of refugee children. Half the world’s 17.2 million refugees are now under the age of 18, and the number of school-age refugees has been rising by an average of 600,000 a year for the past six years, the report says.
Girls continue to fall behind boys: Only eight girls for every 10 boys are enrolled in primary school, the report shows. The gap widens as the children age: Only seven out of 10 classroom seats in secondary school are filled by female students.
Low-income countries are under particular pressure in refugee education, as they shoulder 28 percent of the world’s refugees. In these countries, less than half of refugee children had access to primary education, while only 9 percent of teenagers could get a secondary education.
“The number in secondary education is disturbingly low,” the report says.
The UNHCR report notes that 193 countries signed the United Nations’ New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants last year and that world leaders had previously agreed to support the organization’s Sustainable Development Goal 4 on delivering “inclusive and quality education for all and to promote lifelong learning.”
To fulfill these pledges, the report urges signatories to the agreements to undertake several specific actions, including making education an integral part of emergency response to a refugee crisis, and providing sustained and predictable support for the education systems of countries that host refugees. It also calls on countries to include refugee youths in their national-education systems, allowing them to follow accredited curricula and take the exams needed to get entry into the next level of education.
And it urges the international community to ensure that teachers of refugee children and youth are paid adequately and have the necessary materials and expert assistance. These teachers work in “the toughest classrooms in the world,” UNHCR says.
The report has an extensive library of case studies of programs that tackle teaching and learning in these very challenging environments, from refugee camps in neighboring countries where children must learn in a new language, to studying in a war zone.
“Despite the overwhelming support for the New York Declaration and SDG4, refugees remain in real danger of being left behind in terms of their education,” the report warns. “We urge the international community to match their words with action.”