Refugees Have a Right to an Education Too

Human Rights belong to everyone, so let’s not leave anyone behind

The annual campaign to bring greater awareness to gender-based violence takes place between the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women on November 25th and Human Rights Day on December 10th. This is, clearly, not mere symbolism. The right to freedom from violence and the right to equality are tied up together, along with the right to education.

This year, the 16 days of activism follows an outpouring of awareness of harassment as prominent men in entertainment and media are outed, and as the #MeToo campaign shows how uninvited sexual advances affect women across the spectrum of privilege.

And what about the world’s most vulnerable people?

This year’s theme of #LeaveNoOneBehind reflects the fact that women around the world are affected by the blight of gender violence. And women and girls in a conflict zone, or fleeing one, are among the most vulnerable. Looking for safety, they flee to refugee camps, but women don’t always find the protection they need. Refugees, who have been torn from their communities by war and conflict, can become even more vulnerable to sexual and other forms of violence.

But women and girls are not alone. A new report from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) reveals that men and boys are also subjected to this dehumanizing behaviour.

Source: UNHCR. Thirteen-year-old South Sudanese refugee John Luis, from Juba, South Sudan.

Protection is a priority for humanitarian organizations, and one of the main solutions is education.

Schools can create safe places for children, especially girls. Schools also provide routine, psychosocial support and the benefits that stem from learning.

The experts say that:

“If they receive safe education of good quality during and after an emergency, children and youth are less exposed to activities that put them at risk. They also acquire knowledge and mental resources that increase their resilience and help them to protect themselves.”  UNHCR


The most common protection risks associated with non-participation in education are:

  • Loss of peer-support and resilience.
  • Loss of meaningful activity and engagement.
  • Sexual and gender based violence (SGBV).
  • Child labour, including transactional sex.
  • Early marriage and pregnancy.
  • Economic exploitation.
  • Forced recruitment into armed groups.
  • Perpetuation of poverty.

source: UNHCR Emergency Handbook


The list of possible outcomes for children exposed to conflict run the gamut of the worst forms of human depredations that are out there.

So, education must be a part of all emergency response operations. It is a basic need. It is a human right. Education is one of the most important pillars necessary to keep children safe.

Humanitarian workers coordinate with UNICEF and others in the development sector to build lasting education programs for refugees in host communities. It can be complicated because so many children have missed school – sometimes for years ­– and remedial or accelerated lessons are needed before children can be integrated into age-appropriate classes.

“Evidence indicates that the best strategy is to provide refugees access to host country schooling delivered by qualified teachers. This provides full-cycle access to education and the protection benefits of such access.” UNHCR

The issue of what curriculum to use can complicate matters further. Usually schooling for refugees is offered in the language, and based on the course structure, of the host country. This can make it harder for refugee children and youth to catch up, but it is necessary if they are to attain any accreditation for their efforts – a crucial factor for adolescents to qualify for national exams and to continue on to secondary school and beyond.

This accreditation, a piece of paper signifying recognition of achievement and the completion of one level of schooling, is so important. Melissa Fleming, Head of Communications for UNHCR, recounts the story of Hani, who, in fleeing his home in Homs, Syria, grabbed his most important possession: his high school diploma.

Hani, a refugee, poet, and student, wrote:

I miss myself, my friends, times of reading novels
or writing poems, birds and tea in the morning.

My room, my books, myself,
and everything that was making me smile.

Oh, oh, I had so many dreams
that were about to be realized…

After four years in a refugee camp in Lebanon, Hani’s family is now settled in Regina, and he is attending Ryerson University in Toronto.

Education can give children and youth hope for the future and is vital to ensuring their safety.

International organizations and NGOs are working on different options to keep learning on the agenda, to make it more accessible and to use it to address a host of other issues, such as finding young people a place to create a community, providing literacy programs for parents, and engaging teachers in curriculum training and pedagogy.

Finding the right way to do this takes lots of research as educators strive to establish the best evidence-based practices. New technologies are becoming an important tool to deliver quality academic materials. Our Mobile Learning Lab is one option, as it can run programs offline and without electricity.

The difficulties of getting children into the classroom, however, remain quite high, and refugee children are out of school at much higher rates with just 61% in school compared to 91% of primary-aged children, globally. At the secondary level just 23% of refugee youth are in school, a significant delta from the worldwide enrollment rate of 84%.

This is because the funding for education in emergencies is just not sufficient – despite a significant push up in 2015 and 2016. Educational initiatives account for just 2.7% of all humanitarian aid, far below the 4% target. To ensure that all children, especially the most vulnerable, can go to school and get the protection and quality education they need, the world must step up to make sure that there is enough money to provide the facilities, learning materials and teacher training to make it happen.

Their future depends on it.

So, as the 16 days of activism against gender-based violence comes to an end, please consider what YOU can do to continue the discussion and to turn #MeToo into #NoOne.

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