Syrian refugee kids play on a rubble of dismantled concrete huts at a makeshift Syrian refugee camp in the Lebanese border town of Arsal, Lebanon. Photo by: REUTERS / Mohamed Azakir

Four years ago, all 193 world leaders committed to lifting the world’s poorest out of poverty by 2030. At the United Nations General Assembly this week, they will gather again to measure progress towards this commitment and chart a path for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals in the next decade. We already know that the goals are off track, but exactly how far remains a mystery, because the world’s 25.9 million refugees are missing from the agenda entirely.

Last year, the International Rescue Committee and Overseas Development Institute sounded the alarm about how far fragile states are falling behind. The numbers are staggering: Four out of five fragile and conflict-affected states are off track to meet the SDGs. By 2030, 84.5 million more people — some 412 million — will be malnourished. One hundred and six million people will live in slums. But this gloomy assessment does not even paint the full picture of how far we have to go to achieve the goals.

The progress that has been measured so far is missing millions of people — namely refugees. In a new report, we at IRC sought to better understand how refugees are faring in the 2030 Agenda. We wanted to know: How do refugees measure up and what do the data gaps on refugee well-being look like?

We know that refugees are often worse off than their peers. Refugee children are five times more likely to be out of school than their non-refugee peers, and just 23% of refugee adolescents attend secondary school compared with 84% globally.  Earning an income and providing for a family is harder for refugees who face restrictions on their rights to move and to work. This problem is even more acute for women who face gender discrimination, often have fewer job options and get paid less.

Behind these global headlines, data on refugee well-being is sparse. While some refugee populations are subjected to endless assessments and research studies — hello, Kakuma and Zaatari — even in these contexts, the data collected is rarely comparable to the standard household survey data collected by the national statistical agencies, the World Bank and others to measure progress towards the SDGs. The World Food Programme may know how many refugees are living below the minimum expenditure basket and use this as a proxy poverty measure, but try translating that to the more universal poverty line, and SDG indicator, of $1.25 per day.

Despite major data gaps, IRC has put together studies in Lebanon and Ethiopia to paint a picture of how refugees are faring. The picture is quite bleak. In Lebanon, nearly 70% of Syrian refugees live below the national poverty line, compared to 26% of their Lebanese peers. In Ethiopia, just 6% of Eritrean children have reached reading fluency by grade 4, compared to 15% of Ethiopian children.  

These statistics though will not be found in any official SDG reports. Of 42 countries that submitted 2019 voluntary national reviews — a self-report of national progress toward the goals — just 13 mentioned refugees at all and not one included data on refugee well-being.

Refugees are not just absent in the data and reporting. They are missing from the goals, targets, and indicators — the foundations of the SDGs. Why does it matter? Because target setting works.

Our same analysis found that in Ethiopia, where the government set a target in September 2016 of enrolling 75% of refugee children in primary education, primary education enrollment for refugees jumped from 54% to 72% — in just one year.

Achieving the SDGs for refugees will be no easy task — they are harder to reach and they face what can sometimes seem like insurmountable barriers — but getting the infrastructure right so that they are part of the process and progress is achievable.

There are three core areas where countries, donors, and humanitarian and development partners can take action right now to include and drive progress for refugees.

First, make refugees count. Donors and humanitarian agencies should align their indicators with the SDGs, with help from the UNHCR-World Bank Joint Data Center. Donors should also support national statistical offices to include refugees in household surveys.

Second, include refugees in the plan. Governments should pledge at the Global Refugee Forum to include refugees in their plans to achieve the SDGs and in their voluntary national reviews.

Third, invest in ways to accelerate progress for refugees. Host governments should adopt policies that allow refugees to work, go to school, and move freely. Donors and multilateral banks should support this through economic and other incentives and support. Humanitarian donors should invest in evidence generation and scaling approaches that we know work and will improve outcomes for refugees.

We are at an inflection point. If world leaders in New York this week fail to include refugees in the SDG action plan for the next 10 years, they will fail to make good on their pledge to leave no one behind. At risk is the well-being of millions of people, but also the credibility of the international community.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Sarah Charles

    Sarah Charles is a senior director for policy and advocacy at the International Rescue Committee and a former national security council director of strategic planning, and director of humanitarian affairs.