Why education stole the show at the Global Refugee Forum

A scene from the Inclusion of Refugees in National Education Systems session at the Global Refugee Forum in Geneva. Photo by: © UNHCR / Antoine Tardy

GENEVA — How to finance and deliver education for refugees has taken center stage at this week’s Global Refugee Forum in Geneva as many organizations pledge to do more.

The three-day global gathering is aimed at transforming the way the world responds to refugee situations. It set out with six focus areas, but one of those took the spotlight.

“Give access to formal education to the refugee people. Then they can be part of your society, they will be self-reliant … Without it, they will become a burden.”

— Nijam Uddin, general secretary, British Rohingya Community

“The education area of focus at the Global Refugee Forum has secured unprecedented support with 64 official co-sponsors, including 13 states,” said Joseph Nhan-O’Reilly, head of education policy and advocacy at Save the Children.

He says he hopes that the pledges made to improve refugees’ access to learning — amounting to at least $350 million — will form the basis of a global action plan on refugee education.

“Currently, many migrants in poorer countries end up in slums with limited access to a free education. In richer countries they are often segregated into schools in disadvantaged neighbourhoods,” said Manos Antoninis, director of the Global Education Monitoring Report at UNESCO, in a statement.

Only around 2% of humanitarian aid is spent on education. Sherrie Westin, Sesame Workshop’s president of social impact and philanthropy, said that this is in part because humanitarian response was originally meant to be immediate and short-term, so funding is often directed toward shelter and food. But today, the average displacement time is between 10 and 26 years.

Many children are now born in refugee camps, Westin said. “And if you’re not investing in education, how you can possibly give these children the skills they need to survive and thrive, much less rebuild their societies?” she added.

There are almost 30 million refugees worldwide, over half of whom are children. Between 6% and 14% of displaced women of reproductive age could be pregnant at any given time.

Nijam Uddin, a Rohingya refugee and general secretary of the British Rohingya Community, studied in school for 18 years in a refugee camp in Bangladesh. But even after 10 years of living in the United Kingdom, he has faced challenges in gaining employment. “Nobody recognizes my education because it is a nonformal education,” he said. His message to host countries? “Give access to formal education to the refugee people. Then they can be part of your society, they will be self-reliant … Without it, they will become a burden.”

The Geneva forum is intended as a follow-up to the United NationsGlobal Compact on Refugees, which was agreed to last year and states that every refugee learner should have access to quality education. To deliver on that commitment, the Global Framework for Refugee Education identifies a need for increased funding, stronger programming, teacher training, better data and coordination, and the engagement of refugees and host communities.

Putting this into practice, the World Bank, Global Partnership for Education, and Education Cannot Wait announced a joint pledge of improved collaboration, coordination, and financing of global efforts, promising to publish a plan in mid-2020 on how this will be operationalized.

“If you compare education funding to other sectors in the development space, it is significantly underfunded,” said Alice Albright, chief executive officer of GPE, adding that host countries should not have to choose between directing money toward refugee children and host country children. “The international community has to put the funding together to give countries the tools they need to bring refugees into their school systems without having it be an agonizing system that takes money away from their own children,” she said.

With that in mind, GPE — a global fund dedicated to education in lower-income countries — announced the expansion of its accelerated funding mechanism to unlock $250 million in rapid funding for education to be used next year in countries experiencing humanitarian emergencies. Previously, each of the 68 GPE partner countries with an ongoing humanitarian appeal could apply for an advance of up to 20% of their maximum country allocation. Now, they can receive an additional 20%.

Education Cannot Wait — a global fund focused on education in emergencies and protracted crises — also received a €16 million ($17.8 million) cash injection from Germany and a further €5 million from the European Union.

The Global Education Cluster, the Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies, and UNHCR pledged to strengthen the quality of education sector coordination in emergencies and minimize the time that refugee children and youth spend out of school by working together to generate and share knowledge. They’ll also conduct joint training and technical support.

And UNESCO pledged to strengthen national education systems by providing member states with expertise and technical guidance for policy design, implementation, and support for the inclusion of refugees. It will also conduct more research, pilot the new UNESCO Qualifications Passport to help refugees’ education gain recognition in other countries, and convene an international conference on education management information systems in crisis settings.

The Lego Foundation also pledged a $100 million grant toward play-based learning initiatives in Ethiopia and Uganda while Ingka Group, Inter Ikea Group, and the Ikea Foundation will support access to job training and language skills initiatives for 2,500 refugees across 300 countries by 2020.

“It’s brilliant to see the level of energy and interest around education. It feels like the international community is finally listening,” Nhan-O’Reilly said. “It’s also a reflection of the growing recognition of the importance of education to peace, prosperity, and cohesion, both in the places from which refugees flee and where they seek protection.”

However, Albright said there’s still a lot of heavy lifting to be done in turning ambitions into reality and that such commitments cannot be viewed as a one-off.

Other recommendations that emerged at the conference for ensuring refugee access to education include recognizing the role cities play in creating inclusive learning environments and having an inclusive approach to curriculums and instructional methods so that girls and children with disabilities aren’t left behind.

The pledges “won’t fill all the gaps or meet all the needs that exist,” Nhan-O’Reilly said. “But [they] are a good start from which to continue to grow the practical action needed to support refugee hosting states [to] provide both their citizens and the refugees they’ve welcomed with the opportunity to learn.”

About the author

  • Rebecca Root

    Rebecca Root is a Reporter and Editorial Associate at Devex producing news stories, video, and podcasts as well as partnership content. She has a background in finance, travel, and global development journalism and has written for a variety of publications while living and working in New York, London, and Barcelona.