Migrants children at school, Jordan (Bernd von Jutrczenka/DPA/Reporters)
Migrants children at school, Jordan (Bernd von Jutrczenka/DPA/Reporters)

World Refugee Day: Education unions stand with refugee students and educators

published 18 June 2021 updated 6 December 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a damaging impact on refugee students, teachers and other education personnel. On World Refugee Day, education unions call on governments to guarantee inclusive education and decent living, learning, and working conditions for all migrants.

“Together we heal, learn and shine”

“The shared experience of COVID-19 has showed us that we only succeed if we stand together. We have all had to do our part to keep each other safe and despite the challenges, refugees and displaced people have stepped up. Given the chance, refugees will continue to contribute to a stronger, safer, and more vibrant world. This year, we call for greater inclusion of refugees in health systems, schools, and sport. Only by working together can we recover from the pandemic.”

- UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.

The right to education at every stage

According to the UNHCR’s Education Report 2020 published before the pandemic, Coming Together for Refugee Education, more than 1.8 million refugee children were out of school. That is equivalent to 48 per cent of all refugee children of school age.

The report highlights that the educational options for refugee children dramatically fell away after primary school; less than half of refugee children who started primary school made it to secondary school. Only 31 per cent of refugee children were enrolled at secondary level in 2019 - that was an increase of two points on the previous year, representing tens of thousands more children in school.

At primary level, gross enrolment of refugee children in school stood at 77 per cent, a level that has remained constant since 2019.

Three per cent of refugee youth were enrolled in courses at the level of higher education – including technical and vocational education and training as well as university courses. This has been the same percentage year after year.

For girls, the picture was already particularly stark before COVID-19. Almost all the gains made at secondary level in 2019 were in favour of boys: 36 per cent of refugee boys were enrolled in secondary education, compared to only 27 per cent of girls.

According to the report, while children in every country have struggled with the impact of COVID-19, refugee children have been particularly impacted. UN figures show that 1.6 billion learners across the world, including millions of refugees, have had their education disrupted.

“COVID-19 has demonstrated the importance of global solidarity. Refugee students, teachers and their families should be a priority as we rebuild. With our member organisations around the world, we urge governments to ensure quality and inclusive public education to refugees, to protect refugee educators and students, and to recognise the experience and qualifications of refugee teachers.”

- Education International’s General Secretary David Edwards

Education International: Protect migrants and implement international standards

Education International calls on governments to:

  • Protect and respect the human rights of all refugees, including children, young people, teachers, researchers and education support personnel.
  • Ensure equitable access to public education for all children and youth, including refugees.
  • Implement the UN Global Compact on Refugees and promptly address any delay caused by the pandemic.
  • Carry out equity audits within the education sector to systematically assess the impact of the school and education institution closures on the most vulnerable students, teachers, researchers and education support personnel, including those with a refugee background/status, and urgently address the key equity issues that have been aggravated by the pandemic.
  • Safeguard the dignity and rights of all migrant workers by ratifying and applying the International Labour Organization’s Convention 143 and other relevant international labour standards, as well as including migrant workers and their families, regardless of their migration status, in COVID-19 economic recovery policies and plans.

Education International advocates for inclusive education

The importance of inclusive education was reaffirmed at the 8th Education International World Congress, held in 2019 in Bangkok, Thailand. Delegates endorsed the Resolution on Protecting the Rights of Immigrant and Refugee Children and Young People, which notes that “national governments must protect immigrant and refugee children and young people from detention, separation from their loved ones, child labour, forced recruitment into armed groups, sexual exploitation, child marriage, and violence”.

The resolution underlines that “education is the key to successful inclusion of immigrant and refugee children and young people in society. Educators should be given the means, the autonomy and support required to best respond to the needs of immigrant and refugee children and young people”.

The same congress, via the Resolution on Education for Refugees, outlined how 68.5 million people are forcibly displaced worldwide, of whom 25.4 million are refugees. In addition, 52 per cent of refugees are under the age of 18, with 7.4 million being of school age. It condemned the fact that four million refugee children do not attend school at all.

This resolution urges Education International and its member organisations to continue to work with campaigns and initiatives working to support refugee children and their families in accessing high quality education. And it calls on them to maintain pressure on national governments and on international institutions, with reference to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, to:

  • Prioritise financial assistance for the education of refugees, people displaced by force or natural disasters, and those in need of international protection;
  • Enable refugee teachers and education support staff to continue exercising their occupation in their new country; and
  • Facilitate support/learning for teacher trade unions on how to respond to the impact of the refugee crisis in their countries/education systems and improve their education systems to guarantee the universal right to education without exclusion.

Educations unions proactive around refugees’ rights

Education International and its affiliates have been active on this issue around the world.

Most recently, Education International’s affiliates in the African region called on governments to take strong action for refugees migrants and internally displaced people, for example by putting in place contingency plans at all levels to manage large-scale population movements in times of crisis, ratifying and implementing UN and ILO Migrant Conventions, or ensuring free training and continuous professional development for migrant, refugee, and local teachers in order for them to meet the specific needs of migrating children and youth.

In Lebanon, unions warned the Ministry of Education on several occasions that refugee students and teachers are facing an education crisis aggravated by COVID-19. They highlighted that the Syrian refugee crisis has significantly impacted an already debilitated public education system, shaken in particular by the worst economic crisis in 30 years.