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Stepping up: Refugee education in crisis

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Hina Shikhani, 21, an Afghan refugee, is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in business administration at the University of Peshawar in Pakistan. © UNHCR/Gordon Welters


Refugee education in crisis: More than half of the world’s school-age refugee children do not get an education

Of the 7.1 million refugee children of school age, 3.7 million - more than half - do not go to school, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, says in a report released today.

The report, Stepping Up: Refugee Education in Crisis, shows that as refugee children grow older, the barriers preventing them from accessing education become harder to overcome: only 63 per cent of refugee children go to primary school, compared to 91 per cent globally. Around the world, 84 per cent of adolescents get a secondary education, while only 24 per cent of refugees get the opportunity.

“School is where refugees are given a second chance,” said Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees. “We are failing refugees by not giving them the opportunity to build the skills and knowledge they need to invest in their futures.”

The steep decline in refugee enrolment between primary and secondary school is the direct result of lack of funding for refugee education. As a result, UNHCR is calling on governments, the private sector, educational organizations and donors to give their financial backing to a new initiative aimed at kick-starting secondary education for refugees.

“We need to invest in refugee education or pay the price of a generation of children condemned to grow up unable to live independently, find work and be full contributors to their communities,” said Grandi.

The secondary school initiative will target the construction and refurbishment of schools, teacher training, and giving financial support to refugee families so that they can cover the expenses of sending their children to school.

This year’s report also calls for refugees to be included in national education systems instead of being corralled into unofficial parallel schools, and to be allowed to follow a formal, recognized curriculum all the way through pre-primary, primary and secondary school. This will give them the recognized qualifications that can be their springboard to university or higher vocational training.

At present, even if refugee adolescents overcome the odds and make it through secondary school, only 3 per cent will be lucky enough to get a place in some form of higher education. This pales in comparison to the global figure of 37 per cent.

UNHCR is also calling for a more realistic approach on the part of schools, universities and education ministries towards documentation. Many refugees are barred from the classroom because they left behind exam and course certificates, as well as ID documents, when they fled their homes. Even when these documents are available, some host countries refuse to recognize certification issued in refugees’ country of origin.

The issue of education for the world’s refugee children is urgent. By the end of 2018, there were more than 25.9 million refugees around the world, 20.4 million under UNHCR’s mandate. About half were under the age of 18, and millions were living in protracted situations, with little hope of returning home in the near future.

Rallying support for the secondary education initiative will be a key part of the forthcoming Global Refugee Forum, which takes place in December 2019 and is a critical opportunity to strengthen the world’s collective response to refugee situations.

For technical expertise on education, please contact:

  • Ita Sheehy, UNHCR Head of Education,, +45 20 55 39 61
  • Mamadou Dian Balde, Deputy Director of UNHCR's Division of Resilience and Solutions,, +41 22 739 879
  • Jackie Strecker, Education Officer,, +41 22 739 8903
  • Maren Kroeger, Education Officer,, +45 45 33 63 22

Global media contacts:

  • Farha Bhoyroo, Communications Officer (French),, +41 78 910 8546
  • Shabia Mantoo, Communications Officer,, +41 22 739 7138
  • Sybella Wilkes, Communications Advisor,, +41 22 739 7968

Media contacts elsewhere:

  • In Abu Dhabi, Bathoul Ahmed,, +9672 235111
  • In Amman (regional), Rula Amin,, +962 790 04 58 49
  • In Athens, Boris Cheshirkov,, +30 216 200 078 00
  • In Bangkok, Caroline Gluck,, +66 81 827 028
  • In Beirut, Lisa Abou Khaled,, +961 71 880 070
  • In Berlin, Chris Melzer,, +49 151 706 660 13
  • In Bogota, Rocio Castaneda,, +57 15463666
  • In Brussels, Maeve Patterson,, +41 22 331 5980
  • In Budapest, Zoran Stevanovic,, +36 01 336 3079
  • In Cox’s Bazar, Louise Donovan,, +880 18 4732 7279
  • In Dakar (regional), Romain Desclous,, +221 77 786 396 385
  • In Kinshasa, Fabien Faivre,, +243-825 443 419
  • In London, Matthew Saltmarsh,, +44 7880 230 985
  • In Madrid, Maria Jesus Vega,, +34 670 661 263
  • In Mexico City, Sylvia Garduno,, +52 55 50831720
  • In Nairobi (regional), Dana Hughes,, +254 733 440 536
  • In New York, Joung-ah Ghedini-Williams,, +1 212 963 1764
  • In Panama City (regional), William Spindler,, +507 63827815
  • In Paris, Céline Schmitt,, +33 6 23 16 11 78
  • In Pretoria (regional), Markku Aikomus,, +27 12 762 7488
  • In Rome, Carlotta Sami,, +39 335 679 47 46
  • In Stockholm (regional), Caroline Bach,, +46 709 165 719
  • In Washington, Chris Boian,, +1 202 489 6884

Note to editors

‘Stepping Up: Refugee Education in Crisis’ is the fourth annual education report from UNHCR. The first, ‘Missing Out’, was released in 2016 in advance of the UN General Assembly’s Summit for Refugees and Migrants in September 2016. It called for donors to provide multi-year and predictable funding for refugee education. The second, ‘Left Behind’, was released in 2017. It highlighted the gap in opportunity between refugee children and their non-refugee peers and called for education to be considered fundamental to the response to refugee emergencies. The third, ‘Turn the Tide’, was released in 2018 and highlighted that, by the end of 2017, four million refugee children did not attend school – an increase of half a million of out-of-school refugee children in just one year.

This year’s report includes a preface by Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, as well as final remarks by Gordon Brown, UN Special Envoy for Global Education.