By the end of 2019, an estimated 79.5 million individuals were forcibly displaced worldwide as a result of persecution, conflict, violence, or human rights violations – the highest number on record according to available data. For the first time in history, one per cent of the world’s population – or 1 in 97 people – were forcibly displaced, representing a staggering increase compared to the numbers at the beginning of the decade (1 in 159 people were estimated to be forcibly displaced in 2010). By the end of 2019, 26 million individuals were refugees, 20.4 million of them under UNHCR’s mandate, and over 45.7 million persons were internally displaced. Around 40 per cent of the 79.5 million forcibly displaced individuals were children below the age of 18.
While refugee enrolment in primary school had steadily increased during the previous years, thanks to the impressive efforts of host governments, donors, as well as UNHCR and its partners, the COVID-19 outbreak caused an unprecedented education crisis, exacerbating the risk that inequalities in education will further increase and that hard-won gains will be reversed. The closure of schools and learning institutions all around the world has disproportionately affected displaced children, including refugees, who had already been at a grave disadvantage before the pandemic – being twice as likely to be out of school as their non-refugee peers. Beyond the devastating effect of school closures, the pandemic has also threatened the ability of refugee families to secure stable livelihood opportunities and to be able to afford the costs associated with education, such as school fees, uniforms, textbooks, transportation to school, mobile data and devices.
While most governments and institutions introduced programmes to support the continuity of learning during school closures, many refugee learners lacked the required connectivity or hardware, or lived too far away from radio broadcast signals, preventing them from accessing distance learning opportunities. The specific needs of children with disabilities were often not adequately accommodated in home-based learning options, while girls faced increased protection risks and domestic responsibilities that reduced their access to learning and hampered their future educational prospects. As a result of the disruption created by the pandemic, the number of out-of-school children (OOSC) may rise in the coming years as many children in forced displacement contexts, especially girls, are likely to drop out of school or to not re-enroll.
UNHCR worked at all stages of the COVID-19 response to address emerging challenges, especially by advocating for the inclusion of refugees in national response plans, by strengthening of distance learning solutions, and by expanding and improving educational infrastructure and WASH facilities in schools in order to reduce class sizes, ensure compliance with physical distancing measures, and enhance hygienic conditions in schools.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the level of uncertainty it introduced at all levels brought significant challenges to the implementation of the UNHCR-EAC Programme in 2020. Country implementation plans, which had to be readapted due to the short 2020 implementation period (12 June – 31 December 2020), also had to be modified in light of the constantly evolving COVID-19 situation on the ground. While some activities had to be cancelled or postponed to 2021, others were prioritised or saw their implementation modality adapted in order to better address evolving needs and account for COVID-19 prevention measures. Despite the very complex implementation context, the UNHCR-EAC Programme has proven instrumental in strengthening the COVID-19 education response across locations in 2020.
Due to the extenuating circumstances mentioned above, only 32,865 OOSC, over 51 per cent of whom were girls, could be newly enrolled in targeted primary schools, representing just 27 per cent of the 2020 annual enrolment target of 121,386 OOSC. No new enrolments of OOSC could be reported in Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan,
Sudan, and Uganda. Despite this, in locations in which schools stayed closed throughout the 2020 implementation period, activities implemented under the UNHCREAC Programme supported the continuity of learning and teaching during the pandemic and prepared for the safe reopening of schools in 2021.
Activities such as the construction and rehabilitation of WASH facilities in schools, the provision of school equipment (including IT and cleaning equipment), the organisation of support classes to help children catch up on missed schooling, the provision of financial support to teachers to ensure the continuity of teaching during the pandemic, as well as the distribution of teaching and learning materials were prioritised and in many cases overachieved their annual targets. While many items such as school uniforms, scholastic materials, textbooks and assistive devices for children with disabilities were procured in 2020, their actual distribution could not always take place due to school closures and thus had to be postponed to 2021. A number of activities had to be adapted to better address the educational needs brought by the pandemic. For example, some teacher trainings were undertaken online; materials provided to students included self-study packs and solar radios; and some awareness-raising activities were carried out through radio broadcasting. Activities such as CashBased Interventions (CBIs), support to over-aged learners through Accelerated Education Programmes (AEPS), trainings for partner personnel, and sensitisation sessions to engage the community often had to be cancelled due to challenges linked to the COVID-19 context. In Chad, Kenya-Kakuma, Rwanda, and Uganda, COVID-19 restrictions affected the UNHCR-EAC Sport for Protection (S4P) Initiative by delaying the start of the Youth Sports Facilitator (YSF) training course and the roll-out of S4P activities in targeted primary schools until 2021.
In addition to the COVID-19 pandemic, other major challenges were faced during the 2020 implementation period. A number of country operations had to cope with new refugee influxes and changing operational contexts that resulted in additional educational needs. Violence and armed conflict continued to take a toll on education systems, especially in Syria and Yemen, while hyperinflation and a currency depreciation affected the implementation of activities in Syria and Sudan. Additional factors that impacted the operational environment included lengthy administrative processes, changes in policies, and limited access to data collected by partners.
Major difficulties to reach OOSC during school closures, especially girls, children with disabilities, and over-aged learners, were faced across locations.