Preventing a lost generation: Refugee children must learn

Thursday 19 May 2016

By Helle Thorning-Schmidt, CEO of Save the Children International

Earlier this year, I visited Za’atari refugee camp, unofficially Jordan’s fourth largest city and home to more than 80,000 people forced to flee the ongoing war in Syria. Aside from the sheer size of the camp, what struck me most vividly was meeting a group at one of our drop-in centres for child labourers.

As each of the children shared their stories, a theme quickly emerged – more than anything, they wanted to be in school. For these children, education represented hope for a different future. A future where they would be normal children. A future where they would attend school and learn, see friends and safely play in a playground or on the football pitch.

The children explained to me that if they were in school, they wouldn’t be forced to leave the camp in search of work. They wouldn’t be subject to daily economic exploitation and to verbal, and physical, abuse and harassment.

Their stories are not unique. Half of the world’s 19 million refugees are children, and millions of these children are being denied an education because they’re refugees.

The numbers speak for themselves. Globally, more than 3.5 million refugee children are out-of-school. Only half of primary school age refugee children are enrolled in school, and at the secondary school level, that falls to less than 1 in 4 refugee youth. With most refugee children stuck, rather than one the move – the average spell of time as a refugee is now 17 years –many refugee children are missing out on all of their education.

Many of the world’s refugees have fled across borders to other developing countries whose own education systems are overstretched. In some cases, host countries are reluctant to acknowledge the challenge of educating refugee children and don’t want to make conditions for refugees too permanent. In many cases, the humanitarian system – based on a short-term funding cycle – does a poor job of raising the long-term finance needed to see children through their schooling. The upshot is that refugee children are five times less likely to attend school than other children in the countries to which they’ve been displaced.

The world urgently needs a new deal for refugee children – a deal which guarantees an education. This is why at the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul, Turkey, next week, Save the Children is calling for a commitment to ensure that no refugee child is out of school for more than one month.

Investing in refugee education is not only the right thing to do, but it’s also the smart thing. Education sets children up for success. It provides refugee children with hope for the future in the places they are currently living, and means they are less likely to undertake risky journeys. An education also ensures refugee children are better protected from early marriage, child labour and exploitation.

At the Summit, we are calling on refugee hosting and donor countries to work together to expand education to refugee populations. This includes ensuring that all out-of-school refugee children have the opportunity to education, improving quality basic education for refugee children and expanding early childhood care and education opportunities for refugees.

Donor governments have a unique opportunity, through a new funding platform, ‘Education Cannot Wait’ to help close the financing gap and improve planning and co-ordination of education in humanitarian crises.

Host countries can do more to commit to ensuring refugee children in their countries are in school and learning. In some cases, this includes making school infrastructure available – for example for double-shifting of lessons. In many cases, there are policy, legal and financial barriers facing refugee children, from the language of instruction to the ability to resume school if it’s been disrupted for an extended period.

The World Humanitarian Summit is only the first step in our campaign to ensure that no refugee child is out of school for more than one month. In September, this agenda will be revisited when governments gather in New York for migration summits, hosted by the UN and President Obama. We have a window over the next four months to create a dramatic step change in how the world treats refugee children.

In the face of an unprecedented refugee crisis, with more children displaced across borders than at any point in the last 50 years, this is an agenda that deserves our support, and which refugee children deserve.

Originally published by Thomson Reuters Foundation

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