Wed, Sep 04, 2019 - Page 9 News List

New UNHCR program aims to close the refugee education gap

Education, especially secondary schooling, provides a route to economic self-sufficiency and a way to regain a sense of purpose and dignity after displacement

By Filippo Grandi

Nowadays, making an investment — whether in shares, bonds, property, gold, lottery tickets or the latest start-up — is quick and easy, but when it comes to investments in people, the dividends are not always as clear, nor is the means by which the returns cam be measured.

One might be doubly wary of investing in people who have been uprooted from their homes, stripped of their livelihoods and possessions, possibly separated from their families and forced to start all over again, but, in fact, refugees are one of the best investments out there.

Educating those who have been displaced by conflict and upheaval is not an expense, but a golden opportunity.

For most people in advanced economies, education is how curiosity is fed, passions are discovered and looking after oneself is learned, navigating the worlds of work and civic and social life.

For refugees, education performs the same functions, but also does much more. It is the surest road to recovering a sense of purpose and dignity after the trauma of displacement.

It is also — or at least should be — a route to economic self-sufficiency. At a time when governments are wasting trillions of US dollars on conflict, investing in those who have been forcibly displaced is a no-brainer.

In its latest annual report on refugee education, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) found that gains in educational enrollment have extended life-changing opportunities to tens of thousands of refugee children, adolescents and young people.

The share of refugees enrolled in primary school has increased from 61 percent to 63 percent in the past year, while secondary-school enrollment has risen from 23 percent to 24 percent.

Most notably, the share of refugees accessing higher education has reached 3 percent, after being stuck at 1 percent for the past several years.

Higher education is what turns students into leaders. By harnessing young refugees’ creativity, energy and idealism, it positions them to become role models and furnishes them with the means to amplify their voices and enable rapid generational change.

That said, the low level of secondary-school enrollment should trouble us. The proportion of refugees enrolled in secondary education (24 percent) is more than two-thirds lower than the level for non-refugees globally (84 percent).

This shortfall will have devastating effects. Without the stepping stone of secondary school, the progress made over the past year will be short-lived. Millions of refugee children’s futures will be thrown away.

Consider the case of Gift, a South Sudanese boy, now living in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who was so determined to go to school that he learned French and engineered his own solar-powered light to study after dark. His hopes of progressing to secondary school are likely to be dashed, as there simply are no such schools in his area.

Likewise, Hina, who excelled in primary school, discovered that only one of the 500 spots available at a secondary school in Peshawar, Pakistan, was available to a refugee like her.

I myself have witnessed similar situations in Bangladesh, where far too many refugee children are unable to attend official schools and follow an accredited curriculum.

As if it were not bad enough that refugee children are being denied a route to higher, technical and vocational education and training, failing to provide secondary education also makes it more likely that they will be pulled into child labor or criminal activities. When girls are in school, they are less likely to be coerced into early marriage and pregnancy.

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