Advancing Access to Education for Refugees

Conversation Details

Dates of conversation: 
Monday, July 24, 2017 to Friday, July 28, 2017
Conversation type: 
Type of tactical goal: 

As more people throughout the world are forced to leave their homes due to conflict, climate change, or in search of a better life, host nations are trying to keep up with the influx of new students in their education systems. With scarce resources and limited funds, governments and organizations are forced to come up with new ways of including refugee students in local schools. With increasing xenophobia and gaps in integration policies, integrating these new students is not without its barriers. Language restrictions, finances, and lack of job opportunities are just a few of the obstacle keeping kids out of school.  Furthermore, displacement and resettlement can leave children out of school for years at a time, making it difficult for them to rejoin formal education. Conversation participants discuss the issues with refugee inclusion in national education systems and draw on real-world programs as potential solutions to some of the challenges that refugees face in obtaining an education. 

In this conversation, we seek to investigate ways in which the right to education can be secured for those who have been forced from their homes and communities.

Thank you to our featured resource practitioners who led this conversation:

  • Michelle Bellino, University of Michigan – School of Education
  • Wanume Elvis, Young African Refugees for Integral Development
  • Diana Rodriguez, Universidad de Los Andes
  • Robert Hakiza, Young African Refugees for Integral Development
  • Bill Van Esveld, Human Rights Watch
  • Martha Hewison, UNHCR
  • Joseph Field, British Council

Inclusion of Refugees in National Education Systems

Participants began the conversation by exploring the role of xenophobia as a barrier to refugee integration into host country public schools. Martha Hewison raised the point that 64 out of 81 refugee hosting countries do not have restrictions on refugees accessing national systems. This fueled questions surrounding the gap between national integration policies and the realization of their implementation on the ground. It was noted that in order for governments to adequately incorporate refugees in into their national systems, they would also have to ensure this access to their own marginalized citizens. One participant added that 86% of refugees live in developing countries, where access to quality education is already a challenge for local populations and education systems are struggling to meet the needs of their own communities. This means that access to national systems for refugees means equitable access to education for all.  While the role of humanitarian assistance was explored, it was emphasized states bear the primary responsibility for refugee protection through international laws and treaties, such as the 1951 Refugee Convention and the subsequent 2016 New York Declaration

The conversation then shifted to the exploration of ways that countries have tried to cope with the influx of students into already strained school systems. Bill Van Esveld discussed at length how Jordan created “shifts” in schools, where local children would attend class in the morning, and Syrian children in the afternoon, as a way to maximize education with limited resources. Participants contributed anecdotes of school programs being implemented in other countries, such as Kenya, Uganda, and Ecuador. As most of these programs focus on primary aged children, the conversation raised questions about educational programs for secondary-aged children, or children who have been out of school for several years.

Adapting Educational Systems to Meet Refugee Needs

Michelle Bellino argued against the segregation or exclusion of refugee students in public schools, and suggested a flexible system that allows students to transfer what they are learning to other school systems in the case of further displacement. Martha Hewison further expanded on this need for flexibility within formal education due to the substantial amounts of schooling that refugee children miss. One purposed solution to this problem is Accelerated Education programs. These programs are designed for children who have missed several years of school, and help get them back on track to rejoin formal schooling at their proper age level. This could offer a potential solution to the reduction of difficult teaching conditions associated with overcrowded classrooms and mixed age ranges. 

Bill Van Esveld gave a real world example of meeting educational needs of refugees. He explored the use of ‘Syrian Schools’ in Turkey where the majority of Syrian refugee children would attend school taught by Syrian teachers, and learn the Syrian curriculum. This was successful in getting a lot of refugee children into school quickly, and in a way that helped alleviate some of the challenges of integrating in to local schools, such as language barriers and bullying. Further questions were raised about the short and long-term effects of such schools, and how to address the gaps present in attempting to integrate refugee students into local schools. Concerns were also raised by used the term ‘refugee’ altogether and the victimizing effect that such a term could have on the students.

Barriers to Refugee Education

This conversation began with several statistics demonstrating the low attendance rates of refugee children compared to youth worldwide at each level of schooling. For example, at the secondary level, only 22 percent of refugees attended this level of schooling, compared to 84 percent of youth globally. Martha Hewison then raised the point about gender disparity within those statistics, noting that for every ten boys in secondary school, there are less than seven girls. This highlighted the different challenges that girls face when it comes to obtaining an education, such as household chores, teen pregnancy, or early marriage.

Bill Van Esveld brought up further barriers to secondary education, such as transportation, lack of money and/or poor parental economic opportunities, and lack of funding in secondary schools to address some of these barriers. Due to exploitative labor practices and violations of the right to work, most families need older kids to work instead of go to school. Furthermore, since higher-paying jobs that require higher levels of education are not available to individuals who carry a refugee status, families to do not see the value or payoff of higher education.

Further barriers, as Wanume Elvis, highlights are language barriers, long distances between the school and refugee camps and negative perceptions of girls as objects that are meant to be married, not educated. Drawing on a pilot project hosted in Uganda to help refugee children catch up with the education system, Wanume explored several lessons learned from the project.  Some successful aspects included teaching materials in several languages, teacher involvement from the refugee community, the use of mentors to bridge the gap between parents and teachers, and home visits.

Improve Access to Secondary and Post-Secondary Education

Barriers to economic opportunity make it difficult for refugees to construct sustainable futures in their host countries.  Currently, there is a disconnect between the desire of youth to obtain a secondary degree or higher, and the lack of economic opportunities for those who cannot claim citizen status. Joseph Field is attempting to intersect education and economic opportunity for refugees through a remote workforce that allows individuals to secure income from other countries, without competing in local markets. Without economic incentives, completing higher education will not be a priority. Bill Van Esveld provides a few examples of ways to address this issue, such as donor-funded scholarships or market surveys. Creating opportunities for refugees to take part in formal labor can be seen as an economic benefit to the host country. The realization of the right to work is congruent with higher education attendance.

Examples of Tactic Implementation

Creating morning and afternoon school shifts to adjust for the influx of refugee students in Jordan, and maximizing resources

Implementing a catch-up program for refugee students to return to formal education

Creation of separate schools for Syrian refugees in Turkey to increase school attendance

 Implementing a pilot project in Uganda to determine successful solutions to refugee education access

Creating Accelerated Education programs to help refugee children catch-up to their age-level grade

Resource List





Conversation Leaders

mbellino6's picture
Michelle Bellino
University of Michigan- School of Education
wanume elvis's picture
wanume elvis
Young African Refugees for Integral Development
Diana Rodriguez Gomez's picture
Diana Rodriguez
Universidad de Los Andes
robert hakiza's picture
Robert Hakiza
Young African Refugees for Integral Development
billvanesveld's picture
Bill Van Esveld
Human Rights Watch
martha hewison's picture
Martha Hewison
Joseph Field's picture
Joseph Field
British Council
Discussion topic Replies Last postsort ascending
Hot topic Inclusion of refugees in national education systems 18
by martha hewison
Fri, 07/28/2017 - 3:04pm
Normal topic Adapting educational systems to meet refugee needs 6
by esayner
Thu, 07/27/2017 - 12:27pm
Normal topic Barriers to refugee education 7
by wanume elvis
Mon, 07/31/2017 - 7:54am
Normal topic Improve access to secondary and post-secondary education 4
by billvanesveld
Tue, 07/25/2017 - 5:56pm
Normal topic Practical Examples & Open Forum 1
by mbellino6
Thu, 07/27/2017 - 4:23pm