The world is failing millions of refugees. We must act now.

published 22 November 2021 updated 6 December 2021

The recently published Global Compact on Refugees Indicator Report 2021 is a stark reminder of the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on the most vulnerable groups. Education International calls on the international community to ensure the fundamental right to education and the right to decent work for all refugees without delay.

Almost half of refugee children out of school, girls particularly excluded

While Education International welcomes progress in access to education in some countries since the adoption of the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants in 2016 that paved the way for the adoption of the Global Compact, the fact that 1.8 million refugee children, almost half of school-age refugee children in reporting countries, remain out of school, is unacceptable.

The data covering more than 40 countries hosting refugees shows that the average gross enrolment rates for refugee children in 2019/2020 were 34% in pre-primary education, 68% in primary education, and 34% in secondary education. At the tertiary level, enrolment rates stand at an abysmal 5%. This is far below our collective commitment to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education for all by 2030.

We must step up our engagement with the most vulnerable that have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. Refugee girls are still less likely to have access to education than refugee boys and alarmingly, a recent analysis in 10 countries found that half of all refugee girls will not return to school when classrooms reopen. Worse still, in some countries, all girls are at risk of dropping out for good. As one in two refugees is a woman or a girl, gender-responsive policies and responses are indispensable: the report justly points out that mitigating the long-term socio-economic impacts of displacement on women and girls requires, inter alia, targeted educational services.

Urgent action is needed to address intersecting forms of discrimination in education that have been exacerbated by the Covid-19 crisis: Education International and affiliates around the world have been calling on governments to conduct equity audits whose results must inform recovery plans in education. Educational equity audits can also help address the lack of disaggregated data by age, gender, protection status and diversity desperately needed to further the inclusion of refugees in host communities.

Education must be at the heart of recovery

Education is the single most powerful tool to empower refugee children and youth to thrive and reach their full potential, yet the data shows that it is constantly marginalised and chronically underfunded.

Before the pandemic, in 2019, only 2.6% of humanitarian aid was spent on education - well below the global target of 4%.

The pandemic has also driven education budgets further down in many countries. An estimated 65% of governments in low- and lower-middle-income countries, and 35% of governments in upper-middle- and high-income countries have reduced funding for education since the beginning of the pandemic.

Education International cautions against an approach that focuses on the development of digital educational solutions for refugees in the aftermath of the Covid-19 crisis. Research commissioned by Education International on the education of Syrian refugee children indicates that a disproportionate emphasis on technology may be pedagogically problematic and divert funding from more urgent needs, for the benefit of private actors.

If we are to build a more equitable and sustainable future for generations to come, investments to foster inclusive public education systems must be at the heart of humanitarian and development aid programmes, as well as national recovery efforts, so that all students, especially those most in need, have access to free quality education.

The report rightly stresses that filling the financing gap for inclusive refugee education, through both international and domestic funding, is urgently needed and feasible.

Decent work is a universal right

The report also highlights the fact that the pandemic is expected to increase global poverty for the first time in 20 years. Around 100 million people, including many refugees, will be pushed into extreme poverty as a consequence of the economic downturn.

Even before the health crisis, two thirds of refugees lived in poverty. Many face unsurmountable obstacles in accessing decent work. It is critical that countries include refugees in their plans for economic recovery in order to enable them to be self-reliant and contribute to their communities.

Quality education and decent work are not luxuries or privileges. They are universal human rights that must be respected. In the lead up to the High-level Official Meeting taking place in December to assess progress on the implementation of the Global Compact for Refugees (GCR), Education International calls for a strong reaction from governments, international organisations, and all stakeholders to address the deterioration of refugees and host communities’ self-reliance and resilience in the context of the pandemic, a core objective of the GCR.

A lack of immediate action on refugee access to quality education and decent work condemns millions to a lifetime of hardship. National governments and the international community have a legal and moral obligation to all refugees and displaced people. Immediate action is imperative.