Worlds of Education

UNHCR / Charity Nzomo
UNHCR / Charity Nzomo

Addressing the overlooked plight of refugee teachers

published 6 October 2023 updated 21 March 2024
written by:

As we mark World Teachers Day 2023, it is essential that we peel back the curtain on an issue that remains largely ignored: the plight of refugee teachers. Since 1994, we've come together every year to celebrate the remarkable contributions of teachers worldwide. But how often do we pause to consider the unique challenges faced by those teachers who have been forcibly displaced from their homes? This year's theme, "The teachers we need for the education we want: The global imperative to reverse the teacher shortage," presents a critical moment to shine a light on these unsung heroes.

“You can teach without a classroom, but you can’t teach without a teacher. Those are the areas we mostly forget. We focus on our students…in a class, but we forget the teachers most of the time.”

– Participant from Malawi, Teachers in Refugee and Displacement Settings: Policies, Practices & Pathways for Improving Teacher Quality & Workforce Sustainability (UNHCR, forthcoming)

Persistent challenges beyond ‘’classroom walls’’ for refugee teachers

Imagine, for a moment, that you suddenly have no choice but to leave behind your homeland and everything you know. Now, picture arriving in a new country, only to discover that the teaching credentials you worked so hard for are no longer recognized. You are rendered invisible in your professional capacity. Even if you are fortunate enough to secure a teaching position, it comes with severely diminished professional status, minimal support to pursue qualifications and enter the national system, and reduced pay as the struggle to secure predictable multi-year funding for teachers or refugees continues to be one of the greatest challenges facing host country education systems. In many situations, refugee teachers are simply not accounted for at all in national planning around increasing the teacher workforce, budgeting or reforms in remuneration, retention or professional development.

UNHCR's forthcoming Teachers in Refugee and Displacement Settings: Policies, Practices & Pathways for Improving Teacher Quality & Workforce Sustainability study reveals that teachers in forced displacement settings frequently navigate complex classroom environments with limited qualifications, support or remuneration [1]. In particular, for those teachers who are also refugees, opportunities are additionally limited because their work as teachers is infrequently protected by the labour standards of host countries. This lack of recognition and institutionalised support for teachers in refugee-hosting areas has negative implications for refugee and host community children’s schooling, achievement, and well-being.

For teachers living and working in refugee camps around the world, these challenges are not hypothetical—it's their daily reality.

We often laud the resilience of refugees for their courage and determination. But what about those who, despite being thrown into such challenging circumstances, rise to educate the next generation? They aren’t just educators; they’re beacons of hope, pillars of stability and symbols of normalcy for children traumatized by war and displacement. Their stories, from places like Chad and Uganda, tell of systemic challenges—whether it's inadequate pay leading to teacher attrition, insufficient teaching resources or limited training opportunities. And let's not forget female refugee teachers grappling with unique, added hurdles but who are crucial to increasing the likelihood of access to education for girls as well as providing immense academic and protective benefits.

The crucial role of teacher unions

Against this backdrop, the study accentuates how teachers’ unions can be instrumental in bolstering refugee teachers' recognition and support. Survey results revealed the commendable efforts of teachers’ unions across countries like Cameroon, Chad, Malawi, Pakistan, Uganda, and Syria in safeguarding teachers’ rights, ensuring timely remuneration, and prioritizing teacher welfare. The European context offers us tangible examples of the impact of union interventions. During the tumultuous times of the Syrian crisis and more recently in the Ukrainian crisis, unions actively rallied behind Syrian and Ukrainian teachers, providing information on access to training, social services, and teaching opportunities.

Still, more needs to be done. The Global Compact on Refugees emphasizes the importance of burden and responsibility sharing, urging support for refugee-hosting countries in ensuring refugees' inclusion in national education systems. Herein lies an opportunity for teachers' unions to advocate for refugee teachers’ integration into national systems, supporting their improved conditions of service and opportunities for professional growth. By doing so, not only do they strengthen the teaching fraternity but also enhance the educational experiences of refugee students, providing them with relatable role models who mirror their experiences.

The 2023 Global Refugee Forum (GRF) presents a golden opportunity. We need international collaboration, a pooling of resources, and an exchange of expertise. The GRF’s Teacher Task Team led by Educational International (EI) provides a blueprint for proactive measures — from establishing financial mechanisms that ensure continuous funding for teacher salaries, to promoting dialogue that involves educators in decision-making processes. And here, teachers’ unions can actively engage with refugee teachers, listen to their experiences and challenges, and advocate for their rights and inclusion at all policy levels and ensure that that refugee teachers are not just seen but also heard, valued, and empowered.

As we recognize and applaud the monumental contributions of teachers globally, it is time to ensure that refugee teachers, supported by the robust framework of unions, are at the forefront, championing quality education for all.

1. ^

UNHCR commissioned this study to explore and better understand the different profiles of teachers working in refugee and displacement settings – across the dimensions of teacher management, professional development, and well-being – to enable UNHCR, partners and state actors to provide teachers in these contexts with more targeted and impactful support, resources and capacity development.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.