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Part II: Barriers to Refugee Education

If you’re just joining us, read the first post in our blog series, “War Refugees and Education”.  In this edition, we will be taking a more in-depth look into the root causes that prevent refugee students from attending school. In subsequent posts, we will examine countries that provide case studies of failures and successes and corresponding tangible takeaways for policymakers, advocates, and educators.

The largest, and often most difficult barrier to overcome for a refugee seeking an education, is the country generous enough to temporarily host them in the first place.  While this may seem surprising to citizens of the West, where education is guaranteed for all children, the circumstances drastically change when one considers that 86% of the world’s refugees are located in developing regions, and over a quarter are located in the world’s least developed countries. Indeed, unbeknownst to most Americans and Europeans who feel unfairly burdened with seemingly enormous refugee populations,  developing countries are actually the ones saddling the heaviest distribution of refugees, and disproportionately so. For example, the majority of the world’s out-of-school children are located in just seven countries: Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, Lebanon, Pakistan, and Turkey. With that being said, one may have more compassion for host countries struggling to not only educate and support refugee communities but must also contend with myriad domestic hurdles in providing schooling for their own citizens’ and their children.

The challenge to providing education stems from the most important part of the learning experience- the teacher themselves. And it’s not only a matter of securing the financial resources to pay and train teachers but, hiring and retaining high-quality candidates. As the research notes: “One of the few studies of teachers of refugees in developing countries, however, found that in Kenya, South Africa, South Sudan, and Uganda, teachers were generally under qualified and lacked experience.” Teachers in developing countries are often paid very little if at all, live in squalid conditions, and required to live in rural refugee settlements that are generally many hours’ drive from cities or towns.

Even if a host country is able to find willing individuals to teach, sustaining their salaries proves even more difficult. Funding for refugee education is dramatically low, historically, around 2.7% of overall humanitarian aid . Thus, refugee education ends up being largely financed from emergency funds, leaving little room for long-term planning or continuity in teacher’s careers and student’s learning opportunities. It is not uncommon for a non-governmental organization (NGO) to build a school one year, and desert it when grant money runs out the next. Furthermore, refugee education is rarely featured in national development plans (although a few of the largest countries are taking steps to address this issue).

When host countries are unable to provide education at all, they may end up charging families in order to share the costs. While, at a cursory glance, this appears reasonable, it is, unfortunately, an insurmountable hurdle for many students and their parents.  For refugee families, education is considered a luxury—a non-essential good when forced to choose between education and life-sustaining necessities like food, water or shelter. Or perhaps the family can afford to educate one child—how does the family decide which one of their children will be the lucky one? In most cases than not, boys are given the opportunity to attend school while their sisters remain behind to assist their mother with domestic duties and caring for younger siblings.

Let’s say there’s a best-case scenario where both funding and a school program exists. The problems don’t stop there. Refugee children may have gaps and skills in knowledge, as pre-settlement (i.e. when the refugees are traveling between their country of origin and the in-transit or destination country) schooling is at best sporadic and, at worst, non-existent. In addition, as children move from country to country, school to school, they are exposed to multiple languages of instruction, which may result in language confusion, impeding academic success.

“For instance, one student interviewed during fieldwork followed a     Tanzanian curriculum in English and Swahili during primary school; began secondary school following a Burundian curriculum officially in French and Kirundi, but with teachers using mostly English and Kiswahili; and completed secondary school following a Congolese curriculum in French. As this example illustrates, teachers may struggle to use the official languages of instruction and use their own primary language instead, which can further compromise the quality of instruction.”

Finally, refugee students face a number of different forms of discrimination in host countries. For example, schools often have curricula emphasizing the host country history and culture, while neglecting refugees’ origin countries. While they find stability in the host country, their own identity can be marginalized.

“Ethnographic observations and interviews with children reveal frequent experiences of discrimination, primarily in the content of the curriculum and in treatment by peers and teachers. The instructional content to which refugee children are exposed in countries of the first asylum can be at best difficult to relate with and at worst highly politicized and discriminatory. For example, ongoing violence in Kenya attributed to Al-Shabaab, a     militant group based in Somalia, has fostered a hostile environment for Somali refugee children in Kenyan schools, where the discourse has at times been reduced to, “refugees     equal terrorists.” At the end of one class in Nairobi, observed in 2013, the Kenyan teacher   said to the mostly refugee children: “Do we fight?” “No!” the children exclaimed in response. “Do we call each other refugee?” he said “No!” they chanted again. “Refugee”  was a bad word. “

In addition, some forms of discrimination are hard-set in policies. Around 20% of refugee-hosting countries, in one way or another, restrict refugee children’s access to national schools—for example, if the parents of a child are unemployed, this child is not allowed to attend a national school. Some discrimination, on the other hand, is outright prejudice and racism. Refugees may be singled out because of their nationality and may face hostility and bullying within the host country.

With all of these barriers, it is inevitable that most countries struggle with providing universal refugee education. There are too many challenges, and the international humanitarian community is not yet fully committed; especially as harmful rhetoric abounds, and donations decline. Historically, this can be seen by looking at the education of Burundian refugees in Tanzania. The refugees were embraced into the Tanzanian education system with an assumption that the refugees would eventually fully integrate and become full-fledged citizens. However, as more and more refugees arrived, the political will to achieve and maintain this goal declined. As a result, refugees were taught in such a number of different mother tongues, instead of the national language of Kiswahili, that academic mastery was achieved by few.

In our next blog post, we will examine the current and historical status of education policies in Lebanon, Jordan, Uganda, and Kosovo. Thanks for reading and check back soon!

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Humanity Helping Sudan Project.


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