Closing the refugee education gap


Over the past year, the share of young refugees enrolled in school has ticked up, with relatively pronounced improvements at the higher-education level. But unless refugee enrollment at the secondary level rises significantly, the pathway to success will remain blocked for far too many students.

Nowadays, making an investment – whether in shares, bonds, property, gold, lottery tickets, or the latest startup – 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 one can measure the returns.

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 one feeds one’s curiosity, discovers one’s passions, and learns to look after oneself, 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 also is – or at least should be – a route to economic self-sufficiency. At a time when governments are wasting trillions of dollars on conflict, investing in those who have been forcibly displaced is a no-brainer.In its latest annual report on refugee education, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) finds that gains in educational enrollment have extended life-changing opportunities to tens of thousands of refugee children, adolescents, and youth. The share of refugees enrolled in primary school has increased from 61% to 63% in the past year, while secondary-school enrollment has risen from 23% to 24%. Most notably, the share of refugees accessing higher education has reached 3%, after being stuck at 1% 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%) is more than two-thirds lower than the level for non-refugees globally (84%). 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.

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