The right to education for refugees and internally displaced persons: data gaps and challenges

On Human Rights Day, Ruth Naylor, co-author of our HEART topic guide on education for refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) in low- and middle-income countries, highlights the data gaps and challenges to addressing educational needs for this largely invisible group.  

Education is a fundamental human right. Legally, every individual across the world is entitled to a free elementary education. Education is essential for strengthening all other human rights, promotes individual wellbeing and empowerment, and is a basis for important economic and social benefits. Yet the challenges for refugees and IDPs in accessing education remain stark. According to a recent report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), only 50 per cent of refugee children access primary education and only 22 per cent of refugee adolescents access secondary. The situation is particularly bad for girls, with only eight refugee girls in primary school for every ten boys, and only seven girls to ten boys at secondary. Given that refugees spend, on average, 20 years in forced displacement, this is not just a temporary break in children’s schooling. Being out of school’ as a refugee often means missing out on education entirely.

Although the scale of the challenge is huge, the fact that the UNHCR is able to report these statistics is a vital initial step in catalyzing action from host governments and the international community to address it. There are still major data gaps (for example, age disaggregated data are often missing, making it difficult to estimate enrolment rates). But the monitoring and reporting of education data for refugees has improved dramatically in recent years.

Data gaps, challenges and opportunities

The majority of those displaced by conflict remain within their own borders as IDPs. Much less is known about this group of people, especially the majority who live within host communities rather than in camps. Unlike refugees, there is no single, internationally agreed definition of an IDP, and often no legal requirement for them to register. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) compiles data on IDPs but is only able to give estimates, and the data are not directly comparable country to country. Only a minority of countries report IDP data disaggregated by age and sex. Whilst we know that there are almost twice as many IDPs as refugees (41 million in 2015, compared to 21 million refugees), we do not know how many are of school age or how many have access to education. Like refugees, IDPs are often trapped in displacement for many years, and short-term humanitarian response systems are not well equipped to provide the continuity of funding needed to keep teachers teaching and children learning.

The challenges of meeting the education needs of children and adolescents living in forced displacement are discussed in the HEART topic guide on education for refugees and IDPs in low- and middle-income countries. There remain major service provision and funding gaps, particularly for adolescents and youth. Only 13 per cent of the UNHCR’s education budget in 2015 went to secondary education. The topic guide also presents examples of approaches that have been successful, and promising practices. The education of Palestinian refugees through the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) provides an example of how quality education for refugees in protracted displacement can be successfully delivered at scale, given sufficient resources. There are also countless examples of education initiatives run by refugees and IDPs that often remain under the radar. There have been promising developments in the international funding systems, with the Global Partnership for Education developing funding modalities to help national governments plan for and cope with displacement crises, and the Education Cannot Wait platform. There are efforts to harness technology to deliver education to displaced populations, and to improve data and monitoring. However, given that access to secondary school for refugees worldwide is worse than in the poorest, most fragile of countries, and that access for IDPs is probably worse still, there is still a long way to go.

Ruth Naylor is a Senior International Advisor at Education Development Trust.

This blog is cross-posted on the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) website.


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