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A crisis within crisis – what does the future hold for refugees?

A crisis within crisis – what does the future hold for refugees?

Key facts

  • In 2018, nearly 70.8 million people around the globe were found to be forcefully displaced due to persecution, conflict, violence or human rights violations, 25.9 million of whom were refugees.[1]  This is bigger than the population of North Korea (25.5 million) or Australia (24.8 million).
  • About half of the refugee population were children under 18. [2]
  • The average length of time that refugees spend in camps changes every year and depends largely on the situation of the government where the forced displacement situation occurred.[3]  Exile can last from four years to several decades.
  • Non-refugees have much better educational access than refugees have.[4]  7.1 million refugee children should be in school, but 3.7 million are not. [5]
  • The school attendance rate of refugee children drastically drops as they progress from primary to higher levels[6]:
    • At the primary level, 63 percent of refugee children attend school. Globally, the rate is 91 percent.
    • At the secondary level, 24 percent of refugees are enrolled. Globally, the figure is 84 percent.
    • Only 3 percent of refugees have access to higher education. 
  • Due to the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, refugee children have almost no access to learning programmes. 
  • Camps are not equipped with state-of-the art technology.  

More support than ever is needed to ensure refugee children continue to learn

Refugees frequently lack access to basic services and assistance to ensure their well-being. The COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated this situation and will probably continue to affect their health, safety and education.

To prevent the virus from spreading, governments around the world have imposed or encouraged various measures, such as social distancing or wearing a mask. However, as numerous sources have reported, implementing such measures in places like refugee camps, where physical distancing and home isolation is nearly impossible, has little effect.

Education for refugee children has been further disrupted due to COVID-19. For these children, accessing any form of education was already difficult or unfeasible. According to UNHCR, in 2018, only 63 percent of all school-aged refugee children were enrolled in school; this number dramatically dropped when counting the number of refugee children at the secondary level, who were at only 24 percent.[7] Unfortunately, the pandemic has lengthened these children’s time away from school, and the longer they remain out, the less likely they are to return, even after schools and learning centers reopen. 

According to UNHCR[8] and Plan International,[9] the pandemic’s problems put refugee children, especially girls, at higher risk of isolation, discrimination, neglect, violence, abuse or child marriage.

Barriers to education at times of crises

Based on a rapid desk review conducted by UNESCO Bangkok’s Non-formal Education and Literacy team, these are the key challenges to education during crises such as COVID-19:

Key challenges for refugee children

  • Extremely low enrollment rates beyond primary education.
  • Inferior education before arriving at a refugee camp or a host country.
  • Lack of necessary language skills.

Key challenges for schools and teachers

  • Most schools and teachers are not properly trained to receive and take care of refugee students, especially during crises like COVID-19.
  • In general, refugee parents receive little support from schools to help their children assimilate.
  • Services or programmes which ensure refugee students’ well-being (including in response to COVID-19) and readiness for education are rarely available.

Key challenges for non-formal education (NFE) providers

  • Currently, NFE in many refugee camps is not aligned with the government school’s education curriculum.
  • A coordination mechanism with the government that bridges NFE to formal schooling is lacking or absent.
  • Sometimes, expectations for NFE providers are high despite limited resources.

Key challenges for the Ministry of Education

  • To ensure a comprehensive response, Ministries of Education must often wait for further instructions before taking in all refugee children. This can delay in taking swift actions, which is essential in emergency and crisis management.
  • During crises like the COVID-19 pandemic, funding is often cut for the Ministries of Education. This makes it even more difficult for refugee children to fit in and for the Ministries to accommodate their needs.
  • The rush by thousands of refugees places an overwhelming burden on the Ministries of Education as they focus on improving the quality of education and learning outcomes of their own citizens.

Four educational models for refugees for replication and scaling up

1. Non-formal equivalency programmes (NFE-EP) in Myanmar and Lao PDR

A non-formal equivalency programme (EP) is defined as an alternative educational programme equivalent to existing formal general or vocational education in terms of policy support mechanisms, delivery modality, training, curriculum, certification, monitoring and evaluation, and learning assessment.

UNESCO Bangkok has been supporting implementation of EP at both primary and lower secondary levels in Myanmar and Lao PDR since 2012. In both countries, EP offers a pathway for learners who may otherwise fall outside formal systems to find their way back into mainstream education. Upon successful completion of EP at primary level, learners obtain certificates approved by the Ministry of Education, which allows them to transit to lower secondary education.

An EP mechanism
An EP mechanism

2. A blended learning programmes for Syrian refugees in Turkey

Blended learning, which is both time and cost effective,[10] is increasingly being utilized as an accepted form of education during the context of conflict, crisis and displacement. UNDP and the Ministry of Education of Turkey utilized the blended learning approach, merging face-to-face learning with online learning, in order to maximize learning outcomes of refugee students in the country. In the programme, most of the curriculum is administered through a digital platform and teachers are present for face-to-face consultation and support, which allows students to work through a programme of independent online study and face-to-face classroom time. 

One of the advantages of this model is its flexibility and adaptiveness. According to UNDP, the system works remotely on PCs, laptops, smartphones and tablets, which does not require students to have continuous internet access. Currently, language education at B2 level with over 1,800 Syrians is continuing in Turkey, and training is fully online because of the COVID-19 situation. UNDP anticipates that this will likely involve more students down the road.

3. A self-learning programmes (SLP) for displaced children in Syria

Implemented by UNICEF, the SLP is designed to help children aged 7 to 18 who have missed years of education to learn Arabic, English, Science and Mathematics so that they can eventually reintegrate into the classroom and meet their peers. The SLP allows learners to continue their education at home or community learning centers (CLCs), which are available for additional support when necessary. The SLP does not require formal educational training for the adults who run it.

The self-learning materials match Syria’s national curriculum and support national exams for students.  In addition, by offering psychsocial support, teacher training and classroom rehabilitation/construction, the programme aims to provide a comprehensive self-study course in a safe learning environment in Syria. 

4. Learning Passport for refugees and those affected by COVID-19

Through partnerships with Microsoft Corp. and the University of Cambridge and its departments Cambridge University Press and Cambridge Assessment, UNICEF has developed a global learning platform, The Learning Passport. This platform was initially designed for refugees; however, with the prolonged pandemic, the project is currently expanding to cover all children who are being affected by COVID-19.
The platform offers children and young people access to a digitized curriculum with textbooks and supporting materials in national languages via a country-specific learning-passport platform. The Learning Passport tracks student progress by capturing a record of the curriculum subjects an individual learner studies and guides them with little extra support needed. 


The COVID-19 crisis threatens to reverse previous improvements achieved for refugee children and youth around the world in terms of education. This can be prevented by:

1. Having a clear strategy to justify the Ministry of Education’s leadership role in refugee education.

2. Creating a bridge between formal schooling and the existing NFE programmes, which could offer alternative education pathways for refugee children and youth.

3. Based on evidence, developing a programme that can be a part of a comprehensive, multichannel learning system which includes written materials, teacher orientation and other instructional activities.

4. Leveraging multiple platforms to deliver training content to learners (e.g., promoting blended learning for quality provision of education).

5. Shifting from a techno-centric model to need-centric approaches.

6. Empowering teachers, facilitators and CLC staff to play vital roles in facilitating different types of learning -  traditional face-to-face, home-based or blended approaches – for refugees.

7. Urging the private sector to distribute and fund pilot innovations which test new approaches for the disadvantaged.

8. Advocating for extended learning opportunities or catch-up programmes after the outbreak of COVID-19.


Main photo caption: Afghan refugee girl smile in an Afghan refugee camp in Lahore, Pakistan December 08, 2014. (©Shutterstock/A M Syed)


[1] UNHCR. (2018). Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2018. https://www.unhcr.org/5d08d7ee7.pdf
[2] Ibid.
[3] Devictor, X. (2019). 2019 update: How long do refugees stay in exile? To find out, beware of averages. World Bank Blog. https://blogs.worldbank.org/dev4peace/2019-update-how-long-do-refugees-stay-exile-find-out-beware-averages
[4] UNHCR. (n.d.). Background Guide: Access to Education for Refugees. https://www.unhcr.org/5df9f1767.pdf
[5] UNHCR. (2019). Refugee education in crisis: More than half of the world’s school-age refugee children do not get an education. https://www.unhcr.org/news/press/2019/8/5d67b2f47/refugee-education-crisis-half-worlds-school-age-refugee-children-education.html
[6] UNHCR. (2019). Stepping Up: Refugee Education in Crisis. https://www.unhcr.org/steppingup/wp-content/uploads/sites/76/2019/09/Education-Report-2019-Final-web-9.pdf
[7] Ibid.
[8] UNHCR. (2020). As COVID-19 pandemic continues, forcibly displaced children need more support than ever. https://www.unhcr.org/news/press/2020/4/5e9d4c044/covid-19-pandemic-continues-forcibly-displaced-children-need-support.html
[9] Plan International. (2020). Invisible Catastrophe as violence against girls and women reaches tipping point. https://plan-international.org/news/2020-04-16-violence-against-girls-women-reaching-tipping-point
[10] Battaglino, T.B., Haldeman, M., and Laurans, E. (2012). The Costs of Online Learning. Washington DC: Thomas B. Fordham Institute. http://www.edexcellencemedia.net/publications/2012/20120110-the-costs-of-online-learning/20120110-the-costs-of-online-learning.pdf