We need to bridge the education gap for refugees, says new UNHCR report 

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi meets South Sudanese refugees at Pagirinya refugee settlement in Adjumani, Uganda. © UNHCR/Michele Sibiloni

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Filippo Grandi, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, (UNHCR)


  • From 2018 to 2020, almost a million children were born as refugees.
  • Since the start of the pandemic, more than 1.6 billion learners have been affected by the closure of their school or university.
  • Data from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) suggests that 68% of refugee children around the world are enrolled in primary school.
  • Just 34% are enrolled in secondary school.
  • UNHCR has set an ambitious target of 15% for refugee enrolment in higher education by 2030.

From 2018 to 2020, almost a million children were born as refugees. Right from the start, these youngsters face spending their childhoods, even their entire lives, outside the countries they should call home. The impact of COVID-19 on their lives will be profound. UNESCO estimates that since the start of the pandemic, more than 1.6 billion learners have been affected by the closure of their school or university.

For sure, this unprecedented disruption to education affects all children. But for young refugees, who already face significant obstacles to education, it could dash all hopes of getting the schooling they need. At all levels, refugee enrolment is lower than that of non-refugees. As refugee children get older, however, the picture rapidly worsens and those at secondary level are at the greatest risk of being left behind.

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Data from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) suggests that 68% of refugee children around the world are enrolled in primary school. By contrast, the gross enrolment for refugees plummets at secondary level, being just 34% on average.

But there are wide regional differences; in some countries, the secondary school enrolment rate for refugees is in the single digits. That is why the focus of UNHCR’s 2021 Education Report is on secondary education. The report highlights the demand, benefits and gaps in the provision and opportunity of quality secondary education.

Beyond primary

For refugee adolescents, the pressure to drop out of school and support their families can be intense – this pressure has intensified thanks to the pandemic’s economic devastation. The risk of boys and girls being subjected to child labour, including its more exploitative forms, is acute.

Yet without a secondary education, young people who should be embracing an important phase of growth, development, and opportunity, instead face huge risks. Denying them a secondary education is like removing a large section of the bridge that leads to their futures – the bridge to better financial prospects, greater independence, and improved health outcomes.

It is also the bridge to higher education.

UNHCR has set an ambitious target of 15% for refugee enrolment in higher education by 2030 under our 15by30 campaign. The good news is that the most recent enrolment level for higher education is at 5%, up from 3% year-on-year and 1% only a few years ago.

Enrollment of refugees in education
Enrollment of refugees in education. Image: UNHCR

Effects of COVID-19

That progress, and all other educational advances for refugees, is nevertheless under grave threat due to COVID-19. While it is too early to grasp the full impact of the pandemic, the damage is likely to be terrible. Estimates from UNHCR offices in 37 countries indicate that refugee learners lost an average of 142 days of school up to March 2021 because of closures of schools, universities, and other institutions. This is an enormous deficit to recover.

It’s true that many students and teachers have adapted quickly. Online resources are endless, and over the past few months, we have seen technology and digital learning make rapid advances. Yet inequality is present in the virtual world, too. Digital learning is more achievable if you have an internet connection, a suitable device, the money to afford such things and somewhere quiet to listen and learn.

With coordinated action, we can make up for lost time and reach our ultimate target, which is to give all children and youth, including refugees, the education they deserve. —Filippo Grandi, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

For thousands of refugee learners who live in unconnected regions, who do not have access to digital devices (or must share them with others), and who live in crowded conditions, such resources are unrealistic.

Confronting this challenge requires a massive, coordinated effort, and it is a task we cannot afford to shirk. For all children and youth, especially the most vulnerable, we need a worldwide “back-to-school” campaign. For refugees, in particular, states must ensure that they are part of national educational systems and planning, including catch-up programmes.

International support

Where resources are stretched – bearing in mind that 27% of refugees are in the world’s least developed countries – host states need international support to build capacity at secondary level: they need more schools, appropriate learning materials, teacher training for specialised subjects, separate facilities for teenage girls, and more.

And we need to close the digital divide with better and more affordable connectivity as well as low-tech or no-tech educational platforms. These are all clear action points that will have demonstrable results.

How is the World Economic Forum helping to improve humanitarian assistance?

With more than 132 million people worldwide requiring humanitarian assistance, humanitarian responses must become more efficient and effective at delivering aid to those who need it most.

Cash assistance has been recognized as a faster and more effective form of humanitarian aid compared to in-kind assistance such as food, clothing or education. Cash transfers give more control to their beneficiaries, allowing them to prioritize their own needs. They also have a proven track record of fostering entrepreneurialism and boosting local economies.

When the UN Secretary-General issued a call for innovative ways to improve cash-based humanitarian assistance, the World Economic Forum responded by bringing together 18 organizations to create guidelines for public-private cooperation on humanitarian cash transfers.

The guidelines are outlined in the Principles on Public-Private Cooperation in Humanitarian Payments and show how the public and private sectors can work together to deliver digital cash payments quickly and securely to crisis-affected populations. Since its publication in 2016, the report has served as a valuable resource for organizations, humanitarian agencies and government leaders seeking to increase the effectiveness of humanitarian aid and advance financial inclusion.

Learn more about this project and find out how you can join the Forum to get involved in initiatives that are helping millions of lives every day.

The pandemic has given many of us a taste of what refugees endure on a daily basis: isolation, restrictions on movement, economic uncertainty, and the sudden denial of basic services. Hundreds of thousands of children are born into this life year after year.

We are losing ground in the effort to ensure full, quality education for all. But with coordinated action, we can make up for lost time and reach our ultimate target, which is to give all children and youth, including refugees, the education they deserve.

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