A Global Commitment to Refugee Education

What will it take to fulfill a UN pledge to strengthen support for refugees and host countries?

October 1, 2018
a diverse group of young students playing musical instruments with a teacher

United Nations agencies, donors, NGOs, and civil society actors reaffirmed their commitments to refugee education last week during a high-level side meeting of the United Nations General Assembly, pledging to promote the approach outlined in the Global Compact on Refugees. That compact, likely to be endorsed by the General Assembly by year’s end, proposes an ambitious new system for responding to global displacement crises and improving the lives of refugees.

What will it take to fulfill that pledge? Sarah Dryden-Peterson and her team have been researching refugee education for 15 years, and her work shows that a global commitment to refugee education must include a commitment to high-quality learning and to teachers who can build relationships across lines of difference. To achieve the vision laid out in the global compact, hosting nations and the world’s refugee community must keep the following broad considerations in mind.

Include Refugee Students in National Schools

First, Dryden-Peterson and her team find that inclusion of refugees in national schools can increase access to schools, to qualified teachers, to sequenced curriculum, and to formal certification. They also find that refugee students and their families value the stability of these systems, especially when exile usually lasts for a decade or more.

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“Most refugees are not seeking the kind of belonging that is politically challenging to negotiate and that connects them forever to the country of exile," says Dryden-Peterson. Instead, they want "the kind of belonging that connects them to strong and peaceful relationships with the people around them.” 

Focus on Quality Learning, Ending Marginalization

But Dryden-Peterson’s work has also shown that the schools refugees can access often provide little opportunity for quality learning. Refugees are isolated in remote areas of their host countries, they are isolated in second shifts during afternoons, or they are attending schools that only nationals with no other options choose for their children. Dryden-Peterson’s work shows that refugee students and their families value education because they believe it will be the essential tool to creating their futures. But in its low quality, the education that refugees and their poor and marginalized national hosts have access to cuts off hope for further education, for livelihoods, and for civic participation. “Our global commitment must be to increasing learning within national systems in order to shift opportunities for both refugees and marginalized nationals,” she says.

Create Welcoming School Cultures

Dryden-Peterson’s long-term work with refugee students and their families shows that refugee students seek from school a space where they can feel valued and connected to other people. It also finds that refugees often feel excluded at school, alienated from curriculum and from other children and teachers, a point that was emphasized at the high-level meeting this week by Amelie Fabian, a former refugee from Rwanda and participant in Canada’s Student Sponsorship Program. While education has long been a tool in the individual protection of refugees, Dryden-Peterson notes that education has “a protection role that is collective — to build welcoming communities that are sites of belonging and connection.”

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“Our global commitment must be to increasing learning within national systems, in order to shift opportunities for both refugees and marginalized nationals.”

As she continues, “Most refugees are not seeking the kind of belonging that is politically challenging to negotiate and that connects them forever to the country of exile. But they are seeking the kind of belonging that connects them to strong and peaceful relationships with the people around them.” Dryden-Peterson’s work underscores that a global commitment to refugee education must include a commitment to curriculum and to teachers who can build these relationships across lines of difference.

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