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Helping Forcibly Displaced Children Connect in School

refugee education
Istanbul Turkey March 16, 2015 - Syrian refugee children studying in the classroom.
January 12, 2018

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reports that today there are upwards of 65 million forcibly displaced people worldwide, the most since World War II. Of that figure, 22.5 million are refugees, over half of which are under the age of 18.

A recent UNHCR report, Left Behind: Refugee Education in Crisis, explored the lack of school opportunities for refugee and internally displaced children, especially in the developing world. The report concluded that of the 6.4 million school-aged refugees under UNHCR care, 3.5 million were not in school. Although these numbers seem bleak, improvements have been made over the past few years. For instance, in Turkey, the country hosting the most refugees, the government has worked closely with UNICEF and UNHCR to increase enrolment of refugee children within Turkish schools, leading to a 50 percent increase in enrolment from 2015 to 2016.

Many refugees and people living in emergency situations require immediate relief, including in the form of shelter, food and water; however, findings presented at the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016 demonstrated that education is one of the highest priorities for children and parents who have been forcibly displaced. According to a Save The Children report on education in conflict-affected areas in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Ethiopia, more than 30% of people receiving humanitarian aid ranked education as the most desired essential basic service.

Education creates a sense of normalcy for children, providing them with a safe space to learn, explore their creativity, and think about the future. Thus, schooling for refugees and people in conflict settings must go further than simply teaching for academic achievement. We must also keep in mind that as refugee populations move more to urban areas, refugee children will increasingly be absorbed into national education systems, resulting in increased contact between refugee and host country children.

Within national borders, children displaced by conflict often look for education opportunities in overcrowded environments, with little to no help from the government. In order to ensure safe and quality education in conflict-affected settings, schools must teach social cohesion and connectedness as part of the curriculum; otherwise, children negatively affected by conflict will not thrive in the classroom. Teaching children about connectedness, respect, and reciprocity can also be utilized outside of schools, ultimately having a community-wide impact.

The Inter-agency Network for Education in Emergencies (INEE) has begun to incorporate psychosocial support and social-emotional learning practices as integral components of educational projects in conflict-affected areas. According to INEE, teaching with psychosocial support and social cohesion in mind can lead to “reconciliation and peacebuilding, and prepare communities for eventual post-conflict or post-disaster reconstruction and social and economic development.” Incorporating the values of social connectedness in the classroom allows for the development of conflict resolution skills, peace-building values and life skills, which ultimately enable children to have “improved academic, social and emotional learning outcomes.” These lessons are becoming increasingly important with the current movement of refugees into urban areas where children attend school alongside their host-community peers.

Save The Children’s report focuses on how education can be transformative for communities displaced due to conflict. While education is often conceptualized as a human capital service, this report examines the other, more beneficial uses of education, for psychosocial support and social cohesion in emergencies. Schools become safe havens for children, where they can collaborate with peers and enjoy childhood, and education transforms communities and supports the development of crucial community-practices, especially in times of emergencies. In addition, lessons learned in school, ranging from academic to social, support other sectors, convey good practices to the entire community, and provide children with the confidence to become changemakers. While education for academic achievement may still be at the root of the push for education in times of crisis, international organizations that have historically worked in conflict-affected areas have found, and are beginning to implement, the numerous benefits that accompany teaching for social cohesion in schools.

As we face what is the largest forcibly displaced population in our generation, education must be understood as a crucial aspect of humanitarian aid. Research shows that forcibly displaced people themselves, whether in host countries or displaced within their own country, believe that education is crucial for their survival. School provides a sense of normalcy for children who have had to face unimaginable hardships and provides a safe space to be themselves. However, what cannot be forgotten is the precarious and difficult situations these students face, especially when attempting to integrate into new environments.

Teaching for social cohesion and providing psychosocial support in the classroom is not only crucial for children’s development; it is a precondition for academic achievement and happiness. This is why a holistic approach to education must be taken particularly in displacement and conflict circumstances,