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©Jenny Matthews/ ActionAid
©Jenny Matthews/ ActionAid
As education is vital to the development of children, it is recognized as a universal human right. Art. 28 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child binds signatories to the Convention to fulfil their obligation in providing it. Being uprooted does not negate a child's right to education nor a State's responsibility to provide it. The 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees reaffirms in art. 22 the responsibility of the government of the country of asylum to provide education for refugees.

The fact remains that the majority of refugee children do not receive basic education. Some estimates put the number of refugee children receiving education at no more than 30 per cent. The absence of basic education violates their rights and proves to be a lifelong handicap. The World Declaration on Education for All (Jomtien, Thailand 1990) refers to refugees as an "underserved group." UNHCR Executive Committee in 1992 asked that "the basic primary education needs of refugee children be better addressed and that, even in the early stages of emergencies, educational requirements be identified so that prompt attention may be given to such needs" (Conclusions and Decisions 31 (d) 1992).

Attending school provides continuity for children, and thereby contributes enormously to their well-being. For these reasons, education is a priority in terms of protection and assistance activities.

Many obstacles must be overcome to ensure that refugee children receive education. Sometimes refugee children are denied education because host governments are not providing or cannot provide universal primary education for their own children. Poor infrastructure, inadequate resources and a lack of trained teachers are common limitations. Consequently, the quality of education may be poor, the hours limited and school materials may be lacking. Sometimes the education provided is not in the refugee children's mother tongue. In some situations, refugee children have no, or very limited, access to post-primary education or other types of training, without which their prospects for attaining economic self sufficiency can be severely hampered. To ensure that refugee children have the opportunity of education, Field Offices, in collaboration with host governments and partner agencies, must try to overcome such obstacles.

SourceUNHCR Refugee Children: Guidelines on Protection and Care 1994


_ Education programmes can help address not only the psychological and social needs of the children, but also the well being of the whole community, by helping to organize the population and by providing structure for the children and their families;

_ Education programmes can provide important support to lifesaving activities;

_ Every child has the right to education. Even in an emergency, start providing appropriate education as soon as possible;

_ The priority is to make primary schooling available to all. Special efforts will probably be necessary to ensure the proper participation of girls in the programme;

_ Refugee schools should be organized and run by the refugees themselves, to the extent possible, with proper outside support.

Establishing an education system is important for the well-being of the whole refugee community, as well as for the social Community Services and Education and psychological well-being of children and young people. Setting up basic schools will give a structure and sense of normality to a dislocated and traumatized community.

Refugees are dislocated not only from their homes and families but also from their community– the old community is disrupted while new community structures are only gradually evolving. Schools can be the initial community focal points, and a sense of well-being may be created if the new community is partly structured around institutions which are as familiar as schools, rather than around, for example, distribution points, registration and health centres which may be more representative of the problems of their current situation.

In addition, schools can be initiated and managed by the community itself much more easily than other refugee institutions, again enhancing self-esteem and self-reliance. Refugee teachers and parents often establish informal schools even in an emergency - as soon as basic needs in food water and health are met, because they recognize the importance of a school system for the reasons set out above.

In addition to community building, other important functions of the education system in an emergency are:

i. To disseminate survival and life skills messages. Simple messages can be spread through the school system, on issues such as health, sanitation, nutrition, and looking after the local resources (fuelwood for cooking) so they do not become too rapidly depleted;

ii. To provide parents with extra time to work on family survival needs;

iii. To serve as an important protection tool in certain circumstances, e.g. through providing an alternative to military recruitment;

iv. To provide continuity of education which can help reintegration in the country of origin.

Setting up an Education Programme

Basic education must be provided and, although priorities in the emergency phase may mean that the full implementation of an education programme is difficult, a start must be made. An education programme should only be delayed if the emergency is clearly going to be short-lived.

Identify teachers from the refugee population who can organize recreational and educational activities, and identify agencies to support the development of basic education programmes. 

The emergency education programme should provide free access to organized activities and basic education for all refugee children and young people.

Every child has the right to education, as set out in the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Informal schools started by the refugees themselves should be supported, and can be used as a basis to begin the programme.

It is probable that young refugees will have had their formal education disrupted. There should therefore be no limitation of entry to schooling according to the age of the children or adolescents.

Smaller, decentralized schools are generally preferable to large schools. Primary schools should be established within walking distance for young children. The curriculum should initially be based on that of the country or area of origin, to facilitate reintegration upon repatriation.

From UNHCR Handbook for Emergencies Second Edition.

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