Seen But Not Heard: Refugee Children and the Right to Education

In 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), a common set of fundamental human rights to achieve for all people and nations. To celebrate this landmark declaration, International Human Rights Day is observed on 10 December every year. This year’s theme is Equality, highlighting Article 1 of UDHR: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” In this post, we will discuss the educational rights of refugee and migrant children, and the damning – but not irreversible – erosion of this right.

The UN’s approach to the 2030 Agenda and the Shared Framework on Leaving No One Behind: Equality and Non-Discrimination lies at the heart of sustainable development. It involves finding solutions for deep-rooted forms of discrimination that have affected vulnerable people in many societies, including women and girls, indigenous peoples, migrants, and refugees. Following this framework, there have been commendable strides in achieving international recognition of all people’s right to a quality education, including proficiency in the crucial foundational skills of literacy and maths. Despite this progress, many refugee and migrant children are still unable to access the same educational rights that are offered to citizens. The situation has only been exacerbated by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has contributed to the deepening of existing societal inequalities.

A migrant girl holds her toys as Macedonian policemen block migrants at the Greek-Macedonian borders, near the village of Idomeni, Greece November 20, 2015
A migrant girl holds her toys as Macedonian policemen block migrants at the Greek-Macedonian borders, near the village of Idomeni, Greece November 20, 2015. Credit: Alexandros Avramidis / Reuters  

The scale of the issue has continued to grow. At the end of 2020, 82.4 million people around the world had been forced to flee their homes as a result of persecution, conflict, violence or human rights violations. Of these, 26.4 million were refugees, half of whom were under the age of 18 – a significant cohort with an undeniable right to an education, no matter what their circumstances. However, as the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR) emphasises, the “refugee crisis is not only about numbers. It is also about time.” 3 out of 4 refugees are in protracted situations, meaning that they face long-term forced displacement. As such, refugee children are more likely to live through their entire school cycle, from ages 5 to 18, away from home. Those whose education has been interrupted in their home country may never return to that school, making their ability to realise the right to education more tenuous than ever.

This education crisis for refugees means that globally, nearly half of school-aged refugee children are not in education, a gap which has only widened during the pandemic. Millions of young refugees are missing the crucial foundational years of their learning, which extends beyond the basics of learning to read, write, and count, to eventually enabling children to inquire, debate, innovate, and become proactive members of society.

Despite this humanitarian crisis, public and political debates are often influenced by anti-immigration sentiments, and focus on the volume of refugees and border control. The prevalence of these debates across the globe has often held back the integration of refugees and their children into education systems, employment, and society. However, it is precisely this integration which is so crucial to refugee children’s success, and to their accessing their right to education. Research has shown that including refugees in normal school tracks as soon as possible gives them the best opportunity to quickly gain the language and social skills needed to fully engage with their school’s curriculum and their peers, and to become fully involved in society.

A number of schools successfully undertake integration work with refugee children. For example, Newman Catholic College (NCC) in North West London is a School of Sanctuary, as well as a UNICEF Rights Respecting School. NCC has created specialist curricula for refugee students whose studies have been interrupted, which seek to improve their language skills and other educational requirements so that students can ‘catch-up’ and join mainstream classes. However, NCC also has programmes that tackle the other large barrier to education that refugee children face: discrimination. As discussed above, discrimination is sadly rampant in today’s discourse, and can affect not only a student’s educational progress, but also their engagement with society and mental health. To combat this, NCC hosts English classes for parents and regular ‘Arabic tea’ sessions for the school’s majority-Syrian refugee population. These events allow parents to mingle with one another. Programmes like those at NCC offer a meaningful and effective way forward for realising the right to education that benefits the whole community, and a useful model for schools across the world welcoming refugee children.

The case for education and the pathways it opens for successful integration is well documented. Education becomes a beacon of hope for young refugees, providing a place of safety and inspiration amid the tumult of displacement. Education investments and programmes nurture tomorrow’s scientists, writers, teachers, architects, public servants, entrepreneurs and much more. The education of these young people is crucial to the human developmental aspirations of the countries that have welcomed them, and to the future prosperity of their home countries. In celebration of International Human Rights Day, we should reflect on the structure of the world that we live in today and reiterate that Article 1 of UDHR remains just as powerful a realisation of our inalienable rights as it did in 1948.

Kate McMahon

Parliamentary Advocacy Coordinator

Kate is our Parliamentary Advocacy Coordinator. She holds a BSc in International Affairs, as well as a BSc in Political Science and Creative Writing, from Florida State University,...

Zelan Kader

Parliamentary Advocacy Officer for Education.
Zelan is the Parliamentary Advocacy Officer for Education. She has previously worked in Parliament and in the Middle East. She is a keen human rights activists and has published academically in this respect. In her spare time, Zelan enjoys travelling, hiking and reading.


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