Filippo Grandi is the 11th United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. He was elected by the UN General Assembly on 1 January 2016 to serve a five-year term, until 31 December 2020. Grandi has been engaged in refugee and humanitarian work for more than 30 years.
Education Cannot Wait: As the UN agency mandated by the UN General Assembly to provide international protection and seek solutions for refugees, could you please elaborate on the overall importance of education for refugee children as a component of protection and solutions?
Filippo Grandi: School is often one of the very first things that refugee families ask about after being displaced. Keen to recover a sense of normalcy and dignity after the trauma of being uprooted, they are also heavily invested in their children’s futures. Many children and young people are displaced several times before crossing a border and becoming a refugee. For these children school is the first place they start to regain a sense of routine, safety, friendship and even peace. Education plays a key role, both in ensuring the protection of children and young people and helps families and children focus on rebuilding their lives and returning to many of the activities that they would normally have engaged in prior to displacement.
As UNHCR’s recent Education Report 2020 has shown, whilst there have been some successes in access to primary education, these have slowed down. Gross Enrollment Ratios show that 77 per cent of refugee children are enrolled in primary education, but this drops dramatically to 31 per cent at the secondary level. Girls are disproportionately impacted. Since global evidence shows the significant protective nature of secondary education for girls, this is a key aspect of work for UNHCR and partners like Education Cannot Wait.
Together, we are petitioning for refugee enrollment in education at all levels to be brought up to global levels to enable the millions of children and young people around the world who have been forced to flee their homes to build a better future for themselves, their families and their communities. Allowed to learn, develop and thrive, children will grow up to contribute to the societies that host them but also to their homelands when peace allows for their return. Education is one of the most important ways to solve the world’s crises.
Education Cannot Wait: You are a long-standing member of Education Cannot Wait’s High-Level Steering Group. As you know, Education Cannot Wait is designed to ensure that children can continue their education in times of emergencies and protracted crises. Please elaborate on the special needs of refugee children during emergencies and protracted crises, and how do you see Education Cannot Wait contributing to meeting those rights and needs?
Filippo Grandi: The Global Compact for Refugees calls for measures to enable children and youth return to learning within three months of displacement. This goal highlights the important role that education – both formal and non-formal – plays in supporting children to resume normal activities. Children can feel a sense of belonging with their peers in classrooms, have the opportunity to play and engage in recreational activities, and receive potentially lifesaving information on issues related to health, hygiene and safety. Schools also provide access to support services, such as counselling and school-feeding programmes.
Preparing refugee children to enter into the national education systems of host communities is critical and requires working closely with Ministries of Education to remove administrative and policy barriers to school enrollment. It also entails ensuring children have the skills and abilities needed in order to thrive once they are enrolled in schools. Language learning classes – especially where the language of instruction is different – catch up programmes, and accelerated education all support children’s enrollment into school and ability to learn effectively. It is also important to provide information and material assistance to assist families overcome some of the practical barriers to school enrollment. Psycho-social support is also instrumental for children who have undergone the trauma of displacement and need help in adapting to new situations and environments.
The support provided by Education Cannot Wait enables agencies and organizations to ensure that services are provided after the onset of an emergency to address the immediate needs that have been highlighted above, focusing both on protection and education needs and working to ensure that children are prepared for inclusion in formal education programmes. Education Cannot Wait has also played a pivotal role in calling for donors to invest in education during and after emergencies to ensure children’s educational needs can be met during humanitarian crises, as evidenced by the increase in investment in education in emergencies over the last four years.
Education Cannot Wait: A significant number of pledges made by countries and other stakeholders at the 2019 Global Refugee Forum centered around education, including individual and joint pledges made by Education Cannot Wait highlighting multi-year investments to increase opportunities in secondary education for refugee children, and in working with other global funds to support quality education for refugees. What gaps in funding are there for refugee education globally and where best can donors help, including countries, civil society and private enterprises?
Filippo Grandi: While funding to education in emergencies grew five-fold between 2015 and 2019, education usually only receives between 2 and 5 percent of the total budget of humanitarian appeals. As we move from emergency situations to protracted crises, there is a risk that education spending is further deprioritized, making it harder to support host governments to continue the delivery of education services over a sustained period.
Funding gaps in education mean that it is often difficult to ensure that children and youth complete a full cycle of education, moving from primary, through secondary and to tertiary education. Global figures show that there is a dramatic drop in enrollment between primary and secondary education and that only 3 percent of refugee youth are enrolled in tertiary education programmes.
Funding gaps also mean that those who are most in need, including children in women- or child-headed households and those with disabilities do not receive the specialized support that is required in order to fully enjoy their right to education. The joint pledge at the Global Refugee Forum by Education Cannot Wait, the World Bank and the Global Partnership for Education has the potential to be a game changer in terms of ensuring that systems are strengthened and supported so that refugees and other vulnerable populations enjoy continued access to education.
Education Cannot Wait: Education Cannot Wait has dedicated its second round of COVID-19 First Emergency Response investments for refugee situations throughout the world. Could you please elaborate on some of the key emergencies in terms of refugee education for UNHCR and the difference that Education Cannot Wait’s emergency response for COVID-19 will make?
Filippo Grandi: The closure of schools around the world effectively meant that 90 percent of refugee children who were enrolled in schools and education programmes were unable to continue receiving an education.
As they are located in some of the most remote areas in countries or have limited resources at home, they were unable to benefit fully from distance and home-based learning programmes and are at serious risk of falling further behind academically. This risk is even more serious for adolescent girls where an estimated 50 percent of girls who were in school are at risk of not returning once classes resume. The closure of schools also means that many of the wrap-around support services mentioned earlier (food distribution, psycho-social support and recreational activities and learning support programmes) were disrupted.
Families who have lost their livelihoods as a result of the pandemic experience greater economic pressure and may deprioritize spending what little resources they have on schooling in order to ensure that their most basic needs are met. All these factors contribute to heighten protection risks during periods of school closure, leaving the educational futures of many refugee children hanging in the balance.
Keeping education going during a pandemic requires resourcefulness, innovation, invention and collaboration. Education Cannot Wait’s funding for the COVID-19 response will play a key role in mitigating these risks, by finding ways of ensuring that students are able to continue learning during school closures, disseminating information to refugee families about re-opening procedures and the safety protocols that will be put in place, training teachers on adjusting to the pandemic, providing additional materials to students, implementing back to school campaigns and making much-needed improvements to water and sanitation facilities in schools. Many of these activities have already been initiated with the generous support of Education Cannot Wait.
Education Cannot Wait: UNHCR and ECW have also jointly coordinated closely with host-governments, humanitarian and development actors in developing multi-year resilience investments, such as the Education Response Plan for Refugees and Host Communities in Uganda. How do you see this strengthening education for refugees and host-communities in the humanitarian-development nexus?
Filippo Grandi: The theme of UNHCR’s 2020 report is ‘Coming Together for Refugee Education’. This focus really echoes the Global Compact on Refugees which advocates for a “whole of society” approach to ensuring that the needs of refugees and hosting communities are addressed. This means that a range of stakeholders have a role to play in realizing the goals of the Compact. The presence of a clear plan and set of objectives for supporting access to education helps define roles and areas of contribution for a broad range of stakeholders. It is crucial that there are linkages between refugee and humanitarian response plans, multi-year resilience plans and longer-term sector development plans.
Education Cannot Wait’s support for education programming immediately after the onset of an emergency and the longer-term assistance provided through Multi-Year Resilience Programmes plays a crucial role in bridging the gap between humanitarian and development financing. The inclusion of refugees in host-country education systems means that donors and other actors need to work closely with governments to increase the capacity of these systems to accommodate additional students, develop teachers’ abilities to respond to students’ needs and to ensure that children can progress through different educational levels.
Education Cannot Wait: Would there be any final comments you would wish to make to ECW’s audience globally regarding the importance of refugee children’s education in emergencies?
Filippo Grandi: Investment in education for refugees is essential to ensure that creativity and potential of young people in conflict and crisis-affected regions is not lost. During the COVID-19 pandemic refugee students have played pivotal roles in their communities working on the frontlines as healthcare workers, making masks and soap to be distributed to those who need it, offering advice and disseminating health and hygiene information and establishing programmes for tutoring younger students. Their drive, initiative and passion would have been lost without early investment in their education.
Education for refugees is an investment that pays off for the whole community – and the world. It is also a fundamental right for all children that is affirmed in the 1951 Refugee Convention, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This right must also be upheld in emergencies where we call on global actors to focus not only on access but on the quality of education and children’s ability to learn, leading them to a brighter and more dignified future.