The Impact of COVID-19 on Refugee Education

An adequate education has the power to propel any student towards future success. For refugee children—whose early lives are often defined by the instability of displacement—the academic, social, and environmental aspects of attending school build important tools supporting advancement later in life. As the world builds back in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, leaders cannot leave refugee education behind. 

Governments and the humanitarian community have faced longstanding challenges in providing access to education for refugee children. In 2019, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that of the estimated 7.1 million school-aged refugee children around the world, 3.7 million were out of school. When further examined by age, although 77 percent of primary school-aged refugee children are enrolled in schools, that number drastically reduces to 31 percent for secondary school enrollment and just 3 percent for higher education enrollment.

In recent years, refugee education appeared to be on track for long-awaited, positive change. It was one of six topics of focus at the inaugural UNHCR Global Refugee Forum in December 2019, and garnered support from donors and policymakers alike who pledged to make refugee students a top priority. Additionally, the meaningful inclusion of education issues in the 2018 Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration and a steady increase of refugee school enrollment rates seemed further reason for optimism. 

But the COVID-19 pandemic has proven a significant setback. The international community must not abandon the progress made in improving refugee education, and must recommit to recovering and rebuilding stronger.

Impact of COVID-19

Within a matter of weeks, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic brought abrupt change and disarray to nearly every sector of the global community. For education, schools from rich and poor countries alike were forced to shut down all in-person operations and transition to untested models of distance learning. By April 2020, an estimated 1 billion students had their access to education completely disrupted. One year later, UNESCO estimates that 753,481,931 students remain affected by complete or partial school closures. Although the exact number of refugees affected by such shutdowns is not yet available, UNHCR predicts that existing educational disadvantages disproportionately faced by refugee children have only worsened.

Absence of Distance Learning

A large number of refugee children have been unable to access any form of distance learning due to technology barriers. The internet access, tablets, laptops, and cell phones currently serving as stopgap classrooms for millions of children throughout the world are much harder to access from within refugee communities. In 2016, UNHCR estimated that refugees are 50 percent less likely than the general population to have access to devices with internet capability. Subsequently, a majority of refugee students have been excluded from any source of education for the duration of the pandemic. 

Long-Term Enrollment Effects

Developmentally, losing a full year of education for any student is difficult to recover from. The added instability of their environment puts refugee children at even greater risk of dropping out.  Spikes in child-labor, gender-based violence, child marriage, and child pregnancy in refugee communities linked to increased rates of out-of-school refugee children highlight the impact of this instability. Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic will negatively affect refugee girls’ access to education in even more acute and longer-lasting ways than refugee boys. In their recent “Girls’ Education and COVID-19 report, the Malala Fund estimated that half of refugee girls enrolled in secondary school before COVID-19 will not return due to lasting consequences of the pandemic. 

Financial Impact

COVID-19 has also had a profound impact on the financial wellbeing of refugee families that directly affect their educational prospects. In Turkey, Save the Children reports that approximately 80 percent of refugee households have experienced “negative changes in employment and income status.” With this economic trend observed in many other refugee communities around the world, an overwhelming number of refugee households will be unable to cover costs of future transportation or materials to attend school. 

On a broader scale, as a sector heavily reliant on international humanitarian aid, it is also important to keep in mind the financial realities of post-pandemic education recovery. Considering that the COVID-19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan education cluster was only 7.33 percent funded when the campaign ended in December 2020, future efforts to rebuild education for refugee children will be severely limited by financial constraints unless more support is provided. Given the acute vulnerabilities of refugee children and the severity of long-term effects on their future lives, a major investment in ensuring refugee education is urgently needed.

The unprecedented economic and social disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic has added a deep layer of complexity to the challenge of providing refugee education. Although major pre-pandemic priorities regarding refugee education such as expanding accessibility and quality of education remain, international communities now face the added challenge of identifying and repairing barriers brought on by the pandemic. It is imperative that refugee education receives the financial support needed to fill gaps in access. The coming years will be crucial for donors, policymakers, and community leaders to mitigate long-term damage from the pandemic on refugee education while staying focused on the future.

PHOTO CAPTION: Grade 8 learners at Arid Zone Primary School in Kenya attend a language lesson while wearing face masks so that they can attend school amid the pandemic. Photo Credit: © UNHCR/SAMUEL OTIENO