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Getting 5 million refugee children into school must be ‘highest priority,’ advocates say

Syrian refugee children in a Lebanese school classroom. (Credit: U.K. Department for International Development/Flickr)

UNITED NATIONS — Human rights advocates are taking advantage of this week’s refugee summit in New York to push world leaders to prioritize education for child refugees, so that they can someday help rebuild their home countries.

There are roughly 10 million children and youth refugees – 50 million if migrants and internally displaced children are included. This week’s summit aims to address the crisis. The number of refugees is growing dramatically as violence, persecution and war continue to uproot people in Syria, Afghanistan and other countries in crisis.

Half of these children have no means of getting an education, 22 percent have the opportunity to go to secondary school and only 1 percent are able to seek higher education, according to a recent report by the U.N. Refugee Agency. According to the agency’s Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees Kelly Clements, these numbers are unacceptable.

“We’ve been spending a lot of time on education, certainly in the Syrian context,” said Clements at a U.N. meeting on Monday. “That is something that’s one of our highest, highest priorities.”

The U.N. held its first-ever summit to address the refugee and migrant crisis on Monday, and today, President Obama invited world leaders to his own refugee event – the last time he addressed the U.N. as president – to galvanize additional funding commitments and craft new policies. While the conversations have been dominated by the challenge of providing refugees with the means of basic survival, human rights advocates and refugees are pushing world leaders to take the conversation a step further.

“We need education, because Syria needs us,” said 18-year-old Muzoon Almellehan at a U.N. event on Monday. Almellehan fled Syria in 2013; since then, she has resettled with her family in Newcastle, England and became an advocate for girls’ education.

“Syria needs engineers, and doctors and journalists,” she said. “One day, when I am a journalist, there is a story I want to write. I want to write the story of how all the Syrian children came home to lift up their country.”

Other speakers at the U.N. event stressed that educating the world’s refugee children is not a question; it is a necessity. But families fleeing war or struggling to resettle in their countries of asylum rarely have access to a formal education system. Even worse, millions of today’s refugees have never even known the inside of a classroom, as they have never known life without war. Such trauma at early stages of development can lead to complex mental health needs, such as post-traumatic stress, depression and anxiety.

Still, there are always opportunities to improve the situations of child refugees even with few resources, said Save the Children CEO Carolyn Miles.

“There are things beyond just being in the classroom where you can get children together and start to deal with those psychological issues,” Miles said at a U.N. event in New York on Sunday. “That’s one of the first things we do in refugee situations, is get kids into places where they can play, have activities and get back on the road to school.”

Providing opportunities for these children to interact with their peers is sometimes one of the best interventions to help refugee children feel a sense of normalcy, she added, even if the situation isn’t ideal.

Despite the many well-intentioned voices calling for solutions this week, there are widespread doubts that the summits will result in the quick solutions needed. As Doctors Without Borders noted yesterday, it will be the follow up, the actions taken, that make a real difference for the millions of the world’s refugees.

Lisa is attending U.N. Week as a United Nations Foundation Global Issues Press fellow.


About Author

Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email or see her latest work at