We decide how to treat refugees – it’s dehumanising to deprive them of an education

Learning opportunities for refugee children are utterly inadequate. With every missed year of school, kids lose ground and see their futures erode piece by piece

John Green
Monday 06 September 2021 10:36
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Soldier plays music for young Afghan refugees arriving in Germany

It has been a few years since I first met some of the millions of Syrians forced to flee the appalling violence in their home country. Visiting refugee camps in Jordan, I spoke to several young people whose lives had been upended – who had seen friends and family members killed and injured, who had been forced to leave their homes not knowing if or when they would return.

It is sobering to think that many of those kids will still be refugees, as the Syrian crisis – and the humanitarian disaster that accompanied it – is now in its 11th year.

Almost every child I met told me their number one priority was to get back into school. Through an interpreter, a 10-year-old girl named Aida told me: “I just want to learn.”

But the devastating reality is that the educational opportunities available to refugee children around the world are utterly inadequate. And with every missed year of school, kids lose ground and see their futures erode piece by piece.

Memories of this trip returned to me in recent days as I watched the chaos unfold in another war-torn country: Afghanistan, which has been wracked by violence for more than 40 years.

The cameras have focused on those scrambling to get on a plane and flee the country, including many who fear retribution because of their education or employment. But there are millions of others still in Afghanistan in desperate need of assistance, and whose futures are also uncertain. For many Afghan children, the insecurity and fragility of the society in which they have grown up has now significantly worsened, further undermining their chances of learning and fulfilling their potential.

Even if they manage to find safety in another country, the challenges do not end. The harrowing stories told by the Syrians I met in Jordan would be instantly familiar to the countless children from Afghanistan who have been forced to flee over the border. Instead of tales from the classroom and the playground, of getting onto the school team or into college, it is more likely they would have similar memories of fear, exhaustion and hunger – of nightmares they would rather forget.

The vast majority of refugees – 86 per cent – live in lower or middle-income countries. The result is that many children have no schools to attend, and where schooling is available, the education systems serving them are underfunded and overcrowded. Even where schools operate with a double-shift system to get more students through the doors, it is common for a classroom to contain more than 100 students per teacher.

But this is not just about overstretched education systems. As refugee children grow older, just when they should be taking wing as learners, they face intense economic pressures to support their families by finding work or fulfilling domestic duties. Refugees, whether from Syria, Afghanistan or elsewhere, left everything behind and had to start again. For many, education is something they simply cannot afford without financial assistance.

Being deprived of an education is dehumanising. Imagine the effect on your self-esteem of being deemed unworthy of a place in the classroom, or of feeling that the world didn’t think the right of education applied to you because you didn’t matter.

At root, all young refugees want is to be treated the same way as young people everywhere – not as people to be feared or pitied, not as statistics, not as problems, not as people who are somehow “less than” their contemporaries elsewhere, but as fully and multitudinously human.

Young refugees are often referred to as a “lost generation,” but in fact they are not lost. We know where they are and what they need: schools, teachers, books, equipment and technology, and care. They are not lost. They are waiting for the world to acknowledge their humanity and their right to education.

We cannot address this crisis on the cheap. Technology can be an important tool – and during the pandemic, it has been crucial in allowing learning to continue – but it should never replace the environment of the classroom for socialisation and learning, nor the valuable skills, training and experience of a teacher. 

We have to invest in young people as a collective entity, not cut several million kids out of the social deal because their circumstances make it difficult or inconvenient to give them an education. Every young person is our responsibility because every young person will help us face the challenges of healthcare, climate change, poverty, tech and employment, equality and human rights, and more.

We decide how to treat our fellow human beings, and we can decide to support the world’s children, including young refugees, with the compassion and resources they deserve.

Author and vlogger John Green has been a supporter of UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, since 2015. John has supported major UNHCR campaigns including #WithRefugees and World Refugee Day. His piece will appear in UNCHR’s annual education report for 2021 to be published on Tuesday.

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