Education stands at the root of both the possibilities and perils faced by refugee children—access to quality education enables refugee youths to build a better life for themselves and enact positive change within their communities, whereas the absence of educational opportunities for refugee children can open doors to exploitative child labor, child marriage and teen pregnancy, and dangerous work as child soldiers (UNHCR) Refugee education is an area that requires immediate attention, specific funding, and effective policy changes. With refugee children being five times more likely than their national peers to be out of school (The Brookings Institution), there is a need to integrate refugee children into national education development plans. Refugees International Japan (RIJ) has played an integral role in increasing the availability of education to refugees in countries who are facing difficulties in accommodating the influx of refugee children into the national education system.
One project with which RIJ has opened educational opportunities to refugee populations is the opening of a pre-school for Syrian refugee children in Lebanon. The education system in Lebanon is highly privatized, seeing less than one third of school-aged Lebanese children enrolled in public schools (International Alert). Currently, 156 public schools in Lebanon have been enrolling Syrian students, but there are certain barriers to entry that complicate the enrollment process—including an assessment test, multilingual instruction, and a requirement that there be similar numbers of Lebanese students to Syrian refugee children in Lebanese classrooms (International Alert). Enrollment of Syrian refugees in formal education programs was 25% in 2014. The mission of this program is to run a special education program for nine months with a focus on psychosocial activities and preparing Syrian refugee children for entrance into the Lebanese school system. A similar pre-school program has already seen great success, with 100% of the first graduating class being accepted into public school and reports from public school teachers that the former students are excelling equally, if not more, than their peers. An aspect of the PARD project that increases its impact on the Syrian refugee community in Lebanon is that the teachers employed for the kindergarten are all refugees from the community, drawing from a wealth of women who were working in education at home but are currently unemployed.
In this period of formative growth, it is vital that children learn to be tolerant, globally conscious, and understanding of the differences between themselves and others. Classrooms that have both Lebanese students and refugee students have shown benefits to achieving this end, with significantly higher percentages of Lebanese students reporting better perceptions of Syrian refugees than their counterparts in segregated schools (International Alert). Programs like PARD operate at the intersection of education and social cohesion, as they prepare refugee children for integration into national education systems. This is not a problem specific to Syria. Though the uncertainty about the length of exile for Syrian refugee children accelerates the timeline in which action must be taken to address this need, similar crises exist all around the world—leaving children without access to quality education.
RIJ has a long history of supporting the Karenni Further Studies program, allowing 180 students to receive formal education in traditional school subjects as well as Leadership and Management and Computer Operations courses. Without educating its young people, a community risks the economic future of an entire generation. The Karenni Further Studies program educates the youths in order to build their confidence, strengthen their skills, and increase the community development capacity of IDP camps on the Thai-Burma border. Compared to the global average of 34%, only 1% of refugees attend university or pursue higher education. The Karenni Further Studies Program not only directly benefits the 45 students per year that take part in its courses, but also promotes positive change in the community and inspires future generations of learners that follow them.
Education provides the foundation from which refugees can build futures and find solutions for themselves and their communities, and thus should be of the utmost importance in refugee and IDP communities around the world. Yet, education receives less than 2% of all humanitarian funding, and there is an $8.5 billion funding gap needed to reach 75 million children who are in danger of missing out on their education (The Brookings Institution). In 2016, the UN set an agenda for global action for the next 15 years, including Sustainable Development Goal 4: Ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning. In order to meet this goal, there have already been concrete steps made to meet the educational needs of the millions of children worldwide who are affected by crises like the refugee crisis. The Education Cannot Wait fund, a source of capital to deliver a more collaborative and efficient response to the educational needs of children refugees, and the Educate a Child program, an initiative targeted at increasing the quality of and access to primary education for out-of-school refugee children, are both examples of products of government, company, and philanthropist collaboration to address the refugee education crisis. The presence of refugees puts an added stressor on public sectors, including the education systems in countries that might already be struggling to meet the need for quality education for all. Yet over the past few years, countries like Chad, Pakistan, and South Sudan have started to include refugees in their national development plans and education sector plans (The Brookings Institution). Some organizations are pursuing E-Learning as a viable solution to the refugee education crisis, and are finding innovative solutions to provide more flexible forms of education and allow for accelerated education programs for those who have already missed vital years in school (UNHCR). This global effort to reach all crisis-affected children with safe, free, and quality education by the year 2030 is ambitious—but regardless of the reality of this timeline, the efforts to accomplish this goal are important and telling of a prioritization of refugee education.
RIJ has had a steadfast commitment to education since its inception, and continues to support educational initiatives in many forms. Over the past 39 years, RIJ has funded $3,456,902 across 252 projects that stated education as its primary objective, and projects that explicitly involved building schools and classrooms received 17% of the education budget. RIJ has provided funds for schools for disabled children in Thailand, for refugees of pre-school age in Mozambique, for Afghan girls in Pakistan, and for thousands of other students across the world. Furthermore, RIJ realizes that education is not limited to the four walls of a classroom and thus provides health and nutritional training, leadership and management training, occupational capacity building, and legal rights seminars for refugees of all ages. It is also important to recognize that educating a refugee has profound implications far beyond the educational attainment of the individual—an education can become a catalyst for positive social change for entire refugee populations, keys for innovative problem-solving within refugee camps, and the foundation from which a refugee can not only climb the ladder of success, but bring their community with them