Migration and displacement dominate our news media, and for good reason: launching its annual Global Trends study, UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency reported that that 65.6 million people were forcibly displaced worldwide at the end of 2016 – a total bigger than the population of the United Kingdom.
22.5 million of the 65.6 million are refugees, people who’ve fled their homes and arrived in a new country in search of protection.
Over half of the world’s refugees are children. Having already lost their homes the likelihood is that they will lose their right to go to school. More than half of all primary aged refugee children are out of school and fewer than one in four refugee children get to go to high school.
On a recent trip to Uganda which now hosts the world’s their largest refugee population I met Rosa and her younger sister Vicky who travelled to Uganda from South Sudan on their own. “Walk straight down this road and eventually you will reach Uganda,” their parents told them. It took the sisters four days to make the journey.
While Rosa and Vicky did not directly experience the violence which is driving thousands of others from their homes, their parents wanted them to leave for two reasons. First, fears for the future. Second, their school had been closed for months because of insecurity. The two girls were sent on what their parents knew to be a hazardous journey in the hope they would find safety and schooling.
But Rosa and Vicky and the over 400,000 refugee children from South Sudan now in Uganda face an education emergency.
Having witnessed unspeakable acts of violence, these children now need security and a chance to rebuild their lives. Education has a vital role to play. Yet the vast majority of South Sudanese refugee children are either out-of-school or crammed into overcrowded schools lacking the teachers and books needed to deliver effective learning. There is a real and present danger that an entire generation of refugee children will be deprived of the education they need to rebuild their lives.
For its part the Ugandan government has responded to the refugee crisis with extraordinary generosity. It welcomes refugees, provides them land on which to live and has opened its already over-stretched schools, health facilities and other services to refugee populations.
The same cannot be said of the international community. Donor governments have funded just 17 per cent of the UN appeal for the South Sudan refugee response in Uganda this year. The response to the education emergency has bordered on derisory. Only a small fraction of the grossly inadequate $61.6m appeal for education has been delivered. Our new report ‘Restoring hope, Rebuilding lives: A plan of action for delivering universal education for South Sudanese refugees in Uganda’ challenges donor governments and international agencies to do better.
It sets out a plan of action which, if implemented, could deliver quality universal pre-primary, primary and secondary education for South Sudanese refugee children in Uganda at an average cost of $132 million USD a year for three and a half years.
This represents around $152 USD per child annually. The costs should be viewed as an investment in the future of over 1 million children – not just up to 900,000 refugees, but also the Ugandan children who will benefit from the expansion in services in the areas hosting refugees. Later this week the Ugandan Government and UN Secretary General will host a Solidarity Summit, designed to secure the support that Uganda needs to host its growing population of refugees, including by providing education.
The Summit is an opportunity for the international community to demonstrate it is serious about the pledges undertaken at successive summits on humanitarian action and refugees. And it is an opportunity to draw a line in the sand on the institutionalised neglect of education in emergencies. Providing refugees with an opportunity to learn is the building block for their recovery and a vital link from humanitarian response to recovery, resilience and long-term development. The plan of action set out in ‘Restoring Hope, Rebuilding Futures’ is not a silver bullet. It will not deliver world class education. Nor will it resolve the underlying problems that pose significant challenges for Uganda’s education system. What it will do is provide the hope that comes with education to vulnerable refugee children, and to children in host communities. It will also signal that the international community stands ready to back the pledges made at international summits with practical action, backed by finance.
Having made the perilous journey to a new country in search of education we owe Rosa and Vicky and the hundreds of children like them, who desperately want to return to school, the opportunity to do so.