Almost two years ago, on September 19 2016, at the height of the European refugee crisis, the United Nations General Assembly unanimously adopted the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants. The Declaration was hailed as the foundation of a new approach by the international community to large movements of refugees and migrants, as well as to protracted refugee situations.

The Declaration committed to ensuring that all refugee children would be in school and learning within a few months of crossing an international border.

Since that promise was made, the world’s 3.5 million child refugees that don’t have access to education have lost over 1 billion days of schooling. Shockingly, every day another 1.9 million school days are lost.

Many of the children who have fled their homes seeking protection in other countries have of course already lost years of schooling and many, coming from poor and conflicted affected states, have never enrolled in school in the first place.

For those child refugees who do have access to education, the quality is often very poor. The situation is especially bleak in countries where a third generation of children have been born into displacement, and where the prospects of a safe return to their countries of origin seems like a distant dream.

The case for education for refugees is abundantly clear. It provides them with the building blocks they need to recover and forms a vital link from humanitarian response to resilience and long-term development. During displacement the need for education in safe, nurturing environments, which provides hope and a path for the future is critical. 

This is why there is a premium on urgency. Refugee children cannot afford more prevarication.

Delivering the promise of the New York Declaration

Consultations are currently underway to develop the Global Compact on Refugees Programme of Action that sets out what national governments and others should do to deliver the promises made in the New York Declaration.

The Programme of Action is a once in a generation opportunity to deliver a step change in the way the world deals with the needs of refugees, and supports the communities that host them, including how we can ensure refugee and host community children get access to quality schooling.

The Programme of Action must become the foundation for an actionable plan to give all refugee children access to quality learning.

The latest draft of the Programme of Action has some welcome language on improving access to quality education but should be strengthened in two key ways.

1.     Support for host countries to include refugee learners in national education systems

The inclusion of refugees in the national education system of the country in which they have sought protection, is the most practical and sustainable way to enable displaced children access to accredited learning opportunities.

The number of countries that are opening up their schools to refugee children is growing, but their already stretched education systems often struggle to accommodate large numbers of refugee children.

This includes Chad, where despite the fact that access to quality education remains a significant challenge, it was the first country to include an “emergency education” component targeting refugee children in its interim education plan. Chad has also accessed funding for the plan using the Global Partnership for Education’s accelerated funding window.

Late last year, the First Regional Ministerial Conference on Refugee Education in IGAD Member States saw Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan and Uganda adopt the Djibouti Declaration which commits them all to provide refugee children with access to their national education systems without discrimination.

The generosity that these and other refugee hosting countries have demonstrated by opening up their national education systems to refugees must be matched by practical and technical support from the international community.

The Programme of Action should include such a commitment, including the shared responsibility of donors, the Global Partnership for Education, Education Cannot Wait and the World Bank to rapidly increase technical and material support to hosting countries that are committed to including refugees in their national education systems.

2. Practical action to begin closing the refugee education financing gap

86% of the world’s refugees live in low- and middle-income countries. These countries need additional financial support to scale up provision of educational services, both for refugee and host community children. Without that support the responsibility for large movements of refugees will not be properly shared.

The current draft Programme of Action recognises the need for additional resources to improve access to education for refugee and host communities but fails to articulate any meaningful measure to close the financing gap in practice.

A costed global plan for refugee education, focussed on financing access for those children currently not in school and improving the learning outcomes for refugee and host community learners who are, would be a useful starting point for mobilising the necessary funding.

It would be based on national cost estimates in refugee hosting countries and use common costs to achieve a degree of comparability.

Responsibility for the development of the education costings would be shared by a consortium of organisations with a mandate for education both of refugees and host communities, including UNHCR, UNICEF, the World Bank, the Global Partnership for Education, Education Cannot Wait and UNESCO, with support and engagement from donor and host country governments and civil society organisations with relevant expertise.

Education costings produced in advance of the Supporting Syria and the Region London Conference in 2016 were critical to establishing a shared understanding of both the magnitude of the challenge and the funding required to effectively tackle it.  The costings formed part of the Syria Crisis Education Strategic Paper which in addition to identifying the required funding set out the methods that would be used to spend it.

Similarly, costings produced by civil society organisations for delivering universal education for South Sudanese refugees in advance of the Uganda Solidarity Summit in 2017 were instrumental in a decision by the Government of Uganda to produce official costings, which now forms part of the country’s refugee and host community education response plan.

Costings aren’t a silver bullet. But without them and the working assumptions behind them, it’s difficult to begin harnessing the attention, let alone the funding required by the task at hand.

Refugees and the communities that host them deserve better

The purpose of the Global Compact on Refugees is to generate new momentum and energy in responding to the global refugee crisis.

Refugee parents and children consistently identify access to quality education as one of their highest-priority concerns. Despite the enduring hardships they face, the determination of refugee communities to provide their children with an education is genuinely inspiring.  If it is to have any value, the Programme of Action that underpins the Global Compact must commit to meaningful actions that matches the determination and creativity of refugees, alongside the generosity of hosting states.

Supporting those states to ensure refugee children have access to quality learning opportunities and working out how much this will cost as part of a plan to deliver it, are the least we should expect.