Amidst the desperate scenes of thousands of Syrians crossing the Aegean sea in 2015 to reach Europe, it became a commonplace that the international system for refugees was broken. Here was a problem that the rich world could no longer ignore.
A small group of countries – most of them poor – are hosting a large majority of the world’s refugees, and face ever-growing demands on their resources as unprecedented numbers of people are forced from their homes and across national borders. The international response to this crisis has been fragmented, slow and insufficient to the scale of the task. It has also been short term when refugees – roughly half of them children – are often spending a decade or more uprooted from their homes. By accidents of geography and history, it’s being largely left to host countries to carry the cost.
A new global refugee compact, adopted last year at the UN General Assembly in New York, was designed to fix this problem. A group of pilot countries, with Uganda first in line, were intended to demonstrate a new approach to meeting international obligations to the world’s refugees.
No country exemplifies the current failings of the international response to the refugee crisis better than Uganda. Here is a low-income country in which, despite spectacular economic growth, a fifth of people live in extreme poverty. Despite its limited means, it’s also a country which has been open and generous in its approach to refugees, offering sanctuary to people fleeing war, and enabling them to work legally, hold land, and use already over-stretched schools, clinics and other public services.
At a time when rich countries often seem to be engaged in a race to the bottom on refugee policy, Uganda is holding to a higher standard. But it cannot be expected to do so unaided. Since mid-2016, an increasingly widespread and brutal civil war in South Sudan has driven a million refugees across the border into northern Uganda, with one refugee child arriving every minute in recent months. Bidi Bidi – a tarpaulin sprawl close to the border - now holds the dubious distinction of being the world’s largest refugee camp. In the face of this unprecedented influx, donors have so far funded just 17% of the UN response plan this year.
The credibility of donor countries and the refugee system is on the line in Uganda. But the stakes are higher than that. Without additional support to Uganda there will be a lost generation of South Sudanese child refugees, many of them psychologically scarred by what they saw on their journey to safety, growing up with little invested in a more peaceful future for their country.
Education is at the heart of meeting this challenge. An estimated 300,000 child refugees from South Sudan are currently out of school. Most are living in areas of northern Uganda where local children face their own obstacles to getting a quality education. With the right international support, both children in host communities and refugees could be given a different future. For an annual price tag of $132 million, schools could be improved and expanded, and morning and afternoon shifts introduced, to give both local children and refugees a quality basic education. Refugee teachers from South Sudan and Ugandans could be trained and hired, and books printed, at a monthly cost of $12 for each student.
There will doubtless be objections that this is unaffordable at a time when crises around the world, from hunger in Somalia to refugee needs in the Middle East, are competing for international attention. But a combination of funding streams, including the World Bank’s new crisis window for supporting refugees, to the ‘Education Cannot Wait’ initiative – specifically designed to allow children caught up in humanitarian crises to learn – could be tapped to bridge the gap.
The heaviest price tag is carried by inaction. Countries like South Sudan have no realistic prospect of recovery without an educated population. And host countries like Uganda with their own major development challenges cannot, and should not, be expected to sustain support for refugees without outside help – and risk future instability if it isn’t forthcoming.
This week’s ‘solidarity summit’ in Uganda – attended by the UN Secretary General and donor governments – is a make or break moment, for the global refugee compact, and for the thousands of South Sudanese children in Uganda currently unable to attend classes and learn. When asked, child refugees consistently cite education as a priority. It gives them normality amidst pain and disruption, and hope for the future. It is time for the international community to listen to their voice.