Inclusion of refugees in national education systems

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Inclusion of refugees in national education systems

Below is a list of questions to serve as a starting framework for the discussion in this thread:

  • What unique needs do refugee students have that a school must account for?
  • How can governments address the needs of refugee students without excluding other pupils?
  • What is the difference between inclusion and assimilation?
  • What strategies can be used when host governments are uncooperative on refugee education?
  • How can language barriers be dealt with most effectively?
  • Share stories of success
Access to education and bureaucracies

In January 2017, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported a total of 60,520 individuals with refugee status in Ecuador, 95 percent of whom are Colombian (UNHCR 2017). Even though Colombian and Ecuadorian students speak the same language –Spanish–  xenophobia is an important barrier to integration. In a country that promotes universal access to education, civil servants’ prejudices against Colombians serve as an important barrier to education (Rodríguez-Gómez, 2016). How do you think we can address this challenge? How can we train street-level bureaucrats to guarantee physical access to school?

Access to education and bureaucracies

Dear Diana

Thanks for your question. Do you know what the policy is in Ecuador with regard to refugees accessing national education systems? I know that 64 out of 81 refugee hosting countries do not have restrictions on refugees accessing national systems. Whilist this may be policy there may be several challenges with actual implementation on the ground. Inclusion is not only sustainble and ensures that refugees are able have access to acountable education services, ensures certifcation through accredited systems and supports governments to assume thier responsibiities for refugee protection it also supports integration between refugees and host communities.

To answer your question in how we can address the bureaucrats,  if refugees are included in national systems then they have to take responsibility in providing education for both refugees and their own national population. Its also important to show that with inclusion comes  benefits to host populations and national education systems: additional resources e.g. school construction for  refugees in a country with a policy for inclusion will also will also mean that schools are constructed are built in areas where both refugees and host communities can access and benefit.

Does anyone here have experience of refugees being included in national systems and have seen the benefits for both refugees and host communities?


Accommodating both refugee and marginalized national communities

I have carried out research in Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, and I see many of the benefits that you point to, Martha, in terms of national integration policies. In particular, the host community in Kakuma (Turkana)-- which has been historically marginalized and underserved by the state-- has greater access to schools. I think one challenge here is convincing states that they have an obligation to better serve the communities near refugee camps and settlements, or communities that might benefit from refugee support systems. For example, many camp locations are selected for their isolation from elites and structures of power-- for me the question becomes, how do we ensure that states better serve refugees and their own marginalized communities when some of these structures and attitudes are so entrenched? And perhaps especially so when we think about state obligations to national citizens as a key space for leveraging their support for refugees...  This moves towards some of the xenophobic elements that Diana mentioned as persistent challenges, though important to keep in mind that multiple kinds of discrimination might be unfolding at once.

Access to Education and Bureaucracies.

Hello Diana, Thanks so much for your question. To echo Martha I would say that one of the big challenges is the implementation of the policies. For instance here in Uganda all the information about the refugees are centralized at the top level (Ministry level) but when you go to the local level (Division level) there is no any information available. Uganda has one of the best refugee policies in the work but in the country here only few people know about it. I think that is what makes it sometimes difficult for local people to understand exactly who are refugees, why they are in the country and what policy is governing them, and that is where this issue of xenophobia comes from. In my opinion it’s the responsibility of the Government and UNHCR to work together and make sure that the policies in place are implemented at all the levels. The other point raised by Martha is to have in place projects that support both refugees and nationals. For instance in urban areas refugees live mostly in slums where also the poor Ugandans stays, you will realized that apart from some specific challenges that refugees face because of their displacement situation, they share the same challenges as local poor people, so coming up with projects that support only refugees will create conflict. As far as education is concerned UNHCR need to come up with projects that support also local people so that they realize that the presence of refugees can create opportunities also for them.

The policy-implementation gap

Hi Robert! I totally hear you when you say "Uganda has one of the best refugee policies" - In Ecuador, the case I have analyzed in detail occures the same. Recently I collaborated in a research project on access to education for refugees in the Global South (See attached). It has an extended section on the policy-implementation gap. It highlights how limited space in government schools, limited capacity to monitor educational policies, lack of strong databases and information, and the rising xenophobia constrain the opportunities to access school. From my point of view, these are significant causes for education reform, but how do we push these transformations when politicians/civil servants seem so hesitant? What do we know about their will to re-shape the educational sector to integrate more diverse populations? What type of political advocacy do we need to push for these changes to happen? These are questions that still intrigue me.

The policy implementation gap

Dear Diana, Thanks so much for sharing the research's report, it's very interesting and I have learned a lot from it. I think these are very important questions you have raised. Yes it's clear that most of time politicians (countries) come up with very nice policies but the problem has always been their implementation. There is a strong need of advocacy and lobbying. As I said in my previous comment, these policies are done at the top level but have to be implemented down there and it's the responsibility of the government to make sure that the policies are fully implemented every where. Martha said it very well that the role and obligation of governments is to assume their responsibility for refugee protection and rights under the 1951 convention. I think the governments have a very big role to play. Why is it that in some countries these policies are implemented and in other countries not?

The policy implementation gap

Hi Robert

To try and give some suggestions as to why in some countries these policies are implemented and in others not i think its largey reliant on political will and  finance...and as you also pointed out in your first post awareness, dissemination and education about these policies at the regional/ district level. Its also important that school head teachers and teachers are also aware and act upon these policies.   I guess, like so many policies they are written / developed by people who sit a long way from the implementation and are not aware of all the constraints on the ground. The humanitarian sector need to work with Governments to advocate and ensure that policies are implemented; donors need to tie funding to implementation; Governments need to priortise spending,  dissemination and enforcement of policies and refugees and host communties need to be aware and demand thier rights. 

Access to Education and Bureaucracies

Hi Robert

I agree with you that implementation at the local level is key.  Policies do not often get down to those who are implementing so capacity building, dissemination is critical if these polices are to be effectivly implemented.

Your point about supporting host communities aswell as refugees is key. 86% of refugees live in developing countries and access to quality education is challeging for nationals, education systems are struggling to meet the needs of national populations and are not perfect but access to national systems for refugees means equitable access to education....and with investment into national systems increased access and quality for all.

You mention that UNHCR needs to come up with projects that suport local people as well as refugees- and i agree and we do this and have done alot in Uganda but also the global shift in policy also recognises the need for supporting local communities. The New York declaration calls for a shift in the response to large-scale refugee situations. Rather than responding to refugee displacement through a purely, and often underfunded, humanitarian lens, the elements of the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF) are designed to provide a more systematic and sustainable response that benefits both refugees and the communities that host them.

UNHCRs Strategic Directions 2017-2021 (Jan 2017) also promotes inclusion of displaced persons into mainstream, national systems, including national education systems. 

New problems, but also better visibility on pre-existing ones?

It seems like two of the issues raised on this thread go together: one way to reduce xenophobic reactions to refugee students in national school systems is to provide quality education for refugee children that is also beneficial to host communities. This can obviously be hard to achieve. In Jordan, some schools saw their student populations expand dramatically as Syrian families arrived, putting a strain on the school's infrastructure and teaching staff. The education ministry put hundreds of schools on "double shifts" to accommodate the increased number of students, but at the cost of reducing classroom time for Jordanian students (who typically went in the 'morning shift', with the Syrians in the 'afternoon shift', with neither shift getting the same amount of time as a normal class would). Jordan isn't magically free of xenophobia but parents who cared about their children's education had objective reasons to be upset about Syrian refugees. The education ministry has held its line that every child in Jordan should be able to go to school; but the class schedule shifted again, and to make time for a longer/normal morning shift, the afternoon/'Syrian' shift was shortened. (The afternoon-shift kids had to come to school on Saturdays to make up for it, but even so they got less time per week in class than the morning shift kids.)  

But to stick with Jordan, there's also a win-win example with regard to the way the refugee response has improve the quality of education in some public schools. The EU worked with the education ministry to institute a quality testing system at something like 30 public schools: a grand total of around 2 people created detailed matrices they used to collect information from students, parents, teachers, and administrators; schools were graded and given the information about what was working and what needed improving; and the EU also had a small budget of funds that was allocated directly to the schools, if they could find ways to improve quality. For not very much money, follow-up info-gathering showed that these 30 schools were improving in response to information about their performance, and increased accountability through direct grants. That kind of improvement benefits the Jordanian and Syrian students alike.

The Syria refugee context has also exposed, or served as a reminder, of pre-existing weaknesses and problems with national education systems. A serious problem in Jordanian and Lebanese schools is corporal punishment of students by staff. Surveys of Syrian children and their families that asked why kids dropped out often found that corporal punishment was a factor -- violence that host-country students have been suffering for years. Everyone would benefit if the donor funding and international attention due to the refugee context translated into accountability and a reduction in violence against children in these national school sytems. 

Followup questions about Jordan

I really appreciate this read on how refugee integration and attention to educational policy and school contexts can provide the additional attention and impetus to address pre-existing challenges. Also the idea that quality education can be a solution that attracts nationals to schools serving refugees and facilitate interactions that work against discrimination and xenophobia.

Yet I'm not clear if/ how the latter is possibly working in the case of Jordan. I'm curious if there is an impression of unequal quality in the morning and afternoon shifts. In addition to worries about reduced time, are there substantive differences in the school experiences for these children? Clearly separation of nationals and Syrian refugees was a factor in shaping this approach to double shifts-- but I'm not clear whether it was a preference for social segregation or a presumed logical response to overcrowding. What motivated them to segregate, rather than integrate, if not xenophobia-- and is your impression that these separate classes are agitating social divisions or reducing the risk of conflict between them? 


Hi Michelle, I think your questions are important not only in Jordan, but also in Lebanon and in Turkey, which to varying degrees have also adopted 'double shifts' at public schools in areas where the number of Syrian refugee children exceeded the capacity of the school system. (Some UNRWA schools for Palestine refugee children have also been forced to operate on double shifts due to lack of funding. Is this double-shift phenomenon widespread, beyond the Middle East?) 

I should clarify that there are often no explicit rules against Syrian children attending 'morning shift' classes; it's often a de facto situation that 'new' students are added to afternoon shifts. But the result is that the large majority of children in morning shift classes are often nationals, whereas all the children in the afternoon shifts are Syrian.

I haven't seen any arguments that implementing the double-shift system in this way helps either educational outcomes or community interrelations. Perhaps the unspoken motive is political pragmatism. This is just a hypothesis, but imagine an alternative, where all refugee kids and all local kids were randomly allocated slots in the morning or the afternoon shift; one can also imagine local parents and communities might have strongly opposed that, with the result of serious disruption and less education for everyone. Local communities in various refugee-hosting countries have expressed concerns that the quality of education will decrease in classrooms with large new numbers of Syrian students, many of whom have been out of school for years, who are used to a different curricula, etc. -- as though teachers will have to teach 'down' or merely manage unruly classes rather than 'really' teaching. There are some xenophobic claims that refugees don't care about education, but my impression is that a lot of local parents' concerns were based on rational/bona fide concerns. (And of course, many local parents and communities have been incredibly generous -- I can only imagine what would happen in some wealthy, Western communities if schools were suddenly operating at 2X capacity in order to accommodate refugee children...)

The basis for the double shift system is to squeeze twice as much education out of a finite amount of infrastructure. As a crisis response to an influx of large numbers of new students in countries with under-resourced education systems, it is hard to fault that logic. But over time, if feasible alternatives are ignored and an emergency-response is accepted as the norm, then discrimination (which is measured based on effects, not intent) becomes an increasing concern. 

Double shifts and teachers' awareness of student status

Hi all, So much going on here, I'm still trying to absorb it all!  But in answer to Bill's question about double shifts, I think they exist in many overstreched schools beyond the Middle East and certainly do exist in camp schools in Kenya. They are still being experimented with at secondary levels, though they are now widely seen as a solution for expanding primary-- as you note, with finite resources. One element that strikes me as distinct to implementation across these cases is the level of integration/ segregation. For example in Kakuma, there is no substantial difference in the population that attends AM or PM shifts, so classes are both targeted toward primarily refugee students with minimal integration of host community students. So much of this would change if refugees were physically integrated into non-camp settings, and perhaps there would emerge the need (or presumed need) for segregation on the basis of conflict avoidance and/or efforts to make one shift more culturally relevant to a particular group than another.

This leads me to another question I would love to hear thoughts on. In situations where refugee students are integrated in classrooms with host community students and/or other nationals, how important is it that educators are aware of students’ identity and status? To what extent might this awareness offer students more support, and to what extent does it pose a risk for discrimination, exclusion, or setting up lower expectations? I suppose I have seen this go both ways in Kenya, often depending on the level of diversity present, so I would be curious to hear whether others have developed a strong preference in other contexts.

New problems, but also better visibility on pre-existing ones?

Thanks for your comments BIll.

I'd also like to add that it was in 2016, the UK, Germany, Kuwait, Norway and the UN co-hosted a conference on the Syria crisis in London. In the conference, Jordan presented its ‘Accelerating Access to Quality Formal Education’ plan, specifically designed to support the education needs of Syrian refugees, through two main channels: 

  1. increasing the double-shift schools from 98 in 2015/2016 school year to 200 in 2016/2017
  2. implementing a large scale Catch-Up program for children aged 9-12

You have described some of the challenges withthe double shift program but also the catch up program is an important intitiave linking to another conversation regarding flexible pathways.   The program’s curriculum is a condensed version of the Jordanian public curriculum based on the main learning outcomes and objectives. The program includes three levels of accelerated education. Each level is one academic year and consists of 2 grades (Level (L) 1: grades (gr) 1 & 2 / L2: gr. 3 & 4 / L3: gr. 5 & 6). Successfully fulfilling a level of the program, provides the child with a chance to transition to formal education (FE) when age appropriate. 

Have you heard of this program and what are your impressions?

Catch-up programs

Hi Martha,

Thanks for bringing up Jordan's Catch-Up program. It seems like a substantial, innovative effort -- with international support, Jordan developed a modified curriculum to reach children who'd been out of school for years, trained teachers to implement it, and even built some new classrooms dedicated to the program.

In addition, the program also circumvented a bizarre old regulation called the "three year rule." This rule prohibitied all children (not just Syrians) who had been out of school for three or more years from (re)enrolling in public schools. The Catch-Up program was designed such that children who complete it are no longer barred by the three year rule. 

But its initial impact seems to have been far less than Jordan had hoped, so it would be key to understand what isn't working and how to expand access to the program for out-of-school children. Jordan had hoped to enroll 25,000 children in the program in the 2016/2017 school year, but the last I heard, only around 2,000 had actually enrolled (that was months ago - the numbers may have improved, but it seemed there was still a huge gap between the goal and the actual enrollment). The Catch-Up program is taught in public schools, so presumably, some of the reasons that keep children from enrolling in public school are also preventing them from benefiting from the new program, e.g. the unaffordable cost of transportation to school. 

Another question is how to reach out-of-school children older than age 12. As you note, the Catch-Up program is aimed only at children age 9-12. Children ages 13 and up have the option of learning in an NGO-run program, which the education ministry has accredited (and, very anecdotally, a handful of students told me they think the program is quite good), but it has very limited capacity. Donors are supporting the expansion of this NGO-led program, but even so, it can only reach roughly 2,000 older children a year overall (Syrian plus Jordanian children). It seems particularly important to provide accessible education for children in this age range, given the increasing pressures to work or to marry as children become adolescents.

So, to circle back to a question you'd asked: are there experiences in other contexts that could help point the way for Jordan to achieve its goals to get more Syrian children in school through accelerated-learning programs? Especially for adolescent children who have been out of school?

Catch up, accelerated education, flexible programs

Hi Bill

I'm aware that the catch up program hasnt been as succesful in enrolment as expected and it would be key to find out why this is. We did some research in the MENA region on Acclerated Education (AE) programs and found out that these flexible programs e.g catch up, acclerated education often lacked the flexibility that these programs are suppossed to provide because they are aimed at these particular learners. Flexibility is particularly important in catering for the complex and diverse needs that over age out of school children (OOSC), especially refugees, face.

The lack of provision for learners at secondary level was also a key finding in the MENA region. The number of dropouts at secondary level  is either double or near double that of primary age yet the majority of the AEPs focus on primary education. There are no AE programs that address the huge numbers of secondary aged students who have dropped out. 

There are many Accelerated Education (AE) programs being implemented globally, AE programs have been used for many years to cater for out of school over age children (not just refugees) especially in post conflict contexts where they have missed out on long periods of schooling e.g. South Sudan (which has a very well established AE program), DRC, Liberia;  Sierra Leone but also in contexts where there have been high numbers of out of school (OOS) populations e.g. in Kenya, Uganda. The one thing that is missing from AE programming is significant documentation on the impact of such programming, including how far we are contributing to learning achievement and how successful we are at facilitating pathways between accelerated programming and formal and non-formal education. There is also a  lack of guidance, standards and indicators for efficient program planning, implementation and monitoring. In practice, Accelerated Education takes different forms in different countries, and even within countries. 

To address some of these specific challenges related to Accelerated Education, starting with the lack of guidance and standards, in 2014 UNHCR invited a small number of education partners working in the area to participate in the formation of working group. This working group is called the Accelerated Education Working Group, led by UNHCR with representation from UNESCO, USAID, UNICEF, NRC, Save the Children, Plan, IRC, War Child Holland and the Education and Conlfict Crisis Network.

We have developed several guidance and tools and conducted research on AE, please see the USAID ECCN site that has all of our guidance. and research which may help in supporting the program in Jordan. Take a look!


New problems, but also better visibility on pre-existing ones?

Lots going on in ths disscussion already!

In trying to look at your question Mbellino around how we ensure states better serve refugees and thier own maginalised communities the policy of inclusion supports this. One of the reasons UNHCR promotes inclusion of refugees in host country education systems because it is the role and obligation of governments to assume their responsibility for refugee protection and rights under the 1951 Refugee Convention, and the renewed commitment to that responsibility represented in the 2016 New York Declaration, in addition to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and Sustainable Development Goal 4, for which countries have promised to “ensure inclusive, equitable quality education for all.”  

Inclusion also supports access to more predictable funding; the humanitarian sector that supports host governments during emergencies and crises does not have predictable funding that can extend provision of education for the duration of most refugee displacements. Humanitarian support is temporary by nature and design. Once refugees are included in national systems we should work towards the inclusion of refugees in district and national education sector planning as then refugee education is able to access more predictable longer term funding as well as host governments accessing funding to support refugees that can also benefit host communities.  

Most importantly, inclusion creates the conditions for refugee children and youth to stay in education programming on safe territory that is under the responsibility of education experts in ministries of education, schools and classrooms. Certification delivered by ministries of education that supervise curricular development, change, and implementation, provide teacher and administrator training, and deliver examination and cycle completion certification that can be recognized across any border is important for refugee populations. 

There are several recent examples of refugees being included in national systems: UNHCR  worked with the Ministry of Education in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to ensure local schools are supported to include refugees from Burundi, as well as other displaced children.  In Turkey, the Government has released a “roadmap” promoting the progressive inclusion of refugee students into its national education system and in Chad  refugees were recently incuded in national systems.

Does anyone have any additional experience of inclusion of refugees in national systems besides Kenya and Jordan...or any experiences of countries that do not allow refugees to study the host country curriculum and what has happened in these cases?




New problems, but also better visibility on pre-existing ones?

Hello Martha,
Thank you so much for sharing with us information of countries with inclusion of refugees in national system. I would like also to add the experience of Uganda. As you may know Uganda has an inclusive Education policy where re refugees are allowed to join the government schools in both urban and settlements.

What's the role of NGOs in promoting inclusion of refugees?

This is a very exciting thread to read! First I want to address Martha's question about Ecuador's policy regarding refugees. Thanks to the actions of the Education and Migration Working Group (EMWG) (a network of 114 organizations that included the UNHCR), migrant children’s access to education was established by law for the first time in Ecuador. The EMWG drafted what in 2006 became known as Ministerial Decree 455. Once the decree was passed, the EMWG started monitoring its implementation. Relying on data collected during the monitoring process, the EMWG also took advantage of the principles of universal citizenship and universal access to education that were articulated in Ecuador’s new constitution, and drafted content for a new accord. Responding to the pressure of the EMWG in 2008, the Ministry of Education amended Decree 455 with Accord 337, which was more comprehensive and flexible and which guaranteed access to school even for children who were undocumented or who did not possess academic records. In contrast to other countries in the region (Panama and Venezuela), Accord 337 ruled that a national ID, asylum-seeker or refugee ID, passport, or any other document capable of identifying the future student were to be deemed as valid and sufficient documents for school registration. Under Accord 337 schools were required to grant temporary enrollment to all applicants until they were able to provide proper documentation, even if they did not have a temporary certificate. This stipulation required that grade-level placement for children be based on their foreign school documents or their performance on a placement test (Ministerio de Educación, 2008). This case shows the key role that the non-governmental sector plays in shaping opportunities for educational access for refugees. Yet, years later the doors between the government close doors between the state and the NGO sector. This reality makes me wonder, how can we conceptualize productive and sustainable collaborations between the governmental and non-governmental sectors to guarantee inclusion for students with refugee status? How do we set/define the boundaries of this relationship?

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