Time to act for education on the move

United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF)
Jo Bourne
United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF)
Publication Year:
  • SDG 4 - Quality Education
  • SDG 16 - Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions

In the early 1950s, about 50 per cent of primary school age children were out of school. In 1970, that figure stood at 28 per cent. Today, it has come down to 9 per cent. Progress has been slow, and there is still more to be done, but many millions of children have realized their right to education since that time.

For the vast majority of children caught in emergencies and crises, education is at best interrupted and at worst never attained

For children living in areas affected by war and insecurity, it’s as if none of this progress has happened. Fifty per cent of refugee children worldwide are not in school. For adolescents, this number rises to three out of every four children. Girls living in conflict areas are more than twice as likely to be out of school as those in countries not affected by conflict. And even when children in these areas make it to school, they are less able to benefit fully. The school year is often interrupted and quality is low.

A young boy jumps with excitement, while walking back to home with his sister from a UNICEF-supported school at Markazi camp for Yemeni refugees in Djibouti.

Students in Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh attend school for about two hours a day, usually at a temporary learning center. During a recent visit, those students told me what they studied – language, math and life skills. But teachers and community members ask what comes next – what is the educational future for these students? Partners are doing a tireless job of providing a safe space for a few hours a day, but so much more is needed to build a meaningful education pathway for all the affected children and young people.

These stories are repeated around the world: in the Central African Republic, Chad, Iraq, Jordan, South Sudan and Yemen. The numbers are staggering. We estimate that 75 million children – across 35 countries – are either out of school or have had their education disrupted due to conflict and emergency. 17 million of these children are refugees. The number of children uprooted from their homes is higher now than it has been in recent decades. On average, migrants spend 17 years displaced, almost an entire childhood with limited or no access to the safety, stability and structure of a positive learning environment.

Business as usual – even scaled up business as usual – is not enough

For the vast majority of children caught in emergencies and crises, education is at best interrupted and at worst never attained. Many others face problems that make learning unlikely, problems such as overcrowded classrooms, no running water or toilets, sub-standard teaching or attacks on schools, teachers and students.

For those children who manage to access some sort of education, the chances that this will be taught in their mother tongue, by qualified teachers and with their efforts certified are slim, ad hoc or require additional time or money.

Children smile at the Projapoti Child Learning Centre in Kutupalong refugee camp, Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.

Even though the challenges seem immense, there is a renewed energy around the right to education – and rightly so. With this energy, comes new opportunities and innovation, new partnerships, and a rallying cry by governments and the private sector behind education. National governments and the international community are responding.

  • In Turkey, UNICEF provides financial incentives for 13,200 Syrian teachers to support the integration of Syrian refugees into the Turkish education system.
  • In the Central African Republic, UNICEF and partners support the Ministry of Education to enable 10,000 children to take year-end exams at conflict-affected school sites.
  • In Chad, UNICEF, with funding from the Education Cannot Wait fund is supporting the provision of quality, basic education for 325,466 children and youth from refugee and host communities.
  • In many places, we are finding innovative approaches – in Greece, UNICEF supports language learning for children on the move through solutions jointly created with teachers, children and implementing partners.
  • UNICEF, with DFID and UNHCR, are identifying and scaling up promising innovations, to measure results, to support evaluation and to give every child a fair chance to learn through the Humanitarian Education Accelerator.


But for all these efforts – there are still obstacles. This week, the High-Level Meeting on Action for Refugee Education brings together refugee-hosting states, donor governments, multilateral institutions, the private sector and civil society to agree on how to accelerate and improve efforts to deliver commitments made through the Global Compact for Refugees. This vision for a longer-term approach to children’s education in emergencies is critical. However, words and statements mean little if action does not accompany them.

A 14-year old refugee from Iraq, at the Otto-Glockel public school where he learns German and math with other refugees in Vienna, Austria.

This meeting marks that next step. Participants have made commitments to support the inclusion of refugee populations in national education systems, improve learning outcomes for refugees and host communities and support greater responsibility in sharing, especially via more and better financing.

As far as I’m concerned we have no choice but to act on these commitments. Business as usual – even scaled up business as usual – is not enough. Progress in securing the rights of all children to education is at risk of being reversed. Many of us have advocated for the education of children in emergencies, and have played our parts, but we must do more, and we must do it better. Because the risks – the futures of 75 million children, children like those in Cox’s Bazaar – are too high.


Jo Bourne is Associate Director and Chief of Education at UNICEF.



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