Opinion Piece in Thomson Reuters Foundation, "Refugees and the Education Time Bomb"

Doha, Qatar, 20 June 2018

Conflicts across the globe are creating record numbers of refugees and displaced persons. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has determined that there are now 65.6 million forcibly displaced people worldwide, the highest level ever recorded. Many of these refugees and displaced persons are children, and UNESCO estimates that they comprise a large percentage of the world’s 63 million primary age children who are currently out of school.

Many of these girls and boys were once enrolled in proper schools, with teachers, blackboards and textbooks, until conflicts disrupted their educations and their lives. The youngest, their lives touched by war before they reached school age, have never seen the inside of a classroom.

International organizations have come to the aid of these children and their families, providing, when possible – and often at great risk – food, water and shelter for those desperately trying to survive in war zones and refugee camps. But food, water and shelter offer only short-term relief, and are not life’s only necessities. For young people hoping to become healthy, productive, independent adults, education is equally essential.

Research tells us that if marginalised and vulnerable out-of-school children miss out on an education, a significant proportion of them will be unable, as adults, to find jobs or start families. Many, without the opportunities that education provides, will become social and economic burdens to their post-conflict communities or their host nations. And it is likely that some, in frustration and desperation, will turn to violent extremism.

In this way, the uneducated children of war are like a social, economic and political time bomb. We can avoid future catastrophe only if we act now to provide an education for these out-of-school refugee and internally displaced children.

Yet it is hard to rally support for educating these boys and girls. After decades of war, “compassion fatigue” has depleted the world’s reserves of empathy, resulting in declining enthusiasm for disaster relief and refugee aid initiatives.

But now is not the time to give up hope. Our experience at Education Above All, has shown that educating marginalised, out-of-school children can only take place if we prioritise their education as a basic human need, like food, water and shelter. We have also learned that we must eliminate barriers that stand in the way of education in conflict areas and refugee camps, including practical barriers such as the absence of birth certificates, school documents or citizenship papers, as well as psychological barriers like the fear of re-entering a school that has been bombed.

We know that it is critically important to protect schools, teachers and students in war zones, and to hold those who attack them to account. I have personally seen schools we have built destroyed by war.

The international community has a moral obligation to educate the growing number of refugee and displaced children who have lost the opportunity to go to school because of circumstances beyond their control. And host nations must prioritise the education of the refugee children in their midst. If they do not, they will certainly create future problems that will dwarf the current challenges they are facing.

Tomorrow’s doctors, engineers, business leaders and poets will come from the classrooms we build, staff, and protect today. Educating these children must be our number one priority. For their sake, and our own, we cannot allow them to become a ticking time bomb. We must act now to protect their right to a quality education in order to secure a safer and more prosperous future for us all.