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Refugees in Protracted Exile Need Long-Term Solutions to Education Gap

Many refugees spend years or even decades in exile. Giulia McPherson of Jesuit Refugee Service/USA examines the challenges educating Darfuri refugees in Chad, where an under-funded system threatens sustained planning.

Written by Giulia McPherson Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Children in a preschool class in Iridimi refugee camp, eastern Chad. Giulia McPherson, Jesuit Refugee Service/USA

The world is just waking up to the reality that investing in long-term solutions is critical for refugees who linger in camps or informal settlements for years and sometimes decades.

The U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, estimated that by the end of 2015 some 6.7 million refugees – 41 percent of those under their mandate – were in a protracted situation, spending five years or longer in exile.

In camps and villages that have shed characteristics of short-term settlements, children are being born, families are finding ways to survive, and communities hosting refugees are struggling with how to live, work and go to school together.

Education plays a particularly vital role for those who are displaced, as they will be tasked not only with rebuilding their lives, but rebuilding their communities as well.

Last month, I visited three of 12 refugee camps in eastern Chad that are home to over 300,000 refugees from the Darfur region of Sudan who fled during a genocide beginning in 2004. At that time, the global community, including American celebrities and activists, mobilized to decry the violence. Now, few hear about the ongoing instability in Darfur and, to an even lesser extent, the thousands of refugees who fled for their lives.

These are areas of the world where refugees find themselves in limbo. They have no hope of returning home, and resettlement to a third country is reserved for the very few – about one percent. Often, this leaves integration into their host community as their only hope.

Jesuit Refugee Service manages all education programs in eastern Chad, from preschool through tertiary education. Refugees and partner organizations told me time and again about the severe impact of systemic budget cuts and donor fatigue. Thus, dilapidated school structures – intended only to last a brief time – cannot be rehabilitated, students have to attend classes in shifts and teacher salaries and incentives remain low.

In Iridimi camp, I met Ibtissam, a preschool teacher who received training from Jesuit Refugee Service last year, but due to a lack of funds, training was not possible this year. She manages a group of 3-6-year-olds and makes do with very little.

Ibtissam, a preschool teacher in Iridimi refugee camp, eastern Chad. (Giulia McPherson, Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)

Ibtissam, a preschool teacher in Iridimi refugee camp, eastern Chad. (Giulia McPherson, Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)

Further south, in Goz Amir camp, I met with another group of preschool teachers who were excited about having the opportunity to provide their children with education at a young age. They spoke of children feeling protected, taken care of and at peace. Parents are able to work while their children are in school. The benefits of education to these refugee communities were palpable.

Yet, like many refugee-hosting countries, Chad is juggling a variety of challenges. This includes a significant influx of refugees fleeing the Boko Haram insurgency in the Lake Chad region, in the western part of the country.

Chad struggles to provide access to education for its own citizens. According to the UNESCO Global Education Monitoring Report, the primary school completion rate in Chad is 28 percent. About 90 percent of students in Chad’s primary schools have to share textbooks with at least two students.

Donors and humanitarian organizations must work more closely to develop and fund programs that focus on integration, in which both refugees and the population of the country hosting them will benefit. As with all protracted crises where a displaced population has lived among, or close to, a host population for many years, integration and collaboration between the humanitarian and development sectors is critical.

For those of us working with refugees who have been displaced for many years, Education Cannot Wait, a new fund for education in emergencies that launched last year is placing much-needed focus on these forgotten crises. The goal of Education Cannot Wait is to validate education as a priority in humanitarian responses to longer-term crises and adequately finance the educational needs of millions of children and young people.

Currently housed at UNICEF, Education Cannot Wait has secured $113.4 million from a diverse group of donors. The fund chose Chad as one of three countries to receive an initial investment of $10 million over two years. Education Cannot Wait-supported programs in Chad are being developed jointly with humanitarian and development groups with the aim of benefiting both the refugee and host populations.

Programs will be developed by combining components of both the emergency response strategy developed by the humanitarian Education Cluster, a forum coordinated by UNICEF for NGOs, U.N. agencies, academics and others working on education for the displaced, as well as Chad’s 10-year plan for the Development of Education and Literacy.

By taking both a humanitarian and development approach, the programs under development will focus not only on improvements in infrastructure and basic needs like classroom materials and providing food in schools, but also on non-formal education programs and income-generating activities.

During last year’s Leaders’ Summit on Refugees, hosted by the Obama administration, the Chadian government pledged to take a similar, integrated approach. This included assuming responsibility for, and improving access to, secondary education for approximately 75,000 refugees over the course of the next five years.

The Chadian government also pledged to accredit qualified refugee teachers and allow them to teach in camp, public and private schools. As part of this effort, Jesuit Refugee Service recently launched a scholarship program to enroll refugees in a local teacher-training college and get certified to teach in Chadian secondary schools and in the camps.

There is no singular solution to protracted crisis situations like the one in Chad. But, efforts to engage new donors, collaborate among sectors and focus on opportunities to integrate refugees into host communities are some of the ways that we will be able to increase access to a quality education for refugees facing long periods of exile.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

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