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A Call for Inclusive Education for Migrant and Refugee Children at the Margins of the Human Rights Council

On Thursday, 24 June 2021, a panel of experts gathered online in the framework of the 47th session of the Human Rights Council to reflect on the role of inclusive education in supporting migrants and refugees. The event focused on identifying the main challenges and opportunities to implement educational policies and programs that foster inclusive education as a central response to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

More than 130 people from 45 countries attended the event, which was organized by Arigatou International Geneva, with the support of the Geneva Global Hub for Education in Emergencies, KAICIID Dialogue Centre, and the Government of Cyprus. The discussion was moderated by Professor Mohammed Abu-Nimer, Senior Advisor at KAICIID Dialogue Centre.

“The number of migrant and refugee school children has grown by 26% since the year 2000 and could fill half a million classrooms,” stated Dr. Fadi Yarak, Director General of Education at the Ministry of Education & Higher Education of the government of Lebanon during his opening remarks. Dr. Yarak highlighted that access to quality education, through formal or alternative pathways, for displaced children should always be of the utmost importance. He also stressed the importance of providing physical, spiritual and emotional support as well as safe learning environments for children.

Ms. Afshan Khan, UNICEF Regional Director for Europe and Central Asia and Special Coordinator for the Refugee and Migrant Response in Europe noted with concern the rise of intolerance, xenophobia, discrimination and racism across Europe and Central Asia, threatening social cohesion. She explained that upholding commitments to human rights and humanitarian law by member states as well as allocating adequate resources and financing are fundamental to ensuring inclusive education for migrant and refugee children.

Ms. Khan concluded by tapping into the need for collaboration among different actors: “Inclusive quality learning for refugee and migrant children also needs a whole-government approach that includes intersectoral collaboration, for example between those responsible for education, health, social affairs and migration.”

The next three speakers shared country-specific contexts, as well as successful policies and programs to support quality and inclusive education. Dr. Angeliki Aroni, Head of the Unit for Integration and Support in the Special Secretariat for the Protection of Unaccompanied Minors, Ministry of Migration and Asylum, Greece explored how the Greek government had put in place practices to deal with the sudden influx of migrants around 2016. She highlighted how existing practices had to be adapted such as the introduction of preparatory afternoon classes, to accommodate the support needed by migrants arriving in the country.  The system promotes active participation of migrant and refugee children to help them achieve their potential and follows Tomaševski’s 4-As scheme: education has to be Available, Accessible, Acceptable and Adaptable.

Regarding African countries, Ms. Schéhérazade Feddal, Education Specialist, UNESCO Kenya spoke of the policies that had been implemented in Kenya and Uganda to facilitate the education and integration of migrants and refugees, which is in line with the Global Compact on Refugees Framework (GCR). Both nations adopted an integrated system that provides sufficient space for refugees to be able to learn and deal with psycho-social effects while simultaneously ensuring that refugees follow the national curriculum. This integrated system allows refugee students to remain at the same levels as their host nations’ students.

Mr. Javed Natiq, Education Sector Lead, World Vision Afghanistan provided insight into the situation in Afghanistan. He pointed out the necessity for engaging with faith and community leaders to ensure the acceptance of IDPs and returnees in the country. He emphasized that education should be understood as a lifesaving issue, explaining how education programs in Afghanistan had been able to help protect children from child marriage or forced labor during the first few months of their displacement.

Ms. Maria Lucia Uribe, Executive Director at Arigatou International Geneva talked about article 29 of the Convention of the Rights of the Child as an overarching framework that should guide the development of inclusive educational programming and policies. She stated that education policies and programs should include refugees and migrants in national education systems; ensure teachers are trained to provide inclusive learning environments and include a whole-community approach, involving parents, caregivers, the community, and faith communities.

Ms. Uribe stressed that inclusive education can promote social cohesion, support economic growth and civic engagement; contribute to stability and peacebuilding, and help reduce poverty. “The stakes are high when inclusive education is not prioritized – the cost of inaction is much more than the cost of investing in inclusive education that addresses the rights and needs of migrants and refugees,” she concluded.

Mr. Michaelis Bays, Chair of the Advisory Board for the Integration of Migrants, Cyprus was invited to share experiences of education policy towards migrants and refugees. Mr. Bays explained that the government first put in place a comprehensive policy for dealing with migrant and refugee children in 2016 which has been steadily updated over the years. The policy has promoted the inclusion of migrant and refugee children within regular school classrooms, providing them with additional support classes to help in areas that need reinforcing. In addition, it allows migrant and refugee children to have free access to education regardless of their status and promotes the involvement of parents through language support to enhance the communication between schools and parents.

The closing remarks were delivered by Dr. Rebecca Telford, Chief of Education, UNHCR. She mentioned that it is inspiring to hear collective aspirations towards an inclusive education for migrants and refugees, which has not been guaranteed in the past, as well as a collective commitment to living the Global Compact on Refugees to provide comprehensive support to the displaced population and the governments.

Dr. Telford echoed the need to work in partnership, whether that’s working as one UN, working with governments, civil society, faith-based organizations, and with refugees and host communities to match the pace and scale of the challenge. “I was very inspired hearing people talk about leveraging the assets refugees come with, recognizing that everyone has a contribution. Refugees can contribute to the future and to their own solutions,” she stated.

Dr. Telford highlighted key issues such as the need for financing and system strengthening, recognizing the cultural background of the refugees as part of education, and including teacher training costs in the education sector plan and budgeting.

We sincerely thank all the participants and our partner organizations for partaking in this webinar. If you would like to watch the webinar you may find the video recording here.