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Refugee education: Key tensions and opportunities

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By Maysa Jalbout, Katy Bullard

Refugee education is more critical than ever. Centering refugee voices and resolving key tensions in policy and programming will be critical for ensuring that all refugee students and teachers receive the support they need. Teachers’ unions can play an important role in these processes, connecting refugee teachers to valuable services, information, and teaching opportunities, as well as providing a platform for refugee teachers to participate in social dialogue.

Today marks World Migrant Day and almost one year until the second Global Refugee Forum. In the lead-up to the Forum, the international community must step up for refugees, making good on its commitments to provide refugees with the education they deserve. This is more crucial than ever as the number of forcibly displaced people reached 100 million for the first time this year. Teachers and teachers’ unions can and have played a crucial leadership role, as we have seen in the Ukraine and Syria refugee education responses.

Refugee teachers often find themselves at the center of tensions around inclusion in national systems and questions about short- and long-term thinking, and support from teachers’ unions can help mitigate these tensions.

In our new report published by the Brookings Institution, we examine the persistent tensions that have long held back the transformation needed for achieving and sustaining high-quality refugee education at scale. In particular, we focus on tensions between inclusion in national systems and non-state programming, between emergency and long-term response, and between global and national responsibility. These tensions stretch across policy, programming, and financing as policymakers, donors, community members, teachers, families, and students make decisions about what refugee education could and should look like.

Resolving these tensions will be critical to ensure that all refugee students and teachers receive the education and support they deserve. This will require global partners to make good on the promises they have already committed to–including support for inclusion and shared responsibility–while being open to the range of strategies needed to holistically support refugee students and teachers, both now and in the long term. Resolving these persistent tensions will require dedication and thoughtful collaboration from a wide range of stakeholders. Among the actors that could play an important role in responding to these challenges are teachers’ unions and refugee teachers. Refugee teachers often find themselves at the center of tensions around inclusion in national systems and questions about short- and long-term thinking, and support from teachers’ unions can help mitigate these tensions. Unions can and have played crucial roles in supporting refugee teachers, providing valuable information on access to training, social services, and teaching opportunities. In Europe, unions were active in supporting Syrian teachers during the height of the Syrian crisis and Ukrainian teachers over the past year. Connecting refugee teachers with teaching opportunities and other support in their host countries is valuable not only for these teachers, but also for refugee students, who can benefit from seeing themselves and their experiences reflected in their teachers. In this way, unions’ support for refugee teachers can play an important role in mitigating the tensions and challenges that refugee teachers must confront in contexts where their inclusion in the education system is challenging, limited, or fully prohibited.

Centering refugee voices at all levels of policy-making, program design and implementation, and practice–from ministries of education to NGOs to classrooms–will also be essential for ensuring that refugee education is relevant, meaningful, and reflects the needs, aspirations, and strengths of refugee students, teachers, and communities. While the donors, implementers, and other experts consulted for this paper acknowledged growing interest in centering refugee perspectives and building refugee agency in policymaking and programming, strategies and structures for meaningfully engaging refugees in these processes is often limited, especially in policy-making. Learning from the work of NGOs that actively engage refugees in their design and implementation and from refugee student networks can help donors, policymakers, and others think more intentionally about strategies for centering refugee voices in ways that are authentic, not tokenistic. That said, doing so will require that refugees not only be present in places where decisions are made–including ministries of education, nongovernmental organizations of all sizes, and schools–but be valued and respected. Here, too, teachers’ unions can play a critical role. Unions have helped refugee teachers access teaching roles, and in doing so, have helped them find a place and voice within schools. Teachers’ unions’ role in social dialogue also creates a unique opportunity for refugee teachers’ voices to be meaningfully heard in education policy-making.

As we commemorate World Migrant Day on December 18 and look ahead to the Global Refugee Forum in December 2023, we must continue to push for refugee education’s critical role in the global education agenda. Ensuring the necessary policy and financing support for refugee education will require global and national partners to face the tensions that have hampered progress in refugee education. It will also require more genuine and meaningful efforts to bring refugees themselves to the center of decision-making. Teachers’ unions and refugee teachers will have a critical role to play in these processes to advance refugee education.

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