Acting to shape education for refugee children and youth

On 5 September, several stakeholders gathered in Geneva to solidify political understanding and commitment on education in emergencies ahead of the Global Refugee Forum (GRF) coming up in December 2023. The GRF will be co-hosted by Switzerland and UNHCR, and co-convened by Colombia, France, Japan, Jordan, Niger and Uganda. Alongside the Geneva Global Hub for Education in Emergencies and Education Cannot Wait, Switzerland and UNHCR organised this gathering to help ensure that education for displaced and crisis-affected children and youth are placed at the centre of humanitarian policymaking and financing in the months ahead.

“In a nutshell – education is synonymous with hope and with a better future for children and youth, their families, and their host countries,” said Ambassador Jürg Lauber, Permanent Representative of Switzerland to the United Nations and other Organizations in Geneva, as he opened the event. “It is a pathway to more durable solutions, which stand at the core of the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR).”

Refugee situations have continued to increase in scope, scale, and complexity in recent years. As of the end of June 2023, more than 35 million people worldwide are refugees, compared to 20.4 million in 2019 when the last GRF was held. This increasingly dire situation poses significant challenges concerning education. There is a real danger that a generation of refugee children will be deprived of the education they need to fulfil their best potential.

“Sadly, many refugee children and youth still stand at the margins, with nearly half of those of school-going age estimated to be out of school in 2022,” said Gillian Triggs, Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, UNHCR. “In emergency contexts we know that the longer people are out of education, the harder it is for them to return to learning and the greater the long-term risks to communities. Early, and effective, action is needed to ensure that we meet the GCR’s goal of resuming learning within three months of displacement.”

Without concerted action, the world will not achieve the GCR objective 2 aimed at enhancing refugee self-reliance, in particular through new financial, technical and material support for host countries’ policies, services and systems that advance inclusion.

This message was driven home by a young woman who shared her first-hand experience as a child refugee with the assembled guests.

“Even though we faced many challenges as refugees, my curiosity never faded,” said Maryam Sediqi, co-founder of the refugee led organisation Afghan Women Association Switzerland (AWAS), reflecting on the long path which brought her to Switzerland and, eventually, tertiary education. “School means hopes and dreams for us, a safe place in the chaos. But for millions of children, getting basic tools for learning is still a dream.”

In closing remarks, Yasmine Sherif, Executive Director of Education Cannot Wait, emphasised the urgency of addressing the need.

“Children should not have to wait for wars to end or for the climate crisis to be resolved to have the opportunity to learn and thrive – it will be too late,” said Sherif. “We must act now to empower them with the education they need to achieve their dreams and become positive changemakers for themselves, their communities, and their countries.”

An internationally acclaimed artist, Jean-Philippe Kalonji, was on site to compose an original work over the course of the evening. With a global career spanning New York, London, and Japan, he emerges as a painter, illustrator, and author. Kalonji has long dedicated his talent and captivating visual narratives to advocating for contemporary artistic exploration, social and humanitarian causes.

Guests were accompanied throughout the evening by CuisineLab, a unique association formed by a team of passionate refugee chefs which delivers catering and event services while also serving as a laboratory for social and economic integration of refugees, including a training program and employment.