Migrant and forcibly displaced children and youth can face specific barriers in accessing education related to their migration and legal status and their right to and support for socio-economic inclusion. A full definition of forced displacement is available in the EiE Glossary.
At the end of 2022, 108.4 million people worldwide were forcibly displaced as a result of persecution, conflict, violence, human rights violations and events seriously disturbing public order (UNHCR, 2023).
This collection focuses on children and youth who have migrated for economic reasons, alone or with their families (migrants); who are forcibly displaced (IDPs); at risk because of their lack of nationality (stateless); or who have returned to their country of origin after being forcibly displaced in another country (returnees).
According to the IOM World Migration Report 2020, as of June 2019 the number of international migrants was estimated to be almost 272 million globally. Nearly two thirds were labour migrants.
In total, UNHCR reports 4.4 million stateless people. About 1.3 million stateless people worldwide are also displaced. Most of them are Rohingya, either internally displaced in Myanmar or refugees, mostly in neighbouring countries. (These 1.3 million are only counted as forcibly displaced when calculating the total population that UNHCR protects and/or assists to avoid double counting).
6 million displaced people returned to their areas or countries of origin in 2022, including 5.7 million internally displaced people and 339,300 refugees (UNHCR, 2023)
Forced Displacement and Education
Migration and displacement interact with education in many ways. Lack of access to inclusive and equitable education and the quality of education affect those who move, those who stay, those who return and those who host immigrants, refugees or other displaced populations.
Internal migration mainly affects many rapidly urbanizing middle income countries, such as China, where more than one in three rural children are left behind by migrating parents. International migration mainly affects high income countries, where immigrants make up at least 15% of the student population in half of schools. It also affects sending countries: more than one in four countries witness at least one-fifth of their skilled nationals emigrating.
Displacement mainly affects low income countries, which host 10% of the global population but 20% of the global refugee population, often in their most educationally deprived areas. More than half of those forcibly displaced are under age 18.
Teachers have to deal with multilingual classrooms; language barriers for these children and youth is often a major obstacle in accessing and succeeding in education. Trauma affecting migrant and displaced students and the impact it has on their education, the challenge of recognition of qualifications and prior learning (GEM Report, 2019) are other major obstacles. Additionally children and youth from these groups frequently suffer discrimination on the basis of their ethnicity, religion or simply being displaced/migrants/refugees.
Education also affects migration and displacement. Education is often a major driver in the decision to migrate. Domestically, those with tertiary education are twice as likely to migrate as those with primary education; internationally, they are five times as likely. Education affects not only migrants’ attitudes, aspirations and beliefs but also those of their hosts. Increased classroom diversity brings both challenges and opportunities to learn from other cultures and experiences. Appropriate education content can help citizens critically process information and promote cohesive societies; conversely, inappropriate content can spread negative, partial, exclusive or dismissive notions of immigrants and refugees (GEM Report, 2019).
In spite of the differences in terms of legal status for all of these groups (migrants, IDP’s, stateless and returnees) and the different reasons for leaving their country of origin, the barriers to education are often similar. Moreover, monitoring access to education for these groups is a barrier in itself, given the difficulties in collecting data disaggregated by migration and displacement status.
Barriers to Education
While many countries grant access to basic education for children of irregular migrants (UNESCO, 2017), the type of migration strongly influences the legal barriers migrant students might face; irregular migrants, unaccompanied children, stateless children, children without identity documents, and seasonal migrants face more barriers. Countries take different approaches to this. In some countries, such as Malaysia, irregular migrants are legally barred from government schools, while in other contexts undocumented children may find themselves unable to enrol, despite having a legal entitlement (Lumayag, 2016; Insan Association, 2015).
In particular, undocumented children face obstacles in accessing education: children lose their documents or have them confiscated during their displacement, and without them children are often unable to enrol in school. Another challenge is keeping unaccompanied minors in school, even with legislation and policies to move them out of detention swiftly and protect their rights to education unaccompanied minors lack the support systems of parents or guardians and face many challenges in both accessing and staying in school. In practice, statelessness often excludes children from education. In some cases, stateless children may be able to attend primary school but most will not be able to pursue their studies beyond primary because lack of documentation will prevent them from taking the national exam and graduating to the next level. Where there are no formal barriers to higher education, undocumented children may face other obstacles to secondary and higher education such as travel restrictions imposed on stateless people or discriminative or arbitrary practices in the allocation of scholarships. The multiple deprivations resulting from statelessness pass on from one generation to the other.
Socio-economic and financial pressures also impact upon forcibly displaced and migrant children and youth inclusion in education systems. Children and youth may be engaged in labour, either to meet their own needs or those of their family, or due to trafficking or forced labour. Under these circumstances, children are unlikely to attend school (Child Protection Working Group (CPWG), 2015). Displacement also often means losing livelihoods and income; many displaced families struggle to cover the cost of school fees, uniform and classroom supplies.
The language of instruction can act as a major barrier to students’ integration, even if they are enrolled and attending school. It is estimated that around 40% of the global population does not have access to education in a language that they speak or understand, an issue that mainly concerns countries with a high diversity of languages (Walter and Benson, 2012). Schools also have to adapt to their new students’ needs. Displaced Quechua-speaking children in Peru, for example, were unable to understand or communicate with their Spanish-speaking teachers, resulting in high levels of non-attendance and illiteracy, particularly among girls.
Parallel education systems
Displacement often places huge strains on already inadequate educational infrastructure, and when displaced children do attend school in many cases it is through a parallel system. A parallel system is one which runs alongside the formal education system. Parallel education systems often offer unregulated non-formal or informal education; tend not to have qualified teachers or offer certified examinations and risk having their funding cut at short notice. Experience has shown that inclusion of all children into host country national education systems is the best way to provide inclusive and equitable quality education.
Challenges around social and cultural norms and expectations around attending school for both boys and girls affects access, attendance and retention. For girls in particular, social and cultural norms around attending alongside boys and male teachers; a lack of female teachers, and inadequate learning facilities (including sufficient appropriate WASH facilities and access to hygiene products), early pregnancy and/or marriage, and security or personal safety concerns all present barriers to education.
This collection was developed with the support from Sarah Montgomery, INEE Knowledge Management Coordinator, and Martha Hewison, INEE AEWG Coordinator.