Refugee Education

Education is critical for refugee children and youth. The 2030 Agenda and 2018 Global Compact on Refugees are calling for all forcibly displaced children and youth (including refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced people) to have access to inclusive, equitable and quality education.

The 2030 Agenda and the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR) stress the importance of equal access to quality education for all forcibly displaced children, youth and their host communities, regardless of legal status, gender or disability.

At the end of 2018, there were over 70 million forcibly displaced people around the world; 25.9 million were refugees, with half under the age of 18. More than 78 per cent of these refugees live in exile in South Asia, the Middle East and Africa, many for as long as it takes to complete a primary or secondary education. Therefore, education for people forced to flee must be planned with protracted situations in mind. 

Refugee education should not be a short-term crisis intervention dependent upon unpredictable and unsustainable funding. 

The GCR underscores the importance of humanitarian and development partner support to governments, so that they can strengthen the national education systems in their countries to benefit all children and youth, including refugees, asylum seekers, returnees and stateless learners, to foster self-reliance and successful integration within the host community. This approach builds from trends in refugee protraction, as well as global and regional consensus that education for refugees, like children and youth everywhere, is a medium-to long-term social service that should be embedded within national systems, rather than a parallel short-term crisis intervention dependent on unpredictable and unsustainable funding.  

Inclusion in national education systems creates the conditions for all children and youth, including refugees, asylum seekers, returnees and the stateless, to receive education accredited by national authorities and recognized through regional equivalency procedures. Participation in host country education systems facilitates transition through education levels. This has become especially crucial for youth at post-primary levels, where lack of certification has created barriers to enter into secondary education, technical and vocational education and training, professional opportunities and tertiary education that all contribute to self-actualization and self-reliance.

For inclusion to be successful, education systems must be responsive and resilient to crisis. It is therefore important that:

  • Forced displacement is addressed in education sector policy;
  • Protocols for humanitarian action and contingency plans aligned with education sector planning are in place in the event of a crisis;

  • Governments and development donors support flexible financing structures that can absorb and allocate additional funding to crisis-affected regions, once humanitarian funding begins to diminish.

It is also important that refugees and other people of concern are represented in all stages of education sector planning, from assessments to planning, to review, so their needs are identified and taken into consideration. 

Who is a refugee?

Refugees are people fleeing conflict or persecution. They are defined and protected in international law and must not be expelled or returned to situations where their life and freedom are at risk.

Key Messages 

  • Of the 19.9 million refugees around the world, 7.4 million of them are of school age. Half of them, 4 million children, are unable to attend school.

  • Globally, 92% of children and youth are enrolled in primary, 84% in secondary and 37% in tertiary education. In 2017, only 61% of refugee children and youth were enrolled in primary school, only 23% in secondary school, and just 1% in tertiary education.

  • Education is a basic human right, as outlined in the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child and the 1951 Refugee Convention.

  • Education reduces risks of forced recruitment, child labour, sexual exploitation and child marriage, among others.

  • Education provides a safe place for refugee children and youth to learn and connect meaningfully with peers within the normal routine of a classroom.

  • Education strengthens community resilience and equips learners with knowledge and skills to find long-term solutions.

  • Education empowers refugees by giving them knowledge and skills to live productive, fulfilling and independent lives.

  • Education helps refugees to become self-sufficient, enabling them to learn about themselves and the world around them, as they strive to rebuild their lives and communities.

  • Lack of documents and financial resources, limited availability of schools (especially secondary) and xenophobia are some of the main reasons that prevent refugees from accessing education.


This collection was developed with the support of the UNHCR Education Section, Copenhagen.

19 June 2019 Report United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)

Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2018

The Global Trends Report is published every year to analyze the changes in UNHCR’s populations of concern and deepen public understanding of ongoing crises. In 2018, the global population of forcibly displaced increased by 2.3 million people. As a result, the world’s forcibly displaced population remained yet again at a record high. 

29 August 2018 Report United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)

Turn the Tide: Refugee Education in Crisis

This report tells the stories of some of the world’s 7.4 million refugee children of school age under UNHCR’s mandate. In addition, it looks at the educational aspirations of refugee youth eager to continue learning after secondary education, and highlights the need for strong partnerships in order to break down the barriers to education for millions of refugee children.

2 January 2018 Report United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)

Her Turn: It's time to make refugee girls' education a priority

This report reviews strategies on how to widen access to education for female refugees, and demands that the international community assists in making this a reality.

1 January 2017 Report United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)

Left Behind: Refugee Education in Crisis

This report tells the stories of some of the world’s 6.4 million refugee children and adolescents under UNHCR’s mandate who are of primary and secondary school-going age, between 5 and 17.

1 September 2016 Report United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)

Missing Out - Refugee Education in Crisis

The average length of time a refugee spends in exile is about 20 years. Twenty years is more than an entire childhood, and represents a significant portion of a person’s productive working years. Given this sobering picture, it is critical that we think beyond a refugee’s basic survival. Refugees have skills, ideas, hopes and dreams.

20 November 2018 Report UNESCO Global Education Monitoring (GEM) Report

Global Education Monitoring Report 2019: Migration, Displacement and Education - Building Bridges, Not Walls

The 2019 GEM Report, Building bridges, not walls, continues its assessments of progress towards Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG 4) on education and its ten targets, as well as other related education targets in the SDG agenda.

7 June 2017 White Paper United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)

Update on Education to the Standing Committee

This paper provides an update on developments that have occurred in education for refugee and other displaced children and youth since the report to the sixtieth meeting of the Standing Committee in 2014. It focuses on UNHCR’s support to improve accessibility to, and the quality of, educational opportunities for populations of concern.

1 December 2018 Report Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)

Safe Pathways for Refugees: family reunification, study programmes and labor mobility

This OECD-UNHCR mapping exercise examines the use of a subset of complementary pathways for admission by refugees to third counties, focusing on non-humanitarian regular entry visas granted for family, study or work purposes in OECD destination countries since 2010.