Education in the Refugee System


Education is too often taken for granted in the 21st century, particularly in the developed world. School is often perceived as a mandatory experience during childhood with the goal of turning each citizen into a functioning member of society. However, in much of the world a basic education is so inaccessible that a significant proportion of the population cannot afford it, cannot afford to lose an additional source of income, or simply do not live within a reasonable distance of a school. In much of the world, education is a luxury that is too inaccessible for poor families. This issue is not unique to the refugee system, however, the circumstances that refugees live in and thus their need for an education are significant. Education is an essential tool for developing agency, both within an individual and a community, and particularly within an otherwise invisible population.

Traditionally, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has funded primary and secondary schools because education has been classified as an essential need for humankind, similar to food and shelter. It is only with an education can a person speak out against political and social injustices, and genuinely be heard. Although the UNHCR understands these needs, in recent years their organization has been financially strained. This issue will only continue to grow as the global refugee crisis gets more intense with prolonged and increasingly complicated conflicts worldwide.

At the moment in Kakuma refugee camp in north-west Kenya, it is not uncommon to have over 200 students to a single classroom, a size that will inevitably grow as over 100 teachers have been laid off in recent months due to budget restrictions. While at the moment education is free for primary school students, the school system is planning on placing a tuition fee of $100 USD per year for each secondary school student. While $100 may seem insignificant to many people, to refugees who are unable to work legally and use every cent they have to feed their families, this money is remarkably unattainable.

For the future of a refugee population, the education of its community members is critical for the attainment of one of the UNHCR’s durable solutions to their displacement, identified as repatriation, integration into their country of first asylum, and third country resettlement. A refugee needs a basic education in order to make any of these solutions successful and to prevent displacement in the future. In the case of repatriation, refugees must rebuild their home nation, make reasonable political actions, and reconstruct a crumbling economy. For integration, they must find a way to become productive members of their host country in order to discourage xenophobia and a public backlash against their presence. For resettlement cases, they must have the ability to speak basic English, and be able to compete for jobs in their new home nation.

Education is undoubtedly necessary to end the plight of protracted refugee populations, yet the UNHCR and various other NGO organizations are struggling to fund the current system that is already considerably lacking in its ability to prepare its students. David Chanoff (2005: 43) argues that students in Kakuma and other refugee camps “end up acquiring theoretical abstract knowledge, but they have no way of subjecting theoretical knowledge to practical experience, no way of testing theories” and no way to learn from the mistakes of applying their knowledge. All too often are students required to learn without basic supplies such as textbooks, notebooks, and pens.


A potential solution to the lack of funding within the refugee education system is the formation of refugee-led projects that provide a service to their community. Despite popular belief, there are many refugees that are educated and well-qualified to teach. Sarah Dryden-Peterson (2006: 389) argues that schools such as these can be built on a refugee’s “belief about individual responsibility, as well as their ability to negotiate a system that is premised on refugee livelihood.” Initiatives such as these not only promote education and the sharing of knowledge but also enables refugees to become productive members of their community despite all of the restrictions placed on their lives.

There are several refugee-led educational projects in Kakuma targeting adult refugees who have for whatever reason have been unable to receive a basic education. Some of these project focus on teaching these students to simply read and speak English, while others teach their students the Kenyan national curriculum so that eventually they will be able to take their national exams and graduate with a diploma. These projects are completely self-funded and their success is based completely on the individual refugees who run them and the support of their community.

However, their primary barriers to provide this service to their community are the lack of institutional support, the lack of funding, and the inability of refugees to work legally within the refugee camp. Successful refugee-run educational programs need to be incentivized and invested in in order for them to reach their full potential.

If the UNHCR and the international community truly want create a durable solution for protracted refugee populations, they need to invest in providing a competitive education for both refugee children and adults. It is only through knowledge that any individual or entire population can dig its way out of poverty and conflict. Education is the ideal investment in development because it incentivizes personal agency, freethought, and creative innovation.


Chanoff, David. 2005. Education is My Mother and My Father: How the Lost Boys of Sudan Escaped the Destruction of their Ancient Culture and Landed in the 21st Century.  The American Scholar 74(4): 35-45.

Dryden-Peterson, Sarah. 2006. ‘I Find Myself as Someone Who is in the Forest’: Urban Refugees as Agents of Social Change in Kampala, Uganda. Journal of Refugee Studies 19(3): 381-395.

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