Foundations of a better future: Education is a life-line for millions of refugees

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“Education is a right” a young refugee told me recently, “It’s like oxygen.”

I’m reminded of this young woman and the many courageous and inspiring refugees like her I’ve met in refugee camps in Africa, looking at the results of a new global study of attitudes to refugees, released this week by Ipsos Mori for World Refugee Day.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it shows a mixed response to one of the world’s most pressing issues.

Although 61% said people should have the right to take refuge in other countries, over half believe most aren’t really refugees – that they’re economic migrants who may want to exploit welfare services.

And 40% of the 18,000+ adults surveyed said they think their country’s border should be completely closed at all times.

Picture credit: RA Dragon / Unsplash

Going global

The survey results are a stark reminder of how much work is needed to raise awareness of the plight of refugees.

Just this week, UNHCR reported on the impact of inter-ethnic violence between farming communities in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s north-eastern province.

More than 300,000 people  have been displaced since early June. With events like this largely unreported by the mainstream Western media, it’s easy to see how misunderstandings and misinformation around the refugee crisis can spread.

Home from home: For many, refugee camps aren’t a temporary solution. Picture credit: Sala Lewis / Vodafone

Out of the dark


As part of our work with UNHCR in refugee camps in Sub-Saharan Africa, we often hear first-hand the harrowing accounts of families who have fled conflict and violence, finding relative safety in a refugee camp.

But what always makes the biggest impression is the attitude to, and appetite for, education from people who have suffered so much. 

During a recent visit to Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, one student waited until we were out of the classroom, and away from her classmates, to tell me the education she was receiving had been pivotal in her avoiding marriage aged 14.

Her parents, who are both illiterate, had tried to remove her and her two sisters from school to marry them to older men. In this culture, girls are often discouraged from attending school in favour of household chores and marriage.

The student, who wants to become a doctor, showed their mother a tablet computer used in our Instant Network Schools lesson. Her mother, having never seen a computer before, was persuaded, and the girl hasn’t looked back.

“Most of the girls now believe it’s only education that can take us out of the dark,” she said.

Sadly, this story is still all too rare. Half of the world’s 25.9 million refugees are children. Many have little or no access to education, with girls often facing even greater barriers than boys, with nine million girls globally that will never even enter a classroom.

Picture credit: Sala Lewis / Vodafone

 Digital skills in demand

As technology evolves ever faster, the right to education – enshrined in the UN’s Declaration of Human Rights – and what that means, is also seeing a fundamental shift. Digital skills are now in huge demand around the globe – and are key to opportunity.

Highlighting this, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi noted that when it came to stateless people and their access to work “their exclusion is multiple, and has a lot of impact on their ability to work.”

“They have no documentation, and often no freedom of movement. They are excluded from financial services, and the digital gap is particularly big, and education is a remote opportunity,” he said.

Picture credit: Sala Lewis / Vodafone

Signs of hope

Despite the scale of the challenge, we’re seeing encouraging results from our Instant Network Schools (INS) programme.

Our partner, UNHCR, is increasingly focused on education and digital literacy as a route to long-term employment, and the chance of resettlement.

One of our students, Esther, hadn’t touched a computer or tablet before she started the programme, but was eager to develop her skills.

As she went through school, she studied hard, and often talked about how using technology as part of her education helped her in preparing for exams.

Esther recently secure a scholarship to study in Canada, and she used the INS resources to help her prepare to resettle. It meant she was able to look at the university on the internet and connect with other students, feel confident she knew how to do online research, and was familiar with computers.

Critically, she had developed the skills she needs for success and economic independence in her new life.

Picture credit: Sala Lewis / Vodafone

Digital learning at scale

For the ever growing numbers of displaced people, the overwhelming advantage of digital learning is it provides an easily scalable, cost-effective education without the need for students to travel long distances.

For long-term employment opportunities and all the financial and emotional benefits it brings, a digital education can be a lifeline.

The Instant Network Schools  programme – Vodafone Foundation’s tablet-based learning programme – has already reached 86,000 students in camps in the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, Kenya and Tanzania.

The real game-changer now would be to replicate, develop and scale connected learning initiatives globally.

To achieve this, it’s vital more businesses, entrepreneurs and education specialists join together and commit to making digital learning available to refugees wherever they are – around the world.

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