Meeting our promises to educate refugees during COVID-19

17 December 2020

Co-authored by: Kevin Watkins, Chief Executive, Save the Children and Dr. Sonia Ben Jaafar, Chief Executive, Abdulla Al Ghurair Foundation for Education
This time last year, education ‘stole the show’ at the first ever Global Refugee Forum, where hundreds of policy and financial pledges were made to get refugee children in school and learning. Twelve months on, we face a global education emergency brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic – and the international response has been dismal. Only 8.4% (USD $28.6 million) of the USD $342 million required for the education sector in the COVID-19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan has been funded.[1]

2020 has been a hugely challenging year for children. In April, over 170 countries enforced national school closures, affecting 1 billion children. For the first time in human history, an entire global generation has had their education disrupted.

As of December 2020,[2] nearly 200 million pre-primary and school-aged children are still out of education – and we know from previous crises that the longer children are out of school, the greater the risk that they do not return.


“I miss my school so much because it is my second home, and I miss my teachers,” says 14-year-old Maya, a Syrian refugee living in Jordan. Yet she is one of the lucky ones who had a place in school before the pandemic and has been able to stay connected via distance online learning provided through the government and her family’s access to a tablet. 

Almost half of all school-aged refugee children and youth – 3.7 million – were out of school before the pandemic.[3] This already dire situation will deteriorate without an effective, well-funded, and well-coordinated international education response. 85% of refugees live in low- and middle-income countries where education systems already struggle to meet the needs of marginalised communities. These countries need the international community to step up with more funding. Teaching refugee children must be a shared global responsibility.

Refugee children are even less likely than others to return to school when they reopen, with many of their families no longer able to afford school fees, uniforms, and books due to increased poverty caused by the pandemic. They are also less likely to have access to the internet and technologies needed for distance learning.

Yet refugee children critically need safe, quality and inclusive education. It’s a building block of recovery, resilience and long-term development. They, and their families, consistently identify education as a high priority.


While global education institutions, private sector, multi-nationals and philanthropic foundations have been implementing innovative education approaches for refugee children throughout the pandemic, funding efforts remain largely uncoordinated. Lessons and best practice from across the sector are not being shared effectively.

This is why our organisations came together with Education Cannot Wait and the World Bank to co-host a high-level, virtual roundtable to discuss key experiences, learnings and promising practices that have emerged. Today we publish an outcome paper which sets out what we learnt.


We discussed how donors need to increase their education funding and deliver it at speed, while focussing on accountability. We heard how the “normal” way of delivering education to refugees – in temporary learning centres or in the classroom – had been turned on its head, and how donors collaborated with partners to reallocate funding and rapidly respond to that shift. This meant delivering flexible funding to allow local organisations to be innovative and pilot, adapt and scale up new approaches to distance education (such as online, radio or paper-based materials) that are tailored to their context.

The pandemic has reinforced the need for pooled funding and collective action such as that delivered through Education Cannot Wait, the Global Partnership for Education, and the Global Muslim Philanthropy Fund for Children,

Global stakeholders need to support local and national delivery of education, including by partnering with refugees in the design and implementation of programmes. Refugee children, parents and educational communities know what they need, so involving them will be more effective and more sustainable in the long run. For example, the Abdul Aziz Al Ghurair Refugee Education Fund in partnership with Discovery Education is collaborating with local organisations in Lebanon to ensure that vulnerable refugee children can access high-quality digital learning resources and continue their education within public schools without interruption during the pandemic.


To effectively address refugee children and youth’s access to education, both during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond, and ensure their integration in national education systems, we need to understand how best to support host countries. While this is a time of incredible disruption and change, roundtable participants emphasised that the COVID-19 pandemic also presents “the moment” to develop refugee education approaches and systems that are inclusive and resilient to emergencies.

While distance learning approaches have proved instrumental in including some refugee children and youth who are traditionally excluded from education, online platforms can also create barriers. The reality for too many refugees is limited access to digital technology, unreliable internet and electricity, and cultural barriers that exclude them from access to online education solutions. UNHCR estimates that the connectivity level of refugee communities is 50% that of non-refugees.

COVID-19 could trigger the biggest reversal in education progress in modern history – and we owe it to the children and communities we serve to shift how we approach refugee education. We need to take the best of what we do now, and build it into new, sustainable approaches that are a better fit for an unknown and uncertain future. It’s only by making education systems inclusive and resilient to emergencies that we will be able to meet our promises to refugees and all children in the years to come.

To download the Outcome Paper, click Here

[1] OCHA/FTS, 2020. COVID-19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan, Accessed 1 Dec 2020.

[2] UNESCO, 2020. Global monitoring of school closures caused by COVID-19. (accessed 4 November 2020).

[3] UNHCR, 2020. Coming Together for Refugee Education.