(Source: Flickr-Yothin Insuk)

“Education, for me, has been the only hope that continues to drive me forward. It has been the only thing I look to, to change; my life, my family’s life, my community and my future. I can equate education to hope, for me, and I am sure for all other refugee children. In the absence of education, there is no hope. Anybody I know, who has escaped refugee life has done so because of education. If you want to have a house and a good life that is going to be different from your current situation as a refugee, education is the key.”

These are the words of an exceptional young man and good friend of mine that I met at a short course on International Development in Eswatini. His family fled his country of origin after threats to their lives, and when I met him, he had been living at the Malindza Refugee Camp in Eswatini for a few years. As the world continuously faces difficult times, access to education for refugee children continues to be a significant challenge.

On the 24th of August, the United Nations Secretary-General gave a heartfelt address to the world on the worsening global state of education as a result of the COVID19 pandemic. He spoke about the entrenched inequalities existing in education and the exacerbation of these inequalities by the pandemic, accessibility to education, but most importantly, the quality of education delivered(United Nations, 2020).

His policy brief accompanied by the launch of the ‘Save Our Future’ campaign, contained direct action items; reopen schools, increase and secure education budgets, target those most isolated and lastly reimagine the future of education.

Now, it is commendable that the United Nations continues to acknowledge the importance and prioritization of education. However, the reality is much more devastating than just “a growing gap”. Whilst the world is worried about the quality of education that children receive, and the impacts of the pandemic on the learning process for many children. Deeply entrenched inequalities that have existed before the pandemic mean that a group of vulnerable children- refugee children are now faced with an even more significant challenge in terms of access to education with the new global situation that has presented itself.

Coupled with the unstable nature of the environments that many refugee children grow up in, lack of proper documentation and certification, culture shock and the challenges that come with reintegrating in local communities and most importantly, lack of funding. The difficulties that are faced by refugee children are much more complex and require special attention.

The Current State 

Currently, one per cent of the world’s population is displaced. By the end of 2019, UNHCR estimated that more than 79.5 million people across the world had fled their homes due to different factors. Twenty-six million of them are refugees, half of whom are children(United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees,2020).

There are an estimated 7.1 million school-age refugee children globally, and 3.7 million of them have no access to education. According to the UNHCR, only 63% of refugee children access primary education, 24% secondary and a mere 3% can access tertiary education. These rates are in comparison to 91% primary, 84% secondary and 37% tertiary global education access rates for non-refugee children. The disparities existing in access to education rates between refugee and non-refugee children are threatening the livelihoods of refugee children across the world(United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, n.d.).

Perhaps those most threatened are children in refugee camps that the UNHCR has let go of operations in. When the UNHCR ceases operations in refugee camps in certain countries, this means that the governments can decide whether or not to ensure operations continue. If operations continue, it is entirely responsible for the costs of operating the refugee camps and in certain instances receives support from UNHCR partners such as Caritas. The levels of inequalities faced by children in these refugee camps are perhaps more severe than those that children in UNHCR led refugee camps face. One example of these refugee camps is Malindza (Mpaka) Refugee Camp, located in the Kingdom of Eswatini(United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 2006).

Malindza (Mpaka) Refugee Camp Swaziland

In 1978, UNHCR opened an office in the small Kingdom of Eswatini as part of an operation to assist people that were fleeing apartheid from neighbouring South Africa. Coupled with the civil war that sparked in neighbouring Mozambique, the kingdom hosted about 20 000 refugees. This unrest in the region led to the opening of two refugee camps in the kingdom. When the situation improved in both South Africa and Mozambique, many refugees were repatriated to their countries, significantly lowering the numbers of refugees in Eswatini. This decrease in the number of refugees led to a decision by the UNHCR to end its physical presence in Eswatini because there were only as the UNHCR would describe it, “a few dozen” refugees left in Eswatini at the time. The government of Eswatini requested that one refugee camp be left open in case of any unexpected future instabilities that may have required the government of Eswatini to house more refugees (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 2006).

In the years that followed, Eswatini witnessed an increase in the number of refugees that arrived at the camp from Burundi, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia amongst others. In 2019, there were 940 refugees in Eswatini (Trading Economics, 2019).

Educational Challenges Faced By Refugee Children at Malindza Refugee Camp

When school-aged children first arrive at Malindza Refugee Camp, registration is a requirement in order to attend school. This process is one too often filled with frustration for many children. This process includes taking a proficiency test set to determine what level of education a child requires. Due to language barriers, many children do not perform well in the tests and as a result, are required to start in grades that are way below what they would ordinarily be. 

This aptitude makes complete sense to allow for proper development and understanding. However, for many children and parents, this is a discouraging factor. If a child is sixteen and has to start in grade four according to proficiency level requirements, their parents are unlikely to permit it. The reasoning is that they would be better off looking for work and helping around the family instead. Many of the children have no educational foundation at all because they have spent most of their lives moving around. This absence of a foundation presents difficulties, especially readjusting, to a stable learning environment that has not existed before.

These problems are all big; however, they are addressable if mechanisms are in place to accommodate the unique experiences of refugee children in learning environments. The biggest challenge is that there is not enough funding to even allow for many of the children to access school. Secondary school, for example; because the government can not afford to fully sponsor all students at Malindza Refugee Camp to attend school, parents have to contribute money to ensure that their children attend school. For unaccompanied minors that find themselves at the refugee camp, Caritas, a partner of the UNHCR operating alongside the government in Eswatini, is responsible for helping students access education(Caritas, 2015).

The reality is notably different; many of the parents are unable to afford the partial fees they have to pay, and Caritas often does not make the required payments, leading to the expulsion of students from the community school. As a result, many students find themselves sitting at home with no hope for the future.

(Source: Flickr – FFPC)

Why Access To Education Matters?

A question as to why education matters, should ordinarily not even be a question at all; the right to education and to learn should suffice. However, when it comes to education for children in refugee camps, education is more than just a right to learn and develop. Education for many refugee children is their only opportunity to escape life in refugee camps. It means escaping poverty and the ability to reintegrate into the bigger world(United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 2020). 

Nonetheless, it is essential to understand that all these reasons are far fetched and look into the future. Education for many refugee children means protection from immediate threats such as child labour, child marriages and different forms of abuse. Learning institutions provide a safe environment for children to learn and grow but also to interact with other young people.

Education provides a unique opportunity for refugee children to leave refugee camps and to establish lives outside of them. This opportunity is a critical factor in ensuring development. 

How Can You Help?

Bridging the gap of education accessibility between refugee children and non-refugee children is something that can only happen if we all play our parts.

Students:  find out about a refugee camp near you, volunteer and help mentor a student. Project Access Rwanda currently works with students applying to university at Mahama Refugee Camp in Rwanda. Sign up to mentor a student(Project Access, 2020). In Eswatini, Waterford Kamhlaba United World College of Southern Africa has a community service programme that supports students at Malindza Refugee Camp in accessing different educational opportunities. Inquire about how you can join and support the work they do(Waterford Kamhlaba United World College of Southern Africa, 2019).

Policymakers: Advocate for policies that make it easier for refugee children to integrate into community schools and for systems that are inclusive of diverse educational backgrounds.

Funders:  Direct funding to organizations working at the forefront with students in refugee camps for better education accessibility. Advocate for reforms such as direct cash transfers to refugees for better access to education.

We all have a part to play in making the world of education and the world in general, a better place for students that grow up in refugee camps.

Statistics Infographic


  1. Caritas. (2015, November 16). Rights of the Child protected by Caritas in Swaziland. Caritas. https://www.caritas.org/2015/11/rights-for-unaccompanied-children-in-swaziland/
  2. Project Access. (2020). Project Access – Project Access for refugees. Project Access : Project Access For Refugees. https://projectaccess.org/refugees
  3. Trading Economics. (2019). Swaziland – Refugee Population By Country Or Territory Of Asylum – 1970-2019 Data | 2020 Forecast. Trading Economics. https://tradingeconomics.com/swaziland/refugee-population-by-country-or-territory-of-asylum-wb-data.html#:~:text=Refugee%20population%20by%20country%20or%20territory%20of%20asylum%20in%20Swaziland
  4. United Nations. (2020, August 24). “The future of education is here.” United Nations. https://www.un.org/en/coronavirus/future-education-here
  5. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. (n.d.). Education. UNHCR. Retrieved December 9, 2020, from https://www.unhcr.org/education.html#:~:text=3.7%20million%20refugee%20children%20are%20out%20of%20school.&text=There%20has%20been%20a%20rise
  6. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. (2006, October 9). UNHCR prepares for Swaziland to take over all refugee services. UNHCR. https://www.unhcr.org/news/latest/2006/10/452a5d6e2/unhcr-prepares-swaziland-refugee-services.html
  7. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. (2020). BACKGROUND GUIDE. https://www.unhcr.org/5df9f1767.pdf
  8. Waterford Kamhlaba United World College of Southern Africa. (2019, February 21). Waterford Kamhlaba United World College Southern Africa – (WKUWCSA). Www.Waterford.Sz. https://www.waterford.sz/media/news/read.php?indzaba=97