“We’re not being educated, and without education there is nothing.  We’re heading towards destruction.” 
- 14-year-old Syrian Refugee in Irbid, Iraq (see note one)

Previously the second largest host country of refugees, Syria is now producing one of the largest refugee exoduses in recent history.  Since the conflict within its borders escalated in early 2011, over 2.5 million people, half of them children, have fled Syria.   Displaced from their homes, Syrian school-age refugee children are more likely to be out of school than in, frequently for years.   

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) 1951 International Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, to which 144 countries are signatories, every refugee child has a legal right to education.   Unfortunately, many do not receive it, threatening their future livelihoods and the stabilization of their home states.   

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have mobilized international action “to achieve universal primary education” by 2015.  This target, however, has neglected the education of vulnerable displaced children and failed to address the quality of the schooling they receive.  By paying greater attention to education for refugee children in the post-2015 agenda, we can simultaneously improve the future welfare of individuals, and that of fragile societies worldwide. 

Child Refugee Right to Education 
Children have a legal right to education under international law.  The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), derived from the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), is the first legally-binding international instrument endorsing children as rights-bearers.   It was universally ratified by 1990 and incorporates the full range of human rights—civil, cultural, economic, political, and social—to safeguard children against vulnerability, and to acknowledge the rights to which they are entitled, including the right to education.  
A decade later, the world community reaffirmed these rights to refugee children.  At the World Education Forum held in Dakar in 2000, the world’s education ministers endorsed the CRC principles and pledged to “meet the needs of education systems affected by conflict, natural calamities, and instability.”   One outcome was the creation of the Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies (INEE) that sets minimum standards for education in emergencies.  Prior to the INEE, no basic standard for education in emergencies existed.  

Global shifts in the geography and context of poverty make the issue of child refugees’ right to education especially pertinent.  Although the total number of people living in extreme poverty has fallen significantly from 1.91 billion in 1990 to 1.22 billion people in 2010, it is estimated that for the first time in history the majority of the world’s poor will soon live in fragile and conflict-affected states. This is not limited to low-income countries; today close to half of fragile states are middle-income countries, including Pakistan, Côte d’Ivoire and Bosnia-Herzegovina.   Education is a means for individuals to escape from or prevent the fall into poverty. At a societal-level, it is inextricably linked to the stabilization of conflict-affected countries, as it helps children find employment as adults and contribute to their communities as constructive citizens.  Notably, “it is the refugees with an education, above all, who provide leadership during displacement and in rebuilding communities recovering from conflict.”  The shift of the poverty ratio towards conflict-affected countries demands that education for refugee children be incorporated into long-term development goals. 

Issues with Millennium Development Goals Approach to Emergency Education 
The MDGs have played an invaluable role in promoting child access to education.  Between 2000 and 2011, the number of children out of school declined by almost half, from 102 million to 57 million.  Despite these promising gains, the decline has slowed considerably since 2008, and the target of universal primary education will not likely be met by 2015.   Several further issues arise regarding the approach of the MDG for universal primary education.  One major criticism regards the emphasis on the number of children completing primary education, which means that the children easiest to reach have had the greatest opportunities, while the most vulnerable and marginalized groups have been left behind.   

Focusing on the quantity of children in school has also failed to address the quality of education outcomes.  Just because they are in school does not mean that children are learning.  India, for example, has made great improvements in primary school enrollment, increasing it by 16 million between 2002 and 2009.   Despite these improvements, India’s Annual Status of Education Report (2010) highlighted that the overall quality of education in India had deteriorated.   If children are not learning, then higher enrollment rates have little meaning.  

Finally, though the MDGs derive inherently from the UDHR, the right to education guaranteed in the CRC and reinforced by INEE standards, are neither mentioned nor implied in the MDGs.  As the CRC is the only legally-binding treaty addressing children’s right to education, a child-rights approach to education in the post-2015 agenda could ensure both the quality of education and the inclusion of the most vulnerable children. 

Moving Beyond 2015 
The increasing number of refugee and displaced children demands a change in the approach to the post-2015 agenda.  Not only are these children being deprived of a fundamental human right, they represent a significant population which the MDGs have left behind. 
For refugee children, the importance of a quality education is equated to that of nourishment, shelter, and health services.   Education can equip children with the skills, knowledge, and capacities to realize other fundamental rights as adults.  At a societal-level, education is inextricably linked to the stabilization of conflict-affected countries  where poverty rates are rising.  By utilizing a child-rights approach in the post-2015 development agenda that focuses on quality of education and inclusion of marginalized displaced children, we can better the futures of refugee children, and thus fragile states, worldwide.

Note One: 14-year-old Syrian refugee in Irbid, Iraq. UNHCR. “The Future of Syria: Refugee Children in Crisis.” November, 2013.; Page 52.

See Hürriyet Daily News. “World must share Syrian refugee burden, UNHCR chief says in Turkey.” January 17, 2014.; UNHCR Official Page on Data for Syrian Refugees.

UNICEF, UNHCR, Save the Children, World Vision Joint. “Syria Crisis: Education Interrupted - Global action to rescue the schooling of a generation.” December 13, 2013.

UNHCR States Parties to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol.

The World Bank, “Stop Conflict, Reduce Fragility, End Poverty” May 2013:

UNICEF. “Convention on the Rights of the Child.”

World Education Forum, Dakar, Senegal Report. “Education For All: Meeting Our Collective Commitments.” 26-28 April 2000. 

Anderson, Allison, Jennifer Hofmann and Peter Hyll-Larsen, 2011. “The Right to Education for Children in Emergencies.” International Humanitarian Legal Studies 2, 84–126.

See The World Bank. “Poverty Overview.”; Kharas, H. and Andrew Rogerson. Horizon 2025: Creative Destruction in the Aid Industry, Overseas Development Institute, 2012; Chandy, L. and Geoffrey Gertz. Poverty in Numbers: The Changing State of Global Poverty from 2005 to 2015. Brookings, 2011. 

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). “Ensuring Fragile States Are Not Left Behind: 2013 Factsheet on Resource Flows and Trends.” OECD 2013. 

“Ending Extreme Poverty Hinges on Progress in Fragile and Conflict-affected Situations.” The World Bank Feature Story. April 30, 2013. 

UNHCR. “Education: A Basic Right for a Better Future.” 

The United Nations. The Millennium Development Goals Report 2013.  

See Tomaševski, Katarina. “Human rights obligations: making education available, accessible, acceptable and adaptable.” Right to education primers No. 3. Raoul Wallenberg Institute and Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency: 2001, 43.; Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. “Claiming the Millennium Development Goals: A human rights approach.” New York and Geneva: United Nations, 2008.; The United Nations.

“Post-2015 Global Thematic Consultation on Education Summary Report of the e-Discussion on Equitable Access to Education.” February 1, 2013.

“Elementary education in India: quality or quantity?” East Asia Forum, December 25, 2012. 

ASER. “Annual Status of Education Report (Rural) 2010.” January 2, 2011. 

INEE. “The right to education in emergencies.” 

Sinclair, Margaret. “Education in Emergencies.” Commonwealth Education Partnerships. Commonwealth Secretariat, 52-56. Cambridge: Nexus Strategic Partnerships Limited. 2007.

“Ending Extreme Poverty Hinges on Progress in Fragile and Conflict-affected Situations.” The World Bank Feature Story. April 30, 2013.