Listen Now

Collaboration, not charity

Canada is investing in refugee education. Here’s how to do it right.

By: and /
17 March, 2021
A Syrian refugee teacher in Malatya, Turkey, instructs refugee students who have fled Syria’s civil war. Volkan Kasik/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Ask any parent of a school-aged child in Canada about sources of stress during the COVID pandemic, and their child’s education will likely come at or near the top of the list. From supporting the pivot to online learning, to balancing day jobs and moonlighting as educational assistants, ensuring continuity in our children’s education has been a mighty challenge.

Statistics Canada revealed in October 2020 that more than a quarter of secondary school students in Canada reported significant disruptions to their education due to the pandemic.

The situation is far worse for the world’s refugees, 85 per cent of whom live in low- and middle-income countries like Bangladesh, Kenya, Lebanon and Turkey. In September 2020, the UN’s Refugee Agency, UNHCR, issued a report about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on refugee education. Before the pandemic, refugee children were already twice as likely to be out of school as a non-refugee child. The UNHCR predicts this gap will worsen, and many refugee children will not be able to resume studies because they can’t afford it, lack access to books and technologies or must work to support their families.

Canada’s response

Canada’s Minister of International Development Karina Gould last month announced a three-year “Together for Learning” campaign to promote and support education for refugee children and youth, and for the communities hosting them.

Global Affairs Canada says the campaign will focus on advancing principles outlined in the Charlevoix Declaration, a 2018 G7 statement recognizing the importance of education for girls and women in fragile and conflict-affected states. It says the campaign will amplify local voices, including through a “Refugee Education Council” made up of current and former refugees and other nationals from developing countries.

As part of this initiative, GAC has issued a call for concept notes — essentially the first stage of an application process — for projects aimed at improving education for refugee children and youth in sub-Saharan Africa. The government said it will spend up to $40 million on such projects over the next five years. With this announcement, the time is right to ask how we can ensure that Canada’s investment in refugee education makes a real difference.

Play the long game

First, we need to recognize that there are no quick solutions. Barriers to refugee education are often systemic and long lasting.

While the COVID pandemic was a massive shock, it only compounded a range of long-standing challenges and inequalities experienced by refugees seeking to access quality education. In the context of Lebanon and Jordan, for example, a history of unequal legal status and economic opportunity has limited the ability of refugees to pivot to online learning during the pandemic.

Many of these challenges have even deeper roots. The Dadaab Response Association, a group of researchers living in the Dadaab refugee camps in Northeastern Kenya, examined the disproportionate secondary school drop-out rates for girls in their community. They found that funding was only part of the problem. The lower status of women and girls in camps, the lack of female role models, the belief that investing in the education of boys leads to a greater return and the way that refugee camps are managed all played a role in explaining why so many girls are dropping out of school. To tackle the issue, they argue, political and social barriers must be addressed.

These issues highlight the political and policy context within which refugee education must be understood. We can no longer think of refugee education as a short-term, emergency response. Many refugees are born and grow up in exile. This means that refugee issues are not just humanitarian issues. They are now deeply connected to longer term questions of social and educational development.

For 20 years, we have debated how to approach education in emergencies. It is time to shift our thinking. While humanitarian responses are about addressing immediate and critical needs, investing in education means a longer-lasting commitment than the three years announced by Gould. Likewise, the maximum of $40 million pledged to this initiative, coupled with funding already committed through the Charlevoix Education Initiative, should be viewed as a down payment on the full investment needed to realize meaningful change.   

Empowerment, not containment

Second, we need to be honest about why we are investing in refugee education. Is the goal to empower refugees and equip them with the skills and experience needed to find a lasting solution to their displacement, or is it to provide services in their regions of origin to discourage them from moving to western countries?

“Richer countries in the Global North have spent billions of dollars trying to contain refugees in the Global South.”

Since the 1980s, richer countries of the Global North have spent billions of dollars trying to contain refugees in their regions of origin in the Global South. The governance of the refugee system is increasingly premised on a shared logic: donor states will give the minimum level of funding required to satisfy refugee-hosting states and to provide basic, life-saving assistance for refugees. The deal is that refugees are either convinced or compelled to stay put, and not take matters into their own hands by moving on — as we saw in Europe in 2015, with tragic consequences.

Education has become part of this containment strategy, as is illustrated by the case of Lebanon. This year marks the tenth anniversary of the Syrian civil war that has killed some 400,000 people and displaced more than ten million — within Syria and as refugees outside the country. There are some 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, making Lebanon the country with the highest number of refugees per capita. However, while mostly western donor governments have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on refugee education in Lebanon, the results are disappointing.  

Canada’s investment in refugee education cannot and should not be complicit in this payment for containment. The mandate of the UN’s Refugee Agency, now 70 years old, is to ensure protection for refugees and help find a lasting solution to their displacement. It’s not to keep them warehoused in camps and slums where they won’t bother the governments paying to keep them there.

For refugee education to break the cycle of displacement, it should focus on equipping refugees with the skills they need to rebuild their lives, not on the preferences and priorities of donors. It should also have the goal of helping refugees find permanent solutions to why they were displaced in the first place — by resolving the conflict in their country of origin so they can safely return home, by encouraging states that host refugees to give refugees permanent legal status so they can integrate or by facilitating their resettlement to a third country, like Canada.

Meaningful refugee participation

Third, Canada’s investment in refugee education needs to be guided by those who are closest to the issue: refugee students, students from refugee-hosting communities, teachers and parents.  

Refugees are not passive recipients of aid. They are on the front lines, responding to the needs of their communities and often developing innovative ways to meet them. In Lebanon, for example, the refugee-led organization Basmeh & Zeitooneh responded to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic by providing 10 thousand families left stranded by the economic shutdown with food baskets, hygiene kits and support to pay their monthly rents.

Including refugees in the planning and delivery of programing is not just the right thing to do; it’s a smart thing to do. The Global Compact on Refugees, affirmed by the UN General Assembly in 2018, notes that “responses are most effective when they actively and meaningfully engage those they are intended to protect and assist.” Canada’s announced creation of a Refugee Education Council is therefore promising. But what sort of participation by refugees and other displaced persons is most useful?

Our colleagues in the Local Engagement Refugee Research Network, a seven-year partnership between researchers and civil society actors in East Africa and the Middle East, have taught us that refugee participation must be substantive, sustained and substantial. Substantive participation has the potential to make a measurable difference in the outcomes of a process. Sustained participation includes refugees in the design, implementation and evaluation of policies and programs. For participation to be substantial, refugees must participate in sufficient numbers to bring diverse and representative views, and their participation must equip and empower them with skills and information that put them on equal footing with their non-refugee counterparts.

Advancing refugee participation is not just inviting them to meetings. Participation also means addressing the barriers that have typically constrained the role that refugees play in shaping policy and practice. If the newly created Refugee Education Council can deliver on its promise of meaningful refugee participation, and if it can demonstrate that an investment in education is an investment in the capacity of refugees, Canada’s Together for Learning initiative has the potential to make a positive change — not only to refugee education, but to the international community’s entire approach to refugees and how they might better shape their own lives.

Before you click away, we’d like to ask you for a favour … 


Open Canada is published by the Canadian International Council, but that’s only the beginning of what the CIC does. Through its research and live events hosted by its 18 branches across the country, the CIC is dedicated to engaging Canadians from all walks of life in an ongoing conversation about Canada’s place in the world.

By becoming a member, you’ll be joining a community of Canadians who seek to shape Canada’s role in the world, and you’ll help Open Canada continue to publish thoughtful and provocative reporting and analysis.

Join us