Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Why teaching refugee children is so critical

Terrorist recruiters target disenchanted refugee children who see no hope for their future and who would like to escape from camps.

Afghan refugee children in Islamabad, Pakistan on December 3, 2016 (Photo: Muhammad Reza/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Afghan refugee children in Islamabad, Pakistan on December 3, 2016 (Photo: Muhammad Reza/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Published 18 Jan 2017 

Last year Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton made a link between refugee intakes and terrorism. He has also suggested an increase in the humanitarian refugee intake would result in ‘Illiterate and innumerate’ refugees either taking Australian jobs or languishing on government handout.

While Mr Dutton’s decision to spotlight one particular ethnic group of refugees – in this case, the Lebanese Muslims Australia welcomed under the Fraser
government – was roundly criticised, is there a link between the levels of education refugees receive and their propensity to live law abiding, as well as taxpaying, lives?  Can a bow be drawn from refugee education levels to radicalisation and terrorism?

Nexus between education and terrorism

Research suggests there is such a link but it may not be Minister Dutton would expect. Academics find no direct causality between education and terrorism in country of origin. Low levels of education do not lead to terrorist acts. In fact, terrorist organisations appear to actively seek out well-educated and/or well-off members well versed in the use of sophisticated modern technology. One study found 30% of those who had joined certain violent Islamic groups held engineering degrees.

The popular belief that education can be an antidote to terrorism is therefore at odds with the academic viewpoint. A more nuanced view suggests the link between education and education needs to be considered alongside country-specific socio-economic conditions.

However, displaced persons in camps or camp-like situations are in a totally different situation. For these people, movements outside of the camps and contact with outsiders is highly restricted. Yet terrorist recruiters, human traffickers and migrant smugglers often seem to find a way to access these restricted premises. Women and children are particularly vulnerable. Terrorist recruiters target disenchanted refugee children who see no hope for their future and who would like to escape from camps.

Education is one of the critical areas in the current global refugee crisis. If we don’t act now, we’ll have to face bigger security issues in the next generation.

Human traffickers target refugee women and children for sex and labour exploitation in conflict-ridden areas and young people without skills and knowledge are particularly exposed. Amongst young Syrian refugees, for example, low school attendance has been linked to a rise in early marriage and child labour.

Education is also the single most powerful factor in reducing terrorist recruitment in crisis situations. The Taliban in Afghanistan, for instance, have been recruiting uneducated youth and those in Islamic religious schools to use as human shields. Without literacy, numeracy and self-realisation through education, many young refugees may fall into the hands of abusive and violent adults. Violence can cycle through a new generation.

Whilst not a fail-safe prevention, basic education and vocational training, together with interaction with the world outside the camp, give refugee children (who represent 51% of the world’s 21.3 million refugees today) skills and opportunities to build their own future. It provides a tangible alternative to violence and terrorist affiliations.

Broader impact of education

Refugee education also has significant impacts on both the society hosting refugees and refugees’ countries of origin.

At a societal level, inadequate schooling for refugees who come from different backgrounds may lead to a growing number of isolated and marginalised individuals in the hosting society. These individuals can contribute to poor social cohesion and community safety. Potential threats include radicalisation of isolated individuals, abusive anti-social behaviour and potential crimes.

A ta state level, lack of education among refugee children can have negative long-term consequences for growth, productivity, innovation and diversity in both sending and receiving countries. History tells us how host countries have benefited from settled refugees’ motivations to survive and thrive in a new country, work ethics and innovation. There are so many successful refugee entrepreneurs and innovators worldwide, who contribute immensely to their own refugee communities and host countries.

Furthermore, returning refugees can make a significant contribution to the resilience and sustainability of conflict resolution processes back in their countries of origin. They can also help improve bilateral relations between host countries and their countries of origin. It’s essential that returnees receive proper education and training to be able to make valuable contributions to this healing and rehabilitation process. Save the Children projects the disrupted education post-war economy of Syria’s youth could cut the GDP of the post-war economy by 5.4%.

New thinking on refugee education

All refugee children need education beyond a primary level for their own self-realisation, societal resilience and long-term national interests. This must include settled refugee children in Australia, as well as those held in refugee camps or detention centres. It is a daunting task to educate all refugee children in conflict-ridden areas; one attempt to educate children in situ occurs on the Thai-Burma border, where Karen, Mon and Shan refugees have been residing for the past few decades.

Approximately 106,000 refugees currently reside on the 1800km border between Thailand and Burma. Many foreign governments and non-government sectors provide basic subsistence, livelihood and education for refugees. Refugee parents depend on foreign donors and teachers for their children’s education.

Primary education is widely offered, but secondary education is barely supported, mainly due to lack of funding and human resources. New strategies are needed, such as teaching and empowering refugee adults to teach the youth themselves. UNHCR has long been promoting such teacher training, seeing refugees themselves as critical actors in education provision. The International Rescue Committee, led by the former UK Foreign Secretary, David Milliband, (himself the son of refugees) runs programmes for training refugee teachers. Apart from these international efforts, Karens themselves, with the help from local universities, run a Teacher Training program for Karen refugees in the Thai-Burma border.

Source: Karen Refugee Education Committee

Jiyoung Song visited the Ban Dong Yang camp in 2013-2014 to conduct a human security assessment of the camp. The camp’s total population of approximately 3300 and included 1100 aged between 5 and 17. Only 26 students were enrolled in school. Big camps like Mae La with 43,600 refugees have well-established programmes run by the Australian Catholic University and others. Smaller camps – such as Ban Dong Yang – have fewer resources.

Given the limited financial support provided to Ban Dong Yang, this camp needed a new strategy to tackle the lack of education. Rather than teaching refugee students directly – thereby facing language and cultural barriers – it was found to be more cost-effective, culturally contextualised and sustainable to train refugee adults as teachers. Such an approach empowers individuals as well as the community as a unit.

Karen refugee children in the Ban Dong Yang Camp (Photo: Jiyoung Song)

What can we do?

There is much we in developed countries to aide the education of refugees, particularly those in camps. Training refugee teachers is one way to influence the future direction of the current refugee crisis. High-income countries like Australia can set aside aid funds to invest in refugee education. We can also send qualified teachers to train future refugee teachers. Businesses can hire skilled refugees and also donate funds for teacher training schools. NGOs can help coordinate and allocate funds to most needed places and implement teacher training schemes where wanted. Individuals can volunteer or make small financial contributions to those who are implementing training courses on the ground.

The education vacuum often created by conflict and displacement can – and should be - combated by action and investment from outside governments and individuals. Education of refugees, particularly in camps, needs to be looked at through a very wide lens, rather than the narrow prism of terrorism prevention.

Jiyoung Song runs a crowdfunding campaign for Project Borderlands to help Refugee Teachers Training in Thailand.

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