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An empty classroom in a closed public school is seen in Beirut, Lebanon, March 2, 2023. © 2023 Hussein Malla/AP Photo

(Geneva) – Countries participating in the Global Refugee Forum in Geneva should pledge to end bureaucratic barriers to education for refugee children, Human Rights Watch said today. In multiple countries, refugee children are obliged to provide paperwork that many cannot obtain to be admitted to school.

At the refugee forum, which opens in Geneva on December 13, 2023, countries and other actors like United Nations agencies are asked to “pledge” steps they will take to realize a 2018 UN agreement, the Global Refugee Compact. One of the compact’s goals is that all refugee children should be enrolled in national school systems within three months of displacement. But refugee children’s prompt enrollment in school in host countries is often barred or slowed by impossible or time-consuming bureaucratic demands.

“Children displaced by war and persecution are being shut out of schools just because they don’t have the right paperwork, which is most often not within their power to attain,” said Bill Van Esveld, associate children’s rights director at Human Rights Watch. “Governments can make changes with the stroke of a pen that would open classroom doors to refugee children.”

Under international law, all children have the right to quality education without discrimination, regardless of their immigration or refugee status. Many refugee-hosting countries have adopted positive policies, but these do not always apply to all refugees or are not consistently carried out.

Governments could pledge at the forum to end policies that require refugee children to jump through impossible bureaucratic hoops to be admitted to school. One multistakeholder pledge that participants should consider would require admitting refugee children to school quickly after displacement, including by “removing legal, policy and administrative barriers.”

Host countries should ensure that refugee children are not required to produce documents to enroll in school that are difficult or impossible to obtain, such as proof of residency and official identification documents. Countries should allow refugees to register for school and issue clear instructions to education officials to waive documentation requirements regardless of a child’s immigration status.

Turkey hosts 1.6 million Syrian children and 125,000 refugee children of other nationalities, but over 450,000 refugee children are out of school. Afghan asylum seekers have very limited opportunities to apply for international protection, leaving them unable to obtain documents including a Turkish identification card (kimlik), which many school officials continue to require before allowing children to enroll.

If refugees are able to apply for international protection, Turkish authorities assign them to live in a particular “satellite city.” Syrian refugees can access temporary protection but are also assigned and registered in particular cities. These cities are designated for political and demographic considerations but not whether refugees will be able to find a job or means of sustenance there. Cities including Istanbul are closed to new refugee arrivals, and children whose families move to Istanbul to find work but do not have a registered address there may be refused enrollment by local schools.

Jordan, a co-convenor of the Refugee Forum, hosts 340,000 refugee children registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), mostly Syrians. But the government bars UNHCR from registering refugees from other countries, including Iraq, Yemen, Sudan, and Somalia. Jordan waived in 2016 but later reinstated a requirement for Syrian children to present a government-issued “service card” to go to school. Unregistered Syrians are unable to obtain the cards, which are valid only in the area where they are issued, not if a family moves to another district. About 51,000 registered school-age Syrian refugee children in Jordan were out of school in late 2020, including three quarters of secondary school-age Syrian children.

For non-Syrian refugees, Jordan waived in 2020 earlier requirements to present work or residency permits to enroll in school, but bureaucratic difficulties are still a key reason why tens of thousands of refugee children are out of school. A Jordanian rule that prohibits children from enrolling if they have been out of school for three or more years also affects refugee children’s access to education.

In Lebanon, suffering one of the world’s worst financial crises since the 19th century, both Lebanese and refugee students have been denied adequate, regular access to education since 2019. The root causes of the education crisis are mismanagement and lack of accountability, the Center for Lebanese Studies has reported.

UNHCR has registered 800,000 Syrian refugees, but the government does not allow UNHCR to register an additional 700,000 Syrians in the country, about half of whom are children. As few as 3 percent of Syrian refugee children attend secondary education in Lebanon, based on international reports.

Bureaucratic barriers blocking refugee children’s education include requirements of proof of residency to enroll in secondary school or to sit for exams or obtain certification, which some school officials have continued to require even if the Education Ministry waives them. In 2022, only 17 percent of Syrians surveyed by the UN had residency.

Bangladesh hosts over 1 million Rohingya refugees. Since 2021, the government has allowed humanitarian groups to provide education in the Myanmar curriculum for Rohingya refugee children. This positive step, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), now means that 300,000 children have access to education in a formal curriculum, from primary to secondary levels. However, Bangladesh does not allow Rohingya children to attend public schools and has not accredited their education in the camps using the Myanmar curriculum.

By contrast, in 2014 Turkey had responded to the arrival of Syrian refugees by accrediting new schools opened by Syrian refugee teachers, certifying the Arabic Syrian curriculum, and planning for Syrian children to learn Turkish so as to transition to public schools.

In Greece, access to education has improved but is still inadequate for children seeking asylum. In 2021, only 7 out of 2,090 children on the Aegean islands, and only 1 out of every 7 children in camps on the mainland were able to go to school. By May 2023, according to civil society reporting, 290 out of 685 children in the camps on Samos, Lesvos, Leros, Kos, and Chios attended public schools.

The European Union responded to the arrival of Ukrainian refugees after the full-scale Russian invasion in 2022 by invoking a Temporary Protection Directive that helps ensure these children do not face bureaucratic barriers to education. EU Member States should work harder to integrate the children, but the EU’s step to remove difficult and unnecessary documentation barriers to school enrollment for Ukrainian children is a positive policy example that could be applied to all refugee contexts.

Humanitarian and child rights groups have also documented the crucial role of donor governments in ensuring adequate, multi-year financing for refugee education in host countries, which often curtail education spending due to foreign debt-servicing burdens.

“In 2018, governments recognized the need to enroll all refugee children in school shortly after displacement, and today they should move to implement that obligation,” Van Esveld said. “These children face many other challenges to going to school – their right to education and a better future shouldn’t depend on producing impossible paperwork.”

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