Global Refugee Forum 2023 supports drive to get half of refugee children into school

Olympic swimmer and Syrian refugee Yusra Mardini presented pledge to protect refugees crossing by sea

Afghan refugees attend a class in Islamabad. Pakistan. Half of the world's refugee children are not in education. AFP
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A drive to bring the half of the world's 15 million refugee children missing from schools back into the classroom was one of the flagship pledges made at the Global Refugee Forum on Thursday.

The pledge committed countries to opening their national education systems to refugees – with 32 states promising funding or national policy changes. The promoters noted Egypt's role in integrating Syrian refugee children into its schools. The initiative is sponsored by Canada, Germany, UK and the World Bank.

Another major pledge addressed migrant crossings the Mediterranean. The commitment to protect refugees crossing by sea is led by the International Organisation for Migration and other major international agencies.

“Protection at sea can be fostered in different ways, including by building capacities to provide and co-ordinate rescue,” said Yusra Mardini, an Olympic swimmer and Syrian refugee who presented the pledge.

Egypt, which is co-leading a big multistakeholder pledge on peace-building and conflict prevention with the governments of Colombia and Norway, announced two new commitments towards this on Wednesday.

The first of these addresses the impact of climate change on displaced people on the African continent, and builds on the Cop28 flagship initiative on sustaining peace.

Presenting the pledges, Dr Ahmed Ihab Gamaleldin, Egypt’s ambassador to Switzerland, referred to the Israeli bombardment of Gaza. “There a deliberate plan to render entire territory uninhabitable and force displacement of people whether inside or outside Gaza in clear violation of international law,” he said.

This was an example of the “stark consequences of seeking to manage crises” rather than approach their “root causes”.

However, these new commitments are mired by dire funding shortfalls, highlighted at the forum on Wednesday.

King Abdullah of Jordan said the country had received only 20 per cent of required pledges this year, the lowest on record, in his opening address, while the UN refugee agency said it was still missing $400 million in funding.

Mark Angel, Vice-President of the European Parliament, acknowledged these shortages to The National. “It is important, especially in Europe, [that] we should not forget funding the UNHCR and UN and all the civil society organisations that are very much involved in refugees,” he said.

These should be distributed to organisations supporting refugees within Europe, as well as host countries outside the EU. “In our countries a lot of NGOs are helping to integrate refugees in our societies and they also need funding from governments,” he said.

As part of its pledge, the European Parliament will aim to discuss displacement, asylum and protection with other host countries, he explained.

It will also work with the UNHCR to help parliaments draft legislation and exchange good practice. Not all pledges made in the last gathering were met, and many refugee advocates at the forum highlighted their wish to see words transformed into action.

Sasha Chanoff, chief executive of Refuge Point, highlighted this. “There were so many commitments in the last global refugee forum that I'm not sure there was a mechanism to really follow through on all of those as adequately as needed,” he told The National.

He was hopeful that this year’s pledges would be different. “I think there's more efforts this time to create multi-stakeholder pledges, and to also think about how to follow through on those so that the actors that are making those pledges can actually actualise them,” he said.

The approach to supporting refugees had changed, he added. “The old paradigm of providing aid and support until people go home doesn't really work any more. So we need to find new pathways for people to build self-reliant lives,” he said.

Educating refugees should go beyond schools, and into higher education, some have stressed.

Refugees often struggle to obtain the paperwork required to register for higher education, and funding is also an issue, said Liliana Lyra Jubilut, co-chair of the Global Academic Interdisciplinary Programme, a network which seeks to support higher education for refugees in their host countries.

Among the network’s commitments are 25 scholarships for women pursuing a masters programme in science (STEM) subjects which will take place as a pilot project in Jordan, in partnership with the Organisation for Women in Science for the Developing World.

Formed during the last forum, the network aims to create “localised” initiatives that address the challenges on a country-by-country basis. “There is this idea of trying to have a more localised construction of knowledge so that we can have better fitted responses to refugee situations,” said Prof Jubilut.

Abdel Moumen, a journalist and Syrian refugee who was born and lives in Jordan, said his needs go beyond schooling.

As a refugee in Jordan, he is unable to work legally, and struggles with the same issue in other Arab countries. “We are educated and qualified, but we do not have the opportunity to work legally as foreigners,” he said.

The only solution, he insisted, was the naturalisation of refugees – a controversial issue in the Arab world. “We need opportunities for citizenship,” he said.

Updated: December 14, 2023, 5:45 PM