Nearly 66 million people have been forcibly displaced from their homes. About two-thirds of these are internally displaced, but 22.5 million people are refugees in foreign countries, a record high.
More than half of refugees are under the age of 18. Most don’t have a chance to go to school.
“These are all individual human beings that have the same dreams, the same ambitions, the same desires to live a life in freedom and safety and the opportunity to decide who they’re going to become,” a representative from United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said from the Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. at a World Refugee Day event this week. “Every human being is entitled to that.”
What happens to those dreams when people spend their entire childhoods in forced displacement? Refugee children are five times more likely than non-refugee children to be out of school, according to the UNHCR.
The agency looks after six million school-age refugee children alone, but 3.7 million aren’t enrolled in school. Long-term, “the gap becomes a chasm,” the report says. Only 22% of refugee kids report being in secondary school, compared to 84% of the total population. At the higher education level, just 1% of refugees start university, compared to 34% overall.
The situation is even worse among low-income refugees fleeing to other low-income countries — and that’s most of the world’s refugees.
“Twenty years is more than an entire childhood, and represents a significant portion of a person’s productive working years,” the UNHCR report says. “It is critical that we think beyond a refugee’s basic survival.”
Statistically, the payoffs are high for helping refugee adults and children alike fully rebuild their lives in a new place. The UNHCR report notes that refugees resettled in the U.S., for example, settle quickly and that their income progression outpaces economic migrants.
They also invest more in education. Billionaire George Soros staked up to $50 million in Humanity Ventures, a partnership with Mastercard focused on education and healthcare.
Libraries Without Borders, a Washington D.C. nonprofit is leading several initiatives, including a partnership with Arabic learning venture EduTechnoz to teach literacy skills to Syrian refugee children in Jordan.
Corporations like IKEA and Starbucks have pledged to hire refugees. The new Massachusetts workforce development pay-for-success program is trying to improve employability and skills for adult refugees and other immigrants.
Musician Thao Nguyen’s performance at the Kennedy Center showed how far a displaced family can come in one generation: Nguyen’s parents were refugees from the Vietnam War who settled in the D.C. area and opened their own business.
Thao is the lead singer with Thao & the Get Down Stay Down. “I am a proud daughter of Vietnamese refugees,” she said. “As their child, I have a moral duty to tell their story.”