Blog post by Stephanie Bengtsson, Research Scholar at The Wittgenstein Centre for Demography and Global Human Capital

The global refugee crisis has made its way to the top of the international political agenda, signalled by increased media attention and the first ever high-level UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants held in September 2016, at which member states agreed to the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants. In the New York Declaration, summit participants acknowledged their shared responsibility to take a “humane, sensitive, compassionate, and people-centred” approach to managing refugees and migrants through international cooperation, an approach which recognises member countries’ “varying capacities and resources to respond” (UN General Assembly, 2016, para.11). In a similar vein, the Incheon Declaration Education 2030: Towards Inclusive and Equitable Quality Education and Lifelong Learning for All calls for “better coordinated national, regional and global responses” to address the educational needs of refugee children and other children affected by crisis, who are referred to as “the keys to a secure and sustainable future.”

On the surface, these Declarations hold promise for a stronger, more effective, and more equitable global partnership moving forward, however, an analysis of the current political, social, and economic climate reveals that a radical shift in mind-set is required if such a partnership is to become a reality. For such a shift to occur, we must first acknowledge the disproportionate burden borne by the world’s poorest communities in addressing the global refugee crisis, and, second, begin to challenge the binary thinking whereby the so-called “developing countries” continue to be seen in deficit terms as the source of the world’s problems, and “developed countries” as the exporters of the solutions to these problems. On this latter point, within the field of international education, knowledge/expertise (of varying quality and relevance) has tended to flow from high income countries (HICs) to low and middle income countries (LMICs), and very rarely in the opposite direction, leading to the implementation of many a flawed decontextualized educational policy or practice in LMICs. In recent decades, while “South-South” collaboration has emerged as an important component of international development practice, and stakeholders from the “Global North” (HICs) have come to encourage and support such collaboration, the idea that knowledge/expertise could be transferred from “South” to “North” has not even made a dent in the dominant development discourse.

A state of perpetual exclusion for millions

According to UNHCR figures, in 2015, there were 21.3 million refugees worldwide (16.1 million under the UNHCR mandate; 5.2 million Palestinian refugees registered by UNRWA). With a rise in protracted crises over the past few years, the likelihood that these refugees will see a timely return to their home has been significantly reduced, so many refugees instead live in the hope that they will be formally resettled to a new community in a new country. However, over the course of 2015, only 107,100 refugees were resettled, which is truly a drop in the ocean, particularly considering that 33,972 people a day are forced to flee their homes because of conflict and/or persecution (ibid.). To put that into perspective: three days into 2016, there were more newly-displaced refugees worldwide than refugees who had been resettled over the course of the whole of the previous year.

The reality then for most refugees the world over is that they will live in a state of perpetual exclusion, unable to return to their original homes in safety, and prevented from finding a new permanent home within their host communities. In fact, according to the 2015 report, Protracted displacement: Uncertain paths to self-reliance in exile, today, more than 80 per cent of refugee crises last for 10 years or more, with two in five lasting 20 years or more. The psychological toll of living in exile can be significant, particularly for children. In a recent article in the New Yorker, Rachel Aviv documented the emergence of uppgivenhetssyndrom (resignation syndrome) among refugee children in Sweden, who, upon hearing the news of the final rejection of their family’s asylum claim, experience such a sense of helplessness and fear that they fall into a coma. Most of the children described in the article had been in Sweden for years and had been attending school and making friends, but with the potential of a rejected asylum claim hanging over their heads, they were never in a position to feel fully included. For these children, being told that they would have to leave the very place that had started to feel like home proved too much, and they closed themselves off from the world as a form of protection strategy.

Where are the world’s refugees?

Over 85% of the total refugee population are currently in LMICs. According to a recently released report from UNHCR, most of the 3.2 million who fled their homes in the first half of 2016 found shelter in LMICs. The UNHCR report brings the contribution of certain host countries dramatically into context by comparing the number of refugees to the size of a country’s population or its economy. Relative to population, Lebanon (population: approx. 6 million) and Jordan (population: approx. 7.5 million) host the largest number of refugees (approx. 1.5 million and approx. 2.75 million respectively). Relative to economic performance, South Sudan (GDP per capita: approx. 730 USD in 2015) and Chad (GDP per capita: approx. 770 USD in 2015) host the largest number (approx. 250,000 and approx. 375,000 respectively). It is important to note that many countries that host refugees are also home to internally displaced persons (IDPs), which puts additional strain on communities at the local level.

These figures are even more extraordinary when contrasted with figures from HICs, for example, the European Union (EU) countries. The number of refugees and migrants entering the EU (approx. 1.45 million from 2015 to present) is low compared with the bloc’s population (approx. 743.1 million) and very low when compared with GDP per capita (approx. 37,800 USD in 2015). However, with politicians and media outlets using terms such as “wave” and “swarm” to describe the movement of refugees to Europe, and increasing debate around the capacity of EU countries to accept more refugees, it is clear that the current response is based on perception rather than reality, and driven by a growing sense of fear, as pointed out by researchers in a recent article from Nature. In fact, according to a report from ODI, between January 2014 and September 2016, Europe spent at least 17 billion Euros deterring refugees and migrants through tighter border controls and bilateral agreements (e.g. the EU-Turkey deal), rather than investing that money in initiatives supporting integration and social cohesion interventions.

A crisis of cooperation and solidarity

When it comes to migrant workers, a very different picture emerges. According to a 2015 report from the International Labour Organisation (ILO), most migrant workers have ended up in HICs, as illustrated in the figure below:

Figure: Migrant workers by income level of countries (2013)

(Source: ILO, 2015, p.xii)

(Source: ILO, 2015, p.xii)

Many of those migrant workers come from LMICs, and while they will often send remittances to support families and communities back home, according to a number of scholars, it is the HICs that benefit the most from migrant labour. According to the 2011 book Migration: Changing the World (Pluto Press), in spite of Britain’s agreements with Commonwealth countries around anti-poaching of health and education professionals, Britain had recruited more than 5,500 teachers from South Africa, Jamaica, Zimbabwe, Ghana, and Kenya in 2003. Further, in 2005, a report by Save the Children and Medact estimated that Britain had saved over 100 million GBP in training costs for medical professionals it had taken from Ghana alone since 1999. In other words, by hosting significant numbers of migrant workers who contribute to their economies, HICs reap many of the benefits of migration, but do comparatively little in terms of hosting victims of forced displacement within their own borders, and often leave host LMICs worse off. In the words of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi:

“Today we face not so much a crisis of numbers but of cooperation and solidarity – especially given that most refugees stay in the countries neighbouring their war-torn homelands.”

Clearly, contrary to the New York Declaration mentioned above, which calls for countries to respond relative to their capacities and resources, today it is those communities who have their capacities most constrained by complex political environments and their resources over-stretched who are doing the heaviest lifting when it comes to the refugee burden. Further, according to a recently released report by Mary Mendenhall, Susan Garnett Russell, and Elizabeth Buckner, most refugees now live in cities, rather than camps, so it often falls to refugees themselves to champion their own rights, in the face of discrimination, open hostility, xenophobia, threats of violence, and limiting policies.

A way forward?

How do we go about addressing this crisis of cooperation and solidarity and moving forward towards an effective global educational response for refugees and the communities in which they live? A crucial first step is to support a quality burgeoning evidence base around education and refugees, and to hold key global players accountable for making decisions based on that evidence, and not on pressures from different interest groups who are swayed by perception rather than reality. One key dimension of this step is to ensure that refugee-led interventions and smaller organisations from a range of contexts have the opportunity to document challenges they face and strategies they employ and share their findings with a larger global audience, which is what Urban Refugees has attempted to do with its Good Practices platform. In this regard, the Promising Practices in Refugee Education initiative, launched by Save the Children, UNHCR and Pearson earlier this year, is itself positioned to be a ‘promising practice’ in international education development and the global humanitarian response. By helping organisations to document their practice and providing a knowledge-sharing platform, the Promising Practices initiative promises to capture valuable lessons that might otherwise be lost, or not articulated in the first place.