Urban Refugees: an education

Did you guess the correct answer to this post

The approximate 7 million people I was referring to are urban refugees. Whilst the UN's Refugee Agency UNHCR estimates a total number of 10.5 million refugees worldwide, you might be surprised to learn that roughly two-thirds of these are in fact urban refugees.

Urban Refugees

What then is an urban refugee? An urban refugee is someone who like a refugee has fled their country due to reasons outlined in the UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees - see here for an exact definition. How an urban refugee differs however is where the urban refugee lives - the clue is in the name. Rather than staying in a refugee camp, urban refugees instead live amongst the local community in the cities of the host country and attempt to - in some cases successfully - integrate and forge a new life in this way.

I've talked about education in refugee camp situations in previous posts, however how much do we actually know about the educational situation of urban refugees? Are they better off than those in refugee camps? 

As might be expected, keeping tabs on the numbers of urban refugees can be problematic, which in turn makes providing them with humanitarian assistance equally problematic. A refugee camp allows for categorisation and sorting of numbers, masses of people in various locations obviously does not.

The current crisis in Syria provides a relevant example, with Syrians fleeing the country into Jordan (said to be 40,000) and Turkey. Many of these refugees are urban refugees.  In terms of language, little differs between Jordan and Syria (apart from regional differences in Arabic). In Turkey this is not the case. Whilst Syria is a middle income country, given the nature of a refugee situation, it needs to be remembered that jobs remain elusive in the host country.

In terms of education, Jordan provides an interesting example. It currently plays host to Palestinian refugees as well as those from Syria. UNRWA (the UN agency for Palestinian refugees) provides education in camps for Palestinian refugees, however many of the refugees have access to government schools as well. 
If students are back in schooling however then the education is likely not to be catered to refugee needs. Curricula remain much the same, and refugees must integrate themselves into local school life.

One of the problems it seems is the lack of focus on education even in camp situations - these tend to be better documented in comparison with urban situations, thus highlighting the general little focus upon education in these circumstances. Although UNHCR's mandate now stretches to those outside of camps, it seems focus on education overall remains low. Regular readers of the blog know this is something I mention frequently. Of course if basic provisions cannot be met, then education cannot be given priority, however given that the Syrian situation shows no sign of improving in the near future, it seems Syrian youth would benefit from returning to a sense of 'normality'. 

So what can be done? 

From a distance the action we can take seems limited, however it is important to keep Syria at the forefront of our minds, not only as individuals but as the international community as a whole. The situation has been going on for far too long with the world seemingly standing by to watch it unfold. 

In light of the Syrian example, where does the responsibility lie? Who should ensure refugees - in particular those fleeing to urban centres - have the assistance they require, including education? Is it a risky business to start providing education? Does this simply prolong a refugee situation? How should the assistance provided to those in urban centres differ to that provided to encamped refugees?

Share your thoughts with other readers in the box below. 


  1. Thanks for this thought-provoking piece! I am very sorry for the people of Syria and especially our beloved Halep!

    I am first going to post a few ideas for consideration and would love to help work on something tangible that can be done.

    The most important factors in getting education going are innovative and flexible teachers/mentors, flexible innovative students and resources.

    To begin with the latter, the best resource is the internet: so how can we ensure access for students to the internet - we would need them to have mobility - A wonderful thing would be to have a sponsor set up a server and wireless and provide notebooks that can be borrowed by students registering - that way we get to see how many student registered too!

    The next and most important aspect is how to get local community people and students helping to provide and guide the education of others. Teachers are one resource but other professionals can help too and so can graduates or even high school students who can help younger learners. The key to this is to have a guide book suggesting how to become a successful learning mentor (rather than teacher). A learning mentor would help students quickly become independent learners and engage the students in study groups where they help each other as much as possible with the mentor asking the right questions such as, ' how do we find out the answer?' What exactly do we need to know here?' etc. This is the bit I can help with. I don't write in Arabic but with help to translate I could provide the guide for learning mentors.

    Sorry I am in a rush writing this but would love to discuss and explore the issue more.

    thornybee at gmail dot com

    1. Hi Robert. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

      Your enthusiasm for helping the people of Syria is nice to see. Your ideas for the provision of education are also very interesting. How these things are possible being away from the field, without contacts on the ground however are a different matter and require serious planning.

      Feel free to send me an email (see contact page) to discuss ideas further.

      All the best,