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UN refugee chief Filippo Grandi visits a UNHCR-funded centre for COVID-19 confinement in northern Lebanon, on Aug. 20, 2020.IBRAHIM CHALHOUB/AFP/Getty Images

Many children displaced by war, particularly girls, are not likely to return to school in September – either in-class or online. Even in parts of the world where schools are open, refugee families struggle to afford costs associated with learning, such as books and internet data.

Before the pandemic, refugee children were twice as likely to be out of school than non-refugee children. Over the past few years, however, tens of thousands of young refugees have taken seats in classrooms around the world. A report released Thursday on refugee education from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees says the pandemic could halt those advances.

“The coronavirus could destroy the dreams and ambitions of these young refugees. It threatens to cause a ‘pandemic of poverty’ in the world’s most vulnerable communities, and the steady and hard-won increases in school, university, technical and vocational education enrolment could be reversed – in some cases permanently,” UN refugee chief Filippo Grandi said in the report.

The UNHCR sampled 2019 data from 12 countries: Chad, Ethiopia, Iraq, Jordan, Kenya, Lebanon, Pakistan, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania, Turkey and Uganda. The total refugee population for these countries is 10,539,446. It shows that 1.8 million children are out of school, or 48 per cent of all refugee children. Seventy-seven per cent of refugee children attend primary, but that number falls significantly to 31 per cent in secondary school and only 3 per cent enroll in higher education.

The postlockdown situation for refugee girls is “particularly grim” the report said. The Malala Fund has estimated, based on data from the UNHCR, that half of all refugee girls in school will not return to class this fall. This puts girls at risk of child marriage, teen pregnancy and exploitation.

Rema Jamous Imseis, the UNHCR’s representative in Canada, said as lockdowns were imposed around the world, refugees, who are overwhelmingly employed informally, found themselves with no source of income.

“When a family is struggling to even feed their children or find safe shelter, education, unfortunately, becomes the first casualty of that,” she said.

With schools closed, refugee children have also adapted to virtual learning, but this is challenging for families who do not own laptops or tablets.

The report also gave examples of refugee children who are trying to continue their education.

In Jordan, five siblings who fled Syria with their parents, argue over whose turn it is to use a single mobile phone to do homework. Since schools closed, Nour, 15, Fadia, 14, Nadia, 12, Muhammad, 10, and Abed, 5, have followed a schedule set up by their parents to access an online learning tool created by the Jordanian government. Before, the four eldest were in school and Abed went to a nursery. All five share a bedroom. The family had to purchase additional data to load videos teachers send via WhatsApp, forcing them to cut back on other expenses.

Parisa, a 16-year-old from Afghanistan, did not attend school until she was 11 after seeking refuge in Iran. The report says that while refugees do not pay school fees in Iran, they do pay for associated costs, such as learning materials. Meanwhile, Iran’s economy has been hurt by the pandemic. Her father, Besmellah, said he hasn’t been able to work for the past three months and that Parisa is supposed to start Grade 7 and he cannot afford it.

“As long as I can work, I will do everything for my daughters to be able to go to school – but it is getting harder,” Besmellah said. “My wife and I feel disabled by our lack of education. We don’t want the same to happen to our children.”

Tiyahna Ridley-Padmore, policy adviser for advocacy and government engagement with World Vision Canada, co-authored a report focusing on the rise of teen pregnancy as a result of school closings. The report found that with increases in teen pregnancies and policies that ban pregnant girls and young mothers from attending school, an estimated one million girls in sub-Saharan Africa may be prevented from returning to school once they reopen.

“We know that when children, and especially girls, are spending more time in their home, they’re at greater risk of domestic violence and gender-based violence so that’s a piece of it,” said Ms. Ridley-Padmore, adding that limited sexual health education and exploitation are also factors.

She said with the pandemic restricting families’ ability to generate income, some resort to extreme actions such as selling their daughters into sex trafficking or arranging child marriage, which also contribute to rising pregnancy numbers.

Tineka Levy, humanitarian and education in emergencies adviser at Save the Children, said once children lose access to education, they do not return to school and face “grave risks to their safety.”

Ms. Levy said education is one of the least funded sectors in humanitarian response, and given what is required to meet educational needs, such as supporting refugees with remote learning, her organization hopes the donor community increases contributions.

“There is so much that we stand to lose in terms of all of the development gains and the progress we’ve made in education … so we’re really looking for open hearts,” she said.

Guillaume Dumas, a spokesperson for International Development Minister Karina Gould, said in response to COVID-19, the government provided more than $500-million to programs responding to communities affected by the pandemic, and an additional $9-million to the UNHCR, bringing its total contribution to the agency to date in 2020 to $90.4-million.

“It is a sad reality that the pandemic has also impacted children’s education. Our government has provided $12.5M in funding to trusted partners with a focus on children in conflict and crisis settings, including refugee children,” Mr. Dumas said. He said the government funded a new radio-based education project for girls in the Democratic Republic of the Congo with the NGO War Child Canada.

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