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Urban Refugee Education Report

Executive Summary

Urban Refugee Education: Strengthening Policies and Practices for Access, Quality, and Inclusion

Authors: Mary Mendenhall, Assistant Professor of Practice, International and Comparative Education; Susan Garnett Russell, Assistant Professor, International and Comparative Education; and Elizabeth Bruckner, Visiting Assistant Professor, International and Comparative Education

Teachers College, Columbia University 



  1. Introduction
  2. Findings
  3. Recommendations
  4. Methodology


The number of forcibly displaced people across the globe has increased dramatically in the past two decades, exceeding 65 million in 2016—a level not seen since the period directly following World War II.

The image of refugees living together in camps is no longer the norm. Sixty percent of today’s refugees live scattered and embedded across large urban areas. The urbanization of refugees is creating new obstacles for refugee children who find it difficult or impossible to attend school, even though they are entitled by international law to do so. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, half the world’s displaced people are children under 18. Half of refugee children are enrolled in primary school, 22 percent in secondary school and only one percent in higher education.

Adding to the complications of urbanization, longer conflicts have increased the average worldwide duration of refugee status to 20 years. Millions of refugee children are spending their entire childhoods in exile without ever attending school, despite their right to obtain an education.

Despite much public discussion of the global refugee crisis in wealthy, westernized nations,

86 percent of all displaced people reside in the “Global South,” in poor, developing countries, often in countries adjacent to their homelands. That is where we focused our study.


A clear finding from our surveys and case studies is the gap between policy and practice, which exists for numerous reasons:

  • lack of capacity in government schools, which are already crowded;
  • lack of civil servants to interpret and enforce policy;
  • autonomy of local and school administrators, who sometimes make the education of refugee children impossible or difficult;
  • and discrimination and xenophobia by host communities.

After surveying 190 professionals involved in the delivery of educational services to refugees in 16 countries, and doing in-depth studies of refugee education in three cities—Beirut, Lebanon; Nairobi, Kenya; and Quito, Ecuador—we find the following: 

  1. Global laws and policies support urban refugees’ right to education and have helped secure a more welcoming policy environment in which to uphold urban refugees’ right to education. Nevertheless, we find a lack of policies or unclear or contradictory policies across government offices, as well as shifting and volatile geopolitical landscapes and security issues, which can prevent refugee children from attending school.
  2. Urban refugees who are living outside of camps must be self-reliant in providing for their basic needs and livelihoods, as well as seeking out educational services. Many urban refugees face the same challenges as native urban poor do, with minors often needing to work and earn money rather than attend school. As outsiders, they are often more vulnerable to xenophobia and discrimination by the host community.
  3. Support programs for refugees provide supplementary services to address specific needs (such as psychological and social needs, language issues, disabilities, disrupted schooling) through non-formal educational programs. These organizations face the additional challenges of identifying, finding and providing services to urban refugees who are scattered across large urban areas.
  4. Organizations serving urban refugees face numerous operational challenges, including the difficulty of coordinating diverse actors, lack of support from the host government, invisibility and lack of data on the refugee population, resistance from the host community, xenophobia, and funding constraints.


  • Public, private and philanthropic organizations need to provide coordinated support of educational services for refugees. National and local governments play lead roles; however, international and national civil society organizations must also support national and local education systems in a coordinated way.
  • Programs serving urban refugees need to be better coordinated to implement policies across national and local levels, and coordinate services across the formal and non-formal education spectrum. For example, national government and UN agencies, donors and civil society actors must collaborate on new, engaging programming in urban spaces. This might include training of national teachers to improve teaching quality as well as the protection and inclusion policies that urban refugee students often need.
  • More programming is needed in host communities to counter xenophobia and discrimination against refugee students.

We conclude with the following two broad, overarching policy goals:

  • National governments, UN agencies, and donors must support full integration and inclusion of refugee students into national schools.
  • Civil society organizations need to support non-formal education programs to address the distinct needs of refugee students and fill the gaps not met by government schools. These include psychological and social issues, skills development, language support, combatting discrimination and xenophobia, and academic support for lost years of schooling.


We gathered data from three sources: first, a review of existing global and national laws and policies governing education for refugees. Second, we surveyed 190 professionals working for UN agencies, and international and national non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in 16 countries across the Middle East and North Africa, Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, and

Asia, with high rates of urban populations. Third, we conducted in-depth interviews with more than 90 people involved in delivering educational services to refugees in Beirut, Lebanon; Nairobi, Kenya; and Quito, Ecuador. Our findings emphasize how living in urban communities affects both the implementation of education policies and the provision of educational services.

The full policy report is available at TC.edu/URE2017/report.

Visit TC.edu/URE2017 for additional resources on urban refugee education.


This study was funded by the State Department Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration.

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