Fulfilling the right to education for refugees and undocumented migrants

20 November 2018

“Making sure undocumented migrants are equally able to access education is one of several challenges in realizing the fundamental human rights of refugees,” says Professor Fons Coomans, UNESCO Chair in Human Rights and Peace at the Department of International and European Law at Maastricht University in the Netherlands.  He spoke to UNESCO on the challenges in providing education to refugees.

The interview is one of a series exploring the right to education to mark the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

"Since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 70 years ago, a lot has been achieved in terms of standard setting and UNESCO has made an important contribution to the right to education," said Prof. Coomans. "Many international documents have been adopted both of a hard and soft law nature, all identifying who the right holders are and the importance of the right to education.”

From standards to domestic legislation

The needs of refugees have been recognized since the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. According to Prof. Coomans, what is still missing is ensuring the educational rights of asylum seekers and irregular or undocumented refugees, and he stresses the need to elaborate on this issue in standard setting.

"What has become much more important in practice is to translate all these nice international document standards so that they can be integrated into domestic legislation, policies and practices. On that level a lot still needs to be done," he said.

Accountability remains a huge challenge

"International accountability mechanisms exist either through State reporting or dialogue within the UN system or at UNESCO level but in terms of what States have been actually doing there is again a gap. The main reasons for this are, that in many cases and countries, education or educational rights are not seen as human rights. Particularly in European and North American settings people don't realize that they are enjoying their right to education as a human right. For that reason, States do not feel the need to justify what they have done or have failed to do in terms of human rights and education. On that level accountability domestically or internationally is rather poor," he said.

He said before any discussion about the positive contribution made to communities by refugees could take place they have to be accepted by the society they are trying to enter.

"I am afraid not everyone can see the positive aspects. And for the refugee who is not being welcomed or accepted or is being discriminated against enjoying the right to education means very little."

He said in his hometown Maastricht, he had seen many highly educated Syrian refugees arrive but because they  may have lost their certificates or the ones they have are not recognized, they have to  take additional courses to prove their qualifications.

He said language was another gap that needed to be filled.

"I would be strongly in favour of starting language lessons right from the asylum reception centres," he said.

A measure of security and stability

He said there were collaborations to be made, for example, between cities and universities to try and integrate and take advantage of the knowledge brought in by refugees. The National Commissions of UNESCO were a good mechanism for raising refugees’ rights to education at a local authority level in cities.

Education in any setting either in a stable country or a camp provided a measure of security and stability particularly to girls who were vulnerable to sexual exploitation and human trafficking.  Speaking of the situation in Europe he said refugees where possible are integrated into the regular education system with the same kind of qualified teachers as other children but that in camps close to conflict areas, say in Jordan, Lebanon or the Horn of Africa the quality of teaching is  not always be guaranteed.

Lack of attention

He added that he felt there was a significant gap in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the education goal SDG4 as they mentioned vulnerable children but made no specific reference to refugees or undocumented migrants.

"It is a pity that not more attention is given to those groups. We cannot really say 'no one will be left behind' when there is a real risk that these particular groups will be," he said.

Looking to the future, he said while legal frameworks could ensure education for refugees and migrants, court procedures were time consuming.

"I expect more from political or quasi-judicial procedures like the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Committee on the Rights of the Child. Through State-level reports governments can be held accountable for providing education for these groups. Civil society can play its part by preparing shadow reports and making them available to supervisory bodies. These shadow reports can identify many of the key problems that the state has failed to implement," he said.  

As the Universal Declaration of Human Rights marks its 70th year, UNESCO is launching a digital campaign on the #RightToEducation, a right that is an absolute priority and at the core of its global mission to ensure equal access to quality education. Find out more here.