Following the disruptions to education caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, UNHCR and its partners are finding solutions so that refugee children can access and stay in school.
By Morgane Roussel-Hemery in Bangkok | May 26, 2022
Two years of the COVID-19 pandemic have had profound consequences on most aspects of life around the world. In addition to the public health emergency, the restrictions associated with the pandemic have caused a major education crisis that continues to reverberate, even as lockdowns are lifted and life returns to ‘normal’.
The crisis has also exacerbated inequalities in education. Globally, refugee children, who have already faced disruptions to schooling due to displacement, have suffered greater setbacks in their education in addition to encountering language barriers. Meeting this challenge was a priority for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency and its partners in Thailand during the pandemic.
UNHCR has set up a cash grant scheme, covering internet connection costs to ensure that distance learning reaches all registered refugee children. Yet the pandemic has adversely affected the well-being and psychosocial health of children. Beyond learning, schools traditionally provide space for social-emotional support provided by teachers and classmates.
“I miss it[ed] go to school,” says Aisha, a nine-year-old girl living in Bangkok. “I miss it[ed] have classmates and make new friends.
Aisha arrived with her family from Pakistan six years ago. Under Thailand’s Education for All policy, Aisha was allowed to enroll in school regardless of her nationality and legal status. This allows refugee children in urban areas, like Aisha, to benefit from up to 15 years of free education.
Like many children learning a second language, Aisha initially found it difficult to read and write in Thai. Her mother, Aamira, enrolled her in an intensive six-month Thai learning program offered by UNHCR and Good Shepherd Sisters School (GSS).
“I studied Thai, cultural studies and English,” Aisha describes. “I learned counting and basic vocabulary like fruits, vegetables and colors in Thai. More importantly, the program taught me the Thai alphabet. Now I can even help my little brother, Malik , doing homework in Thai.
In 2021, UNHCR observed that online learning necessitated by the pandemic was impacting student attendance. Most young learners were simply unable to focus on the lessons independently without the help of a parent or guardian. UNHCR has therefore expanded the Intensive Thai Language Learning Program so that adults can help their children with their homework. The Thai Intensive Program has effectively facilitated the integration of refugee children into formal Thai education with a 70% success rate.
Globally, UNHCR estimates that 48% of all refugee children are out of school. In Thailand, despite the closure of schools in 2021 and the implementation of stricter COVID-19 measures, UNHCR recorded a 10% increase in the number of registered refugee children in formal education. This achievement was possible thanks to targeted strategies aimed at supporting the transition of refugee children to formal education in Thailand and mitigating the risk of school dropout during the online learning period.
“In 2021, UNHCR helped 55% of children aged 6 to 17 receive formal education in Thai public schools,” says Yodtad Panswad, Senior Program Associate at UNHCR Thailand.
“However, supporting the enrollment of the remaining children in this type of education remains a challenge. Based on discussions with parents, language barriers are often cited as one of the main reasons for not sending children to Thai public schools, as most of these schools require children to speak and write fluent Thai. . Thai lessons at Good Shepherd Sisters School (GSS), funded by UNHCR and implemented by the Catholic Office for Emergency Relief and Refugees COERR, equip children with skills to integrate in Thai public schools and have caught the attention of many parents. .”
Overcoming the language barrier is not the only challenge: some refugee children, including those with disabilities, need more support.
Malik, Aisha’s brother, has a hearing impairment. Until last year, he hadn’t said a word. With the support of UNHCR, he was referred to the TzuChi Foundation, which supports urban refugees with outpatient assistance. There he received a hearing aid, and finally, after six years, his mother heard him call her for the first time.
“I have no words to describe the joy when I was able to talk to him for the first time,” she said with tears of joy in her eyes. “Yet medical support is only the first step. Malik needs more attention and support in his studies.
In mid-May 2022, public schools in Thailand reopened for in-person classes. UNHCR is supporting the return to school by distributing transport allowances to families. However, this new transition once again requires children to readapt to the “new normal”.
“Our work doesn’t stop once the children enroll and stay for a year in formal education,” says Yodtad Panswad. “Our field of action aims to maintain the rate of schooling of children up to secondary school. In 2022, our team will monitor and assess the educational needs of children in an ever-changing environment. Funding permitting, we will organize weekly private lessons for children who need extra help.
Although she’s only used a hearing aid for a year and never been to school wearing one, Malik’s mother is hopeful for her future. Malik, like Aisha, has returned to school.
“He doesn’t need constant help, but a mindful and sensitive approach along with tutoring sessions would surely help him develop his talent and skills. He has such a sweet heart,” observes Aamira. “I’m sure if he can express his full potential, he will make a positive difference in the world.”