UNESCO Discusses Educational Opportunities for Refugees

By Alec Rossi and Mark Sheffer

The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization was tasked with establishing an infrastructure to aid in the education of refugees. Delegates expressed concerns over the inundation of existing public resources, the possibility of discrimination, and the way that these resources would be distributed.

While the delegate from Vietnam stressed the importance of providing refugees with basic necessities, he admitted that “their futures would never be as bright as [that of Vietnam’s] citizens.” The delegate from Denmark responded to this by saying that “people can't choose where they are born or what opportunities they have.” Tension arose when the delegate from Vietnam dismissed this statement as “immature.”

The discussion then moved on to the topic of differences in educational opportunities depending on past training. The Canadian delegate proposed a solution that included vocational training and exams that would allow refugees to transfer their foreign degrees.

Conflict arose as delegates debated whether refugees should be placed into transitional schools, or simply integrated into existing public schools. The Russian delegate said that “refugees should be fully integrated into their host country, including the workforce and public schools.” “The biggest risk for refugees,” she claimed, “is the inability of students to acclimate to long-term schools.” In contrast, the delegate from Denmark said that “transitional schools should be established that focus on teaching the vernacular before refugees enter a permanent school.”

All delegates recognized the difficulties that the refugees face when placed into different cultures. The delegate from the United States said that “making sure that…cultures...aren't conflicting is important.” The delegate of Cambodia argued that the differences in education between citizens and refugees outweighs any cultural advantages of full educational integration.

A working paper presented by Iran and India called for the establishment of the International Refugee Education Fund (IREF) to help reduce stigmatization by offering pathways to citizenship. However, a chair on the committee reminded the delegates that this power resided solely in the hands of individual nations. The Canadian delegate proposed a plan to pair refugees with local families to “work on breaking down xenophobia.”

The delegate of Saudi Arabia suggested that UNESCO partners with NGOs, instead of national governments, to aid in the education of refugees. The delegate from Ukraine said that NGOs were often ineffective as partners, while they were not required to answer to the UN.

Representatives from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Vietnam, Armenia, Venezuela, and Cambodia drafted a working paper that included a clause that called for the establishment of camps to aid in refugee acclimation. This clause, however, was not mentioned in the group’s presentation and the delegate from Venezuela couldn't elaborate on it.

Debates will go on today as delegates continue discussing the merits of the proposed working papers. Despite internal conflicts , the committee chairs and delegates all agreed that this issue was of the utmost importance and they looked forward to seeing how it would be resolved.