Why COVID-19 is an opportunity to close the connectivity gap for refugees

School children in Kakuma refugee camp, Kenya
School children in Kakuma refugee camp, Kenya.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, refugees were already among some of the world’s most vulnerable populations. Although access to ‘quality education’ has long been recognized as a basic human right, as many as 3.7 million school-age refugees were not enrolled in school before the arrival of the coronavirus.

By forcing refugee children into lockdown with limited access to robust formal learning opportunities, COVID-19 risks widening the educational inequality that exists between refugees and non-refugees. As such, the current crisis ought to be used as a catalyst for bridging the connectivity gap within refugee camps.

According to the UNHCR report, Stepping Up: Refugee Education in Crisis, refugees are disproportionately less likely to be enrolled in formal education compared to their non-refugee peers. Whereas global enrollment rates for primary, secondary, and higher education stood at 91%, 84% and 31% respectively in 2017, corresponding statistics for refugees stood at 63%, 24% and 3%.

Image: UNHCR

These figures are more pronounced when one hones-in on individual camps. For instance, Kenya’s Kakuma Camp and Kalobeyei Integrated Settlement, which is home to over 196,000 people, has 7 secondary schools with a capacity to enroll only 9.5% of eligible students. This structural bottleneck means that most of the students in the community’s 26 primary schools have limited opportunities to attain secondary education.

While UNHCR had done a commendable job of improving education outcomes in Kakuma, the ongoing pandemic risks reversing the significant gains it has made over the last several years. Specifically, the precautionary lockdown measures that have been implemented in the camp have severely limited the ability of its school-going residents to continue with their education. Whereas online learning has proven to be a viable solution for millions of students globally, Kakuma – like most refugee camps, lacks the backbone infrastructure needed to support and sustain dynamic online learning.

A study of Kakuma’s connectivity landscape found that although the camp has a high level of mobile device ownership, roughly 40% of its mobile phone signal coverage can provide 3G internet access. Coupled with the high cost of mobile data and the camp’s extremely limited access to WIFI networks, online learning has been – and continues to be – an elusive option for most of the camp’s residents.

Despite the implementation of solutions such as radio lessons to allow for some degree of distance learning during the pandemic, many Kakuma residents recognise that the best-case scenario for their education is for the camp’s lockdown to be lifted so that in-person classes can resume. It is this realisation, among others, that inspired youth-led community groups like the Kakuma Hub of the Global Shapers Community to join the UNHCR’s COVID-19 response efforts.

An aerial view shows recently constructed houses at the Kakuma refugee camp in Turkana District, northwest of Kenya's capital Nairobi, June 20, 2015. June 20 is World Refugee Day, an occasion that draws attention to those who have been displaced around the globe. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya - GF10000134334
An aerial view of the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya.
Image: REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

While there have not been any confirmed cases of coronavirus in Kakuma, the Global Shapers observed a rise in COVID-19 related misinformation that “risked perpetuating attitudes and behaviours that increase the community’s vulnerability to the pandemic”. In consultation with UNHCR Sub-Office Kakuma, the Kakuma Hub launched a trusted communication channel that cascades verified and accurate COVID-19 related updates with the broader Kakuma community. In addition to augmenting the UNHCR’s communication tree, the Kakuma Hub is using this channel to collect constructive feedback on the UNHCR’s community outreach initiatives.

This Hub project is just one of several refugee-led initiatives that are seeking to expedite the process of returning Kakuma back to ‘normal’. However, if in-person classes were to resume, only a fraction of Kakuma’s school age population would be able to receive a formal education due to the camp’s limited capacity to enrol more students within its schools. As such, it is only through deliberate action aimed at bridging Kakuma’s connectivity gap that more of the camp’s 92,000-strong student-age population can feasibly gain access to quality education through online learning.

Since 2018, the World Economic Forum has mobilized constituents from the Global Shapers Community and the Forum of Young Global Leaders (YGL) with the aim of narrowing the achievement gap of Kakuma refugees. Under the auspices of its Kakuma Refugee Settlement Project, the Forum is committed to addressing impact opportunities across three pillars: education and skills, internet infrastructure, and decent work. In March of 2020, YGL-led iamtheCODE launched a landmark partnership with Coursera that will provide over 4,000 free online courses to women and girls in Kakuma.

Given that COVID-19 is driving a long-overdue revolution in education that will see an increase in the adoption of online education, it is imperative that refugees are not left behind. The current crisis ought to be used as a way to bridge the connectivity gap within refugee camps to ensure that post-pandemic, more refugees can be afforded access to quality education – a basic human right that has been elusive for far too many.

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