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Addressing the overlooked plight of refugee teachers

This blog was written by Rebecca Telford, Ed.D, Global Chief of Education, UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), on the occasion of World Teachers’ Day 2023.

“You can teach without a classroom, but you can’t teach without a teacher. Those are the areas we mostly forget. We focus on our students…in a class, but we forget the teachers most of the time.” – participant from Malawi, Teachers in Refugee and Displacement Settings: Policies, Practices & Pathways for Improving Teacher Quality & Workforce Sustainability study.

Today, as we mark World Teachers’ Day, it's essential that we peel back the curtain on an issue that remains largely ignored: the plight of refugee teachers. Since 1994, we've come together every year to celebrate the remarkable contributions of teachers worldwide, in collaboration with UNESCO and the International Task Force on Teachers for Education 2030 But how often do we pause to consider the unique challenges faced by those teachers who have been forcibly displaced from their homes? This year's theme, "The teachers we need for the education we want: The global imperative to reverse the teacher shortage," presents a critical moment to shine a light on these unsung heroes.

Persistent challenges beyond ‘’classroom walls’’ for refugee teachers

Imagine, for a moment, that you suddenly have no choice but to leave behind your homeland and everything you know. Now, picture arriving in a new country, only to discover that the teaching credentials you worked so hard for are no longer recognized. You are rendered invisible in your professional capacity. Even if you are fortunate enough to secure a teaching position, it comes with severely diminished professional status, minimal support to pursue qualifications and enter the national system, and reduced pay as the struggle to secure predictable multi-year funding for teachers or refugees continues to be one of the greatest challenges facing host country education systems. In many situations, refugee teachers are simply not accounted for at all in national planning around increasing the teacher workforce, budgeting or reforms in remuneration, retention or professional development.

UNHCR's forthcoming study on Teachers in Refugee and Displacement Settings: Policies, Practices & Pathways for Improving Teacher Quality & Workforce Sustainability reveals that teachers in forced displacement settings frequently navigate complex classroom environments with limited qualifications, support or remuneration.[1] In particular, for those teachers who are also refugees, opportunities are additionally limited because their work as teachers is infrequently protected by the labour standards of host countries. This lack of recognition and institutionalised support for teachers in refugee-hosting areas has negative implications for refugee and host community children’s schooling, achievement, and well-being.  

For teachers living and working in refugee camps around the world, these challenges are not hypothetical—it's their daily reality

We often laud the resilience of refugees for their courage and determination. But what about those who, despite being thrown into such challenging circumstances, rise to educate the next generation? They aren’t just educators; they’re beacons of hope, pillars of stability and symbols of normalcy for children traumatised by war and displacement. Their stories, from places like Chad and Uganda, tell of systemic challenges—whether it's inadequate pay leading to teacher attrition, insufficient teaching resources or limited training opportunities. And let's not forget female refugee teachers grappling with unique, added hurdles but who are crucial to increasing the likelihood of access to education for girls as well as providing immense academic and protective benefits.

A path towards better support and recognition of refugee teachers

Despite the grim reality, all hope is not lost. However, addressing the global teacher shortage in refugee settings demands swift, strategic action.

In line with the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR) principle of burden and responsibility sharing, refugee-hosting countries must be supported to include refugees in the national education system. The way forward requires international collaboration and ideation, coordinated policy frameworks and establishing pathways that include refugee teachers.

The refugee teacher workforce is a key pillar of the inclusion agenda, and harnessing their contributions to teaching and learning is an effective way to mitigate the learning crisis during an emergency. International responsibility sharing is particularly important as over 70 per cent of refugees are hosted in developing countries facing their own challenges. Such solidarity and support would allow for predictable, reliable and sustainable financing for teacher salaries and, in turn foster fair and decent working conditions. This is what inclusion looks like. For example, regional policy responses, such as the Djibouti Declaration by IGAD member countries in East Africa must be supported, as it specifically recognises the important role refugee teachers play in providing education to refugee children and call for their inclusion in national education systems as well as providing the support and resources they need to succeed..

The 2023 Global Refugee Forum (GRF) presents a golden opportunity. We need international collaboration, a pooling of resources, and an exchange of expertise. The GRF’s Teacher Task Team’s work provides a blueprint for proactive measures — from establishing financial mechanisms that ensure continuous funding for teacher salaries, to promoting dialogue that involves educators in decision-making processes.

Furthermore, governments and international actors should create pathways that enable refugee teachers to attain recognised qualifications and continual professional development, in line with national standards. Non-unionised and underqualified refugee teachers should be integrated into national teacher programmes.  And in areas where language barriers exist, teachers must be provided with training and resources to bridge these gaps. Investments in education technology, such as UNHCR's Connected Education and the Instant Network Schools (INS) initiative with the Vodafone Foundation, are crucial. This initiative has successfully trained over 1,992 educators in using technology to deliver quality education. Evaluations show that this training, which covers topics from equipment use to digital awareness, boosts teacher confidence in using digital learning platforms.

Elevating support for refugee teachers is key to reducing growing education disparities

Supporting refugee teachers, who are on the frontlines of the delivery of education for displaced children, is crucial. Over 50 per cent of school-aged refugee children are out of school, and even those in school face unstable learning conditions. Without proper recognition and support for these teachers, the education of children affected by displacement remains at risk, and we will fall short of achieving SDG 4. A transformative education for millions of displaced children hinges on more consistent and reliable support for refugee teachers.

Photo credit: UNHCR/Diana Diaz

[1] UNHCR commissioned this study to explore and better understand the different profiles of teachers working in refugee and displacement settings – across the dimensions of teacher management, professional development, and well-being – to enable UNHCR, partners and state actors to provide teachers in these contexts with more targeted and impactful support, resources and capacity development.