For many children and parents around the world, the end of August marks the start of back-to-school season. It’s an exciting but anxiety-inducing time: for kids mourning the loss of long, carefree summer days; for parents scrambling to sort out their children’s schedules; and for incoming freshmen preparing to meet their new college roommates.
But in the flurry of preparations, we shouldn’t lose sight of the children around the world for whom school isn’t an option. One year after a brutal crackdown by Myanmar’s army forced more than 700,000 Rohingya refugees to flee to Bangladesh, the United Nations warns that a “lost generation” of children is being denied the basic human right to a decent education.
According to UNICEF, the United Nations’ agency for children, Bangladesh is prohibiting more than 380,000 Rohingya children living in refugee camps from attending school because the Bangladeshi government doesn’t want the refugees to stay permanently. And they are not alone: UNESCO’s 2017-18 Global Education Monitoring Report explains that 264 million boys and girls around the world lack access to education, for reasons varying from war to gender inequality to lack of funding.
The costs of failing to provide education to refugees are high. Without schooling, refugee children and adolescents are more vulnerable to child labor, abuse, and exploitation and recruitment by armed groups. They’re more likely to become isolated and disaffected, as one UNICEF spokesperson notes. That’s not to mention the fact that an education can break the cycle of poverty that cripples so many refugee families around the world.
As South Africa’s first black president, Nelson Mandela, once noted, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” UNICEF and other humanitarian groups are urging the international community to invest in ensuring that refugee children have the opportunity to learn—whether through legislation or by devoting more resources to the UN’s informal learning centers. It’s an issue that should matter to everyone: How the world responds to this crisis will shape not just the individual lives of refugee children, but the geopolitical landscape that we will have to navigate in the years to come.