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“Education for All”: A Hollow Pledge for International Migrant Children and Youth in the Global South?

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Governments have recently affirmed the right and commitment to quality and inclusive Education for All in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and in the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants. What must be done to ensure that their promises don't ring hollow? This is a particularly pressing question in countries of the Global South where, today, over 18 million international migrants under the age of 20 live. Neither the call for inclusive education nor its application to migrant and youth populations is new. But this think piece argues that it is now urgent to focus on the educational access and inclusion of millions of child and youth migrants in developing countries, concurrently with the efforts already under way in these countries to expand and improve education systems.

Lizbeth Becerra Garza holds a Bachelor’s degree in International Relations from the Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education (Mexico City Campus), where she graduated first in her class. She is a Master candidate in Development Studies at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, where she is conducting research on inclusive education for transnational children and youth. At the time of writing, Liz was a research intern with UNRISD's Social Policy and Development team.

Today, 36.6 million international migrants are under the age of 20, a number slightly larger than the entire population of Canada. Nearly half of these migrants reside in the developing world. Regardless of this reality, international policy discourse on inclusive education for migrant children and youth is overwhelmingly focused on the Global North, and on the European Union in particular. Moreover, despite the call in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development for inclusive, equitable and quality education for all, and the UN General Assembly’s adoption of the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants—which establishes quality education as a right for all refugee and migrant children regardless of their legal status—international migrant children and youth the world over face many barriers to exercising this right, especially in the Global South.

The changing face of international migration

The number of international migrants worldwide has grown faster than the world’s population: in 1990, an estimated 153 million people lived in a different country than that of their birth; by 2015, this figure had risen to 244 million. The composition and concentration of these migrants has also changed. While international migration has traditionally been work-oriented and thus predominated by adult men, increasing inequalities as well as new and ongoing conflicts around the world have rapidly increased the number of children, youth and women migrants, a shift made possible by advancements in transportation and communications technology.

And while discourse surrounding international migration is often focused on South-North migration, today, two out of every five international migrants are moving within the Global South, due in part to increasingly restrictive migration policies in the developed world and the faster pace of growth in emerging economies. In this context, countries that were in the past known as sending countries are now seeing their borders grow busier with larger influxes of international migrants. These South-South migrants are generally younger and more likely to be undocumented, as well as socially, economically and educationally vulnerable.

New migrants, new challenges

Against this backdrop, countries in the South are receiving large numbers of children and youth who, according to international discourse, should be able to exercise their right to an education. At the same time, many countries in the developing world face their own challenges in expanding and improving their education systems. For example, in India, UNRISD research has shown that, despite reforms, serious challenges remain regarding quality of and access to education; and in some provinces in Turkey, 50 percent of girls between the ages of 6 and 14 are out of school. In such contexts, the task of achieving universal quality education takes on the additional challenge of incorporating new arrivals into education systems. Still in Turkey, in addition to the challenge of reducing gender gaps among Turkish students, UNHCR reports that 380,000 refugee children are out of school.

The educational needs of migrant children and youth are likely to differ somewhat from those of the national population, a reflection of the greater precarity that migrants face every day, which includes but is not limited to unsafe labour conditions, poor health, early marriage and recruitment by criminal organizations. While education can provide migrant children and youth with new opportunities unavailable to their parents and can help to mitigate these threats, anti-immigration policies, nativist populism and institutional barriers all create obstacles to ensuring that migrants can receive a quality education.

However, these barriers are not only about access, but also about inclusion into education systems. Even when schools are accessible, migrant children and youth may face language and bureaucratic barriers, lack of documentation, resources constraints, inadequate information about how to enroll in school, issues regarding the validation of previous studies, problems adjusting to a new classroom culture, different teaching methods, and harassment from peers.

In South Africa, for example, even though the constitution guarantees the right to education regardless of immigration status, almost one-third of foreign-born children, mainly from Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Somalia, were not enrolled in schools in 2009 in part due to direct and indirect fees, but mainly due to discriminatory treatment by administrators, teachers and peers. This can be true as well for return migrants who seek to continue their education in their country of origin after years of living abroad or being born in a foreign country. This is the case in Mexico, where, due a shift in migration patterns, there are almost one million school-age return migrants who were previously educated in the United States school system but, due to bureaucracy, problems validating studies, differences in pedagogy and discrimination, have been denied their right to a quality education since their return to Mexico. Another example can be found in Thailand, where in 2011 the International Organization for Migration found that at least 377,000 children of international migrants faced persistent barriers, such as language, fear of parents being deported and non-validation of studies abroad, that prevented them from receiving an education. Without profound changes in situations like these, the international community’s commitment to universal, quality education represents a hollow promise for many of the world’s migrant children and youth.

Toward universally inclusive education

The barriers that migrants face in education systems around the world jeopardize the chances of achieving quality education for all, as established in Goal 4 of the SDGs. While migrants in the Global North receive considerable attention in international discourse, the most vulnerable are rarely the most visible. To ensure that no one is left behind and that the right to education is given substance, policy makers and advocates the world over must address these barriers and push for inclusive education for all children and youth. Integration courses that focus on local languages, culture and legal systems are keys to unlocking access and integration into educational institutions and, eventually, employment, for migrant youth. Moreover, the incorporation of a multicultural perspective in teaching practice and school management is also essential for inclusive education.

The call for inclusive education is not new, nor is its application to migrant and youth populations. Countries in Europe and North America in particular are often at the center of the discussion around opportunities and challenges for inclusive education for migrants. Nonetheless, this focus does little to address the educational needs of millions of child and youth migrants in developing countries, nor does it take into account the educational challenges that these countries already face.

The importance of education is acknowledged worldwide, insomuch that there exist international goals and commitments to ensure that every child has equal access. However, today, the enduring challenge is the gap between international commitment and practice. To achieve the transformative goal of education for all, it is imperative to expand the focus of inclusive education for migrants to _all _migrants, not only those in developed countries with more resources and more developed education systems. This will require rectifying misalignments between migration and refugee policy and education commitments, financial and human resource investments that match the lofty aspirations and are allocated to reach the furthest behind fist, as well as building partnerships across sectors to make inclusive education a reality for all children and youth.