Since the onset of the global COVID-19 pandemic in March, families and communities across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region have witnessed unprecedented challenges to their health, livelihoods, and personal wellbeing. In addition to coping with the devastating socio-economic losses following national lockdown measures, refugee and asylum-seeker families faced the parallel threat of school closures and difficulties associated with distance learning.
Impact on education is particularly adverse in countries with already low learning outcomes and high dropout rates. The World Bank estimates an average loss of 0.6 learning-adjusted years of school for MENA countries, with 10 per cent of additional students falling below the minimum proficiency thresholds. Whilst all children have been affected, the impact on around 2.2 million school-aged refugee children of different nationalities residing in twenty countries within the MENA region 2 may be particularly devastating. Many are at risk of not coming back to school at the reopening stage or dropping out completely due to learning loss, protection issues and economic pressures encountered on the part of their families.
Several countries in MENA report worrying increases in COVID-19 infections, thereby hampering national efforts for re-opening schools and universities for the 2020/2021 school year. During their five-month absence from school, refugee children and youth were particularly at risk of being excluded from education, compounding growing frustrations associated with isolation and restricted movements. Meanwhile, parents have shouldered the competing demands of supervising their children’s learning, while safeguarding their family’s economic welfare. With most national education systems shifting to at-home learning modalities, many children, adolescents and youth faced unequal access to distance education because they lacked internet, devices, and the necessary support services, such as language classes and psycho-social support. Additionally, suspension of school meal programmes negatively impacted children’s nutrition and health, especially those from marginalized backgrounds. These same challenges will affect students who have just entered the new academic cycle.
In line with UNHCR’s Protection and Solutions strategy, UNHCR operations in MENA continue to provide education support to ensure refugee and forcibly displaced children and youth have access to ongoing learning despite their families limited financial means and other pressures.