By Binny Kumari, Central University of South Bihar, Gaya and Saif Rasul Khan, Research Associate, LexQuest.

Meaning of the term urban refugee

The Geneva Convention on Refugees defines a refugee as, “a person who is outside their country of citizenship because they have well founded fear of prosecution because of their race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, and is unable to obtain sanctuary from their home country or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail themselves of the protection of that country.”  In context of the term, urban refugee, there is no clear definition but it points to the changing trend of refugees making their ways to cities as against the traditional image of settling in refugee camps.

A significant number of real life examples can be seen, particularly the Syrian refugee crisis wherein most refugees are making way toward urban developed regions of Turkey and Jordan, other European nations etc.  Such urban refugees are confronted with a variety of problems, which includes poverty, exploitation, discrimination, lack of basic healthcare and education. This article focuses on the educational needs of such urban refugees.

Conditions of education for urban refugees

It is very difficult to ascertain the exact educational needs of the thousands of urban refugee children scattered across cities around the world.  It is definite that there are multiple challenges  in this particular field and herculean efforts will be required to address this basic problem.  

The principal objective should be to ensure access to and improve the quality of education in schools for urban refugees. It is observed that the humanitarian efforts have focused and worked on the issues faced by camp-based refugees, and the needs and circumstances of urban refugees are  misunderstood. Urban refugees want to stand on their own two feet, support their families, educate their children and build a better future. However, in the midst of struggling for self-sufficiency, they face numerous obstacles. The Women’s Refugee Commission seeks to understand the unique strengths and challenges of urban refugees, making their livelihoods and protection at the top. Women’s Refugee Commission is a commission which draws the world’s attention towards the condition of the displaced or refugee women. It states that a large section of the displaced person are women, children and the youth. This commission has identified the issues and does a critical research on the condition faced by the women refugees, and it works in consultation with them. The only view of this commission is to work hand in hand with them and provide them the environment of safety and dignity.

What should we do for promoting urban refugee education?

Education for refugee children and young people is an aspect of UNHCR’s international protection mandate. Education also plays key role in long-term solutions for refugees, ensuring that displaced generations are equipped to rebuild their lives and communities.

The UN refugee agency is currently responding to the widest numbers of refugees for a long time.  Refugees under the age of 18 and, as well as stateless children and young people has never been given sufficient importance. Only half of all refugee children are enrolled in primary schools, and few of them are estimated to be in secondary schools. Just one percent of young refugees are enrolled in tertiary education.

UNHCR’s Education Strategy (2012-2016) aims to increase access to a range of safe, quality education opportunities for refugee children and young people, from early childhood education to university.

Even in situations where refugees legally get education, access to employment remains a huge obstacle. Cases of discrimination and harassment by police or immigration authorities make it difficult for refugees to move around, affecting their ability to work or trade. In order to get quality education or access to employment opportunities, the refugees face corrupt officials and authorities who demand and extort money from such urban refugees. The discrimination and abuse extends even to housing, wherein landlords, at times, demand higher rents or extra fees. They are often targeted by criminals, who know that such refugees would refrain from filling  complaints against such criminal acts due to fear of harassment. Accessing public education services may pose an extra financial burden on refugees. School fees can exceed their monthly income and indebt them to their community or employers.

Role of UNHCR in education for urban refugees

The aim is  to provide a good opportunity for future education and to determine good practices and specific challenges regarding urban refugees. It is primarily related to the situation of urban refugees in developing and middle-income countries where UNHCR has a presence and an operational role.

To achieve the policy objectives, an appropriate resource base is required, with effective cooperation and supports from a wide range of other personals especially those who are with governments in the developing world that determines the growing number of urban refugees.

Many urban refugees are often not able to formalize their status and obtain documentation required for their studies because they do not have an easy access to the government or UNHCR offices. Another condition may be due to high travel cost, fees, lack of awareness of the registration process among urban refugees and also due to an unavoidable fear of arrest. Because of these conditions of vulnerability, UNHCR operations should continue to explore methods that provide registration, documentation and status determination in a more efficient manner. This is especially critical in urban areas where the lack or non-recognition of documentation is also linked to the provision of basic human services.


Numerous refugee agencies are working closely with many national authorities to promote the admission of refugee children into national education systems and to develop responsive, quality education opportunities where this is not possible. UNHCR also works with a wide range of global partners to realize the right to quality education for all refugee children and youth. To better guide urban refugees, UNHCR gives tools and how-to guides to help design and implement livelihoods projects in urban settings.

Nonetheless, it is not sufficient. We, the common people, along with the assistance and support of various non governmental organisations, must encourage and support urban refugee children gain education. Education is an extremely crucial aspect of any individual’s existence, without which a person may fail to fulfill the basic needs of any family. Education provides a standing in society and thus, such refugees who face unimaginable hardships on a daily basis, must be provided with the best assistance to ensure that they get the best education and the apt opportunities to succeed in life. The measures will have to be multifaceted and implemented via the collaborative effort of civil society and government of every nation which plays host to such urban refugees.