Educating Children in a Refugee Camp: The Challenge of Meeting the Needs of Children with Disabilities

By: Thomas Crea

March 20, 2019

Education for Migrants and Refugees

Education is a basic human right for all children. For refugee children in particular, education can protect them from exploitation and abuse, and empower them with the knowledge and skills needed to advance in life. The numbers of refugee children are sobering: of the record 68.5 million people forcibly displaced from their homes, 52 percent are under the age of 18. Of the 19.9 million registered refugees served by UNHCR worldwide, 7.4 million are of school age. Yet, four million of these children do not attend school because of limited access and only 61 percent of children in refugee camps attend school. For those who do attend, significant barriers exist in receiving quality education in a refugee camp, including overwhelmingly high numbers of students in each classroom, and lack of qualified teachers and teacher training.

To meet children’s special needs, a prevailing strategy is to include them in mainstream classrooms. This approach is designed to dismantle barriers to education based on disabilities. In the United States, such an approach is shown to improve school enrollment and retention for students with special needs. Inclusion can also help improve academic outcomes for students who do not have disabilities.

In a refugee camp, however, serving the educational needs of children with disabilities is more complicated. Children in refugee camps commonly experience stigma and discrimination related to their disabilities. These experiences then pose an additional barrier to accessing education and decrease their overall well-being. One study in a refugee camp found that placing children in mainstream classrooms resulted in low attendance and high dropout rates. Unfortunately there is very little research that can guide how best to support the education of children with disabilities in the context of refugee camps—nor is there an understanding of what inclusion means from an emic or within-context perspective, versus an etic or outside understanding.

For the past several years, our research team at the Boston College School of Social Work has partnered with Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) to conduct empirical studies that can inform JRS’s policies and practices. Through this collaboration, we are currently conducting a study in Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya to identify how educational inclusion is associated with children’s well-being, and how we might improve both.

Kakuma has a population of 185,624 people and is located in Turkana, the poorest county in Kenya. Children under age 17 constitute over half of the refugee population in the camp, with 36 percent of children under 11 years of age. JRS operates Special Needs Centres in Kakuma to provide children with disabilities education, protection, and support. Yet, these children have little contact with students in mainstream classroom settings. The purposes of our study are (a) to explore the barriers and facilitators of educational inclusion for special needs students in Kakuma, and (b) to examine whether efforts to increase these students’ inclusion are associated with their greater well-being over time.

We are taking a two-pronged approach to answer these questions. The first was the use of group model building to gather the emic perspectives of parents, teachers, and staff on the barriers and facilitators of children’s inclusion and well-being. The second was a series of surveys for children, parents, and teachers to examine how inclusion and perceptions of the school environment are linked to children’s well-being.

Our preliminary survey analyses show that greater inclusion may be associated with greater well-being, but follow-up data collection will allow us to make firmer conclusions. Results from the group model building, however, suggest a more nuanced perspective on inclusion. Parents tended to define inclusion as acceptance and support of their children—in schools as well as the larger community—that help them socialize more effectively. Teachers defined inclusion as the more traditional understanding of mainstreaming in schools, although also understood the importance of community acceptance to children’s well-being. One implication could be that blanket policies of inclusion may be less effective than working with parents, children, and teachers to develop individualized approaches to education.

For children in refugee camps, educational inclusion may be a worthwhile goal with the potential to lead to greater academic and socio-emotional outcomes. But attention must be given to the emic perspectives of communities, and how they define and perceive inclusion. Using an outside etic approach to understanding and pursuing inclusion risks ignoring the cultural values of local communities, and forcing a solution that may not fit the problem. Further research will help us elucidate these dynamics and guide JRS towards context-appropriate solutions.

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