Dr. Olivia Wilkinson is the director of research at the Joint Learning Initiative on Faith and Local Communities. Her research focuses on secular and religious influences in humanitarian action, and she is the author of Secular and Religious Dynamics in Humanitarian Response (2020).
The commitments of member states in September 2016 to the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants set off a whirlwind of global policy processes leading to the adoption of the two Global Compacts for Safe,Orderly and Regular Migration. The Joint Learning Initiative on Faith and Local Communities (JLI) formed a learning hub on Refugees and Forced Migration in September 2016 to focus on research related to faith actors and refugee response, particularly the roles of local faith actors who are often at the forefront of response. One of our hub’s aims is to bring the growing amount of evidence on the role of faith actors in refugee response into refugee policy and practice conversations.
Focusing on the global compact in particular, we have recently launched a policy brief on “Faith Actors and the Implementation of The Global Compact on Refugees,” in English, Arabic, and French. In paragraph 41, the Global Compact on Refugees recognizes faith actors as part of a multi-stakeholder approach to refugee response, stating:
Faith-based actors could support the planning and delivery of arrangements to assist refugees and host communities, including in the areas of conflict prevention, reconciliation, and peacebuilding, as well as other relevant areas.
The reference to “other relevant areas” leaves a host of initiatives undertaken by faith actors as a sidenote, including educational support to refugees. The policy brief has therefore been designed to make up for this gap by providing evidence on faith actor response within the structure of the compact’s program of action, including education. In it, we include practical examples of initiatives, detail opportunities and challenges of faith actor engagement in refugee response, provide an extensive reading list for further reference, and offer recommendations for policy and practice.
In the Global Compact on Refugees’ program of action, education falls within a section on meeting needs and supporting communities. The main provision within the compact is for the support of national education systems, which in many cases will include schools that are run by faith-based institutions and operating within national laws and policies. However, refugee children can struggle to gain places (especially in over-burdened systems) and integrate into new education systems. Issues related to which curricula to follow and to accreditation between home, host, and destination curricula have caused problems. Instead, children on the move may seek non-formal education opportunities, which can also be run by faith actors, such as sessions in religious buildings with provisions funded by the faith community.
The work of MERATH is one example of a faith actor providing non-formal education for out-of-school children in Lebanon. They have a program that has reached 1,600 children in nine education centers around the country. MERATH works with local partners, such as churches, to deliver their programs, and they maintain principles of impartiality, dignity, and stewardship. Other examples of faith actors providing non-formal education include vocational and life skills for adolescents and adults, such as refugees in Uganda. These non-formal education projects fill a gap, with many running in conjunction with national education systems so that children can transition into formal education.
Other types of education in which faith actors can play a particularly important role include peace education and ethics education. For instance, Arigatou International engages refugee and host country children to work on interfaith and intercultural understanding through their Learning to Live Together program. In post-war Sri Lanka, Muslim-Tamil reconciliation processes benefit from informal and extracurricular education initiatives promoted within and across faith communities. Faith based organizations have also found that working with local faith communities has helped with their provision of education and child protection for refugees. In an example from World Vision in Uganda, their engagement with local faith communities meant that refugee households were more willing to allow their daughters to attend educational activities as they felt their religious leaders were involved with and approved of the program. Faith communities are also enabling resettled refugees to transition to higher education through scholarships and, more broadly, by supporting the inclusion of students with refugee backgrounds.
In some cases, however, faith-based non-formal education projects can also encounter difficulties, including a lack of equivalency to formal education curricula, under- and untrained teachers, no regulation on child protection standards, and influence from outside donors and missionaries about the content of education. As noted in a learning brief the JLI put together for the “Faith Action for Children on the Move” conference, “in limited instances, unofficial and non-formal programmes have meant less stringent regulations, with, for example, unlicensed and unvetted teachers, lessons outside national curricula, poor funding or influence from donors on educational opportunities and content when there is funding, with varying levels of evangelism-based religious education, and divergent Western and contextual ideologies.” Many of these issues, such as under-trained teachers, can affect any non-formal education project, but issues of proselytization, as well as the protection of children against violence while in the care of faith actors, should particularly be a primary concern for faith actors.
As summed up in the policy brief on local faith actors and the Global Compact on Refugees, “Faith actors are actively involved in responding to forced displacement, well-positioned to mobilize resources, and provide material and immaterial support to foster appropriate, tailored response.” As part of the response for refugees, it is a positive step forward that faith actors are recognized in the Global Compact on Refugees.
Acknowledgment: Prof. Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh and Atallah Fitzgibbon are the co-chairs of the JLI Refugees and Forced Migration Learning Hub. The policy brief on “Faith Actors and the Implementation of The Global Compact on Refugees” was generously supported by the Henry Luce Foundation’s Initiative on Religion in International Affairs.