The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in school closures globally, including in the Dadaab refugee camps. This study explored the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on education in the Dadaab refugee camps. Based on semi-structured interviews with refugee educators and service providers in the camps, we found out how the pandemic has negatively affected young refugees’ lives. While the schools attempted to implement distance education, it was ineffective overall. In addition to disrupting learning, there were many negative consequences of the school closures, including the cancellation of school feeding programs, worsened social issues, and a rise in mental health issues and suicides. While the issues highlighted in this paper are connected to the impacts of COVID-19, most of the issues were long-standing structural problems that already existed in the camp, including limited resources, funding shortfalls, overcrowded classrooms, a shortage of trained teachers, and limited Internet infrastructure. As a result, it has been challenging to reopen schools and to offer quality education to students. If donors and NGOs want to tackle the adverse social effects of the pandemic for students, they will have to not only reopen schools and mitigate the risks of contracting the coronavirus, but also address the underlying challenges of living, learning, and teaching in a space that is organized to exclude and immobilize refugees.
This study makes several recommendations on how to “build back better” to improve refugee education going forward in Dadaab. Although the pandemic brought significant challenges in Dadaab, it also provided an opportunity to explore how refugees can work out their own agency for survival, without the physical presence and intervention of the humanitarian workers and the Government of Kenya. This opportunity for agency was especially important in a camp setting that is designed to sequester refugee residents and make them vulnerable, voiceless, and dependent on humanitarian handouts. Future education initiatives must include meaningful refugee participation and leadership from refugee-led organizations and initiatives. There is a need to hire more qualified teachers on the ground to address the significant teacher shortage. The agencies handling education should ensure that all schools can access learning through digital platforms by providing all the required infrastructure and technologies. Teachers in Dadaab should receive training on how to use technology to deliver lessons to students, to take advantage of alternative teaching methods in case schools close again. Finally, as schools reopen, it is important to make sure that different groups of learners are not left behind, especially refugee girls.
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