17 February 2021

Displaced and disrupted, but not deserted

This blog was originally published on the Porticus website.

Over the last seven months, we’ve seen COVID-19 disrupting education all over the world, but especially for displaced learners. As we continue to understand and navigate the effects of COVID-19 on our partners and the people they serve, Gerhard Pulfer considers how the pandemic is affecting work in the priority area of Education in Displacement (EiD), which he manages.

Currently over 80 million people are registered as living in displacement and over half of these refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced people are children and young adults, who face major disruption to their education and personal development.

Our partners have highlighted the particular challenges arising as a result of the pandemic. For displaced learners in Western Europe, education in a new language and environment is made even more difficult as lots of schools have switched to online learning or blended learning forms. The large reception centres where many refugees live are far from the ideal setting for learning, and parental support and use of digital tools – both so crucial in distance learning – are hindered by a language barrier.

The situation is worse in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, where our partners Education Cannot Wait and BRAC work. Home to the world’s largest refugee camp, Kutapalong, with over 640,000 Rohingya refugees, all education facilities were shut down in late March. In May, when the first cases of COVID infection were diagnosed, the area was declared a “red zone” and put under severe lockdown measures. As of October, all schools remain closed.

These aren’t just temporary setbacks – once immigrant and refugee students fall behind, they are more likely to drop out of education altogether. During the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, we saw drop-out rates for girls triple. Young people who have become disconnected from school are at increased risk from domestic violence, forced labour, early marriage and other infringements on their rights. Staying engaged with school, despite all the challenges, significantly improves their life chances.

At Porticus, we are committed to long lasting, positive change and supporting partners who seek fundamental solutions to the problems posed by the crisis. Our Education in Displacement partners are working hard to improve remote learning in several ways. Many are adapting existing student and teacher programmes to work in a virtual setting, including academic learning, psycho-social support and social and emotional learning. They are also expanding genuine distance learning methods through partners that have built their business model around remote education models from the outset. Unsurprisingly they’re experiencing increased demand for their expertise.

Additionally, there is a lot of research being conducted on distance learning. For example, New York University, with Porticus’ support, is mapping Theories of Change and validating assessment tools for distance learning. Another partner, The Journal for Education in Emergencies, is collecting examples on research and practice around COVID responses. We believe the results of both projects will be relevant for the broader education sector.

The need to adapt has also led to some unexpected opportunities. Social & Emotional Learning (SEL) and Psycho-Social Support (PSS) have featured prominently in the emergency education responses across a range of countries. The inclusion of such holistic skills and competencies has been a strong feature in our pursuit of quality education for displaced learners, and we hope to see them more firmly established in mainstream education once the pandemic subsides. SEL and PSS have an important role to play in helping young people, particularly those in displacement, to develop the cognitive skills and resilience needed to succeed in school and life.

COVID-19 continues to negatively impact displaced learners and the education systems that serve them. But it has also brought more holistic concepts of education into the spotlight, stimulated innovation and strengthened our resolve to keep striving for those most affected.


Gerhard Pulfer

Responsible for Education in Displacement, Porticus