Innovative Education's Vital Role in Global Migrant Crises

May 29, 2015Duncan McCullough

Refugee and migrant crises have already left their mark on 2015.  Gordon Brown has termed this the “year of fear,” calling it “the worst year since 1945 for children being displaced.”

The suffering of these refugees and internally displaced persons was once again brought to light in recent events unfolding on the choppy seas around Myanmar, Thailand, and other Southeast Asian neighbors to the Indian Ocean. 

Thousands of migrants from Myanmar’s Rakhine State, belonging mostly to the Rohingya ethnic group, leave the country in search of a more hopeful future.  Instead, they face exploitation from human traffickers, lack of basic necessities, expulsion from neighboring nations, and the terrifying perils of an open ocean with no clear destination.  Recently, the immediate dangers of the refugees seem to have receded, but groups like the Rohingya people must be given better opportunities to escape poverty and discrimination.  Political reforms, economic development, and fundamental needs like food security are vital elements of this effort, but providing education to these vulnerable populations will be critical for improving long term prospects.  The challenges facing groups like the Rohingya are immense, but CEI profiled programs in Myanmar and around the world are rising to meet this need. 

The New Education Highway (NEH) program is reaching out to provide badly needed opportunities to minorities in Myanmar, including to Rohingya people within the Rakhine State.  The NEH Learning Interface incorporates Open Educational Resources (OER), mostly in video formats that cover a wide range of topics including a standard k-12 curriculum, advanced math and science, political science, accounting, foreign languages, critical thinking, and test preparation.  These resources provide invaluable development for many of Myanmar’s most underserved. 

The Exam Preparation Outreach Program (EPOP), also in Myanmar, is an initiative from the Thabyay Education Foundation that identifies and supports promising students who wish to attend university, but are not academically prepared with the level of education required. The program focuses on ethnic and linguistic minorities who live in remote areas of Myanmar, as well as students from Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos.  The program uses an online student portal with tutors and practice exams, regional study groups, and even classroom-based tutorials to help students develop their skills and knowledge.  For students living in refugee camps or in difficult financial conditions, the course fee, books and/or study materials are provided for free.

In Thailand, there is a major challenge in integrating migrants from neighboring countries.  Refugees especially, can be incredibly vulnerable to exploitation.  Promisingly though, organizations are scaling up to meet this daunting task. 

The Burmese Migrant Workers’ Education Committee (BMWEC) operates 25 learning centers concentrated along the Thailand-Burma border in and around Mae Sot, Thailand and in Karen State, Myanmar (Burma). These learning centers receive financial and logistical support through BMWEC and provide access to education for nearly 4,000 children and young people.  The organization arose out of a need for a separate education system that caters to these concerns and prepares children for a future in Myanmar, Thailand, or a third country. In the areas where Burmese migrant learning centers are easily accessible, an estimated 40-60% of primary school-aged children are currently enrolled, while as little as 10 to 20% of children are in school in areas without centers. 

MOVINGschools, implemented by Building Trust International, is another program providing crucial services to displaced refugee and migrant communities along the Thailand-Myanmar border.  Children in these communities taught in poor conditions in classrooms that are dark, unsanitary, and unsafe.  Responding to this deprivation, Building Trust International launched the MOVINGschools project and hosted a design competition, to address this issue.  The winning design allows for schools to be constructed and disassembled quickly, cheaply, yet sturdily.  These more flexible structures save materials, time, and energy, when compared to repeatedly constructing low-cost structures.  Refugees like those served in this project often have unique needs, and MOVINGschools is a very useful example of a project responding directly to a community’s needs collaboratively and creatively.

These programs do not yet have the capacity to address fully the crisis facing refugees and displaced persons in the region on their own.  However, their successes have made a powerful impact for thousands of children.  The experiences of these smaller programs can and should play a meaningful role guiding future plans.  This “year of fear” must be a turning point for the international community, and programs like these can help guide the way.

Photo Credit: Burmese Migrant Workers' Education Committee

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