Schooling in refugee camps
by Kim LeBlanc and Tony Waters, California State University March 2005

Refugee relief is typically thought about in the acute stages of a crisis, when water, sanitation, housing, security and disease threaten lives. Because assistance in such circumstances focuses on keeping people alive, relief is often described as an apolitical humanitarian project. But refugees by their very nature are the products of a struggle over power and authority – that is, a product of politics. Nowhere is this more evident in relief programmes than in the provision of schools. Basic schooling has emerged as a humanitarian ‘right’, just like water, sanitation, food, security and shelter. Yet education programmes for refugee children have longer-term political significance, as well as immediate humanitarian consequences. Education pushes humanitarian action beyond a medicalised endeavour to ‘save lives’ to a project that also shapes futures.

Unimagined past, unimaginable future

Political theorist Benedict Anderson famously called the modern nation an ‘imagined community’. By this he meant that, while the members of even the smallest nation will never know, meet or hear about their fellow-members, ‘yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion’. This communion takes place in large part because vast numbers of people are exposed to common schooling. In modern societies, education’s core function is the creation of citizens able to imagine themselves as having both a past, and a plausible future as part of a wider national community.

Refugees do not have a common past or a future; there is only a ‘present’ as a refugee in a camp full of people with the same problem of homelessness. One consequence of this is that, in refugee camps around the world, education programmes are often confronted with questions largely resolved in peaceful settings. What language should be used? Who is qualified to teach? What is a respectful relationship between teacher and student? Are rote learning or group-centred activities best? These are big questions, often going to the root of seemingly intractable political problems. Whose history, language, music or literature is taught in primary school – Israeli or Palestinian; Catholic or Protestant; Hindu, Sikh or Muslim; mujahedin or Royalist; Hutu or Tutsi – has much to do with expressions of power.

Faced with these difficult questions, humanitarian relief agencies often reduce schooling for refugees to a logistic problem. The result is that education packages for refugee camps, like food reserves, are ‘borrowed’ from a stockpile in the host country or elsewhere, and little attention is paid to broader questions to do with the kind of future children will have. In refugee camps, the core function of schools – the creation of citizens – is often ignored. It is perhaps not surprising that, as a result, refugee camps often have confusing mixes of curriculum, which leads to inconsistencies in educational policies. Such inconsistencies stem from the political compromises that both internal and external actors must make in refugee situations. Some examples are:

  • In Indochinese refugee camps in Thailand in the 1980s and 1990s, instruction was in a general Thai curriculum, even though the government’s policy was that no refugees would stay in Thailand. Chinese, English and French curricula were also offered at different times and places. Despite explicit policies for repatriation, few refugees in fact ever went home, and hundreds of thousands resettled abroad, or stayed in Thailand illegally.
  • Mozambican camps in Malawi in the 1980s offered a Malawian curriculum in English to facilitate integration. However, in the 1990s repatriation came to be seen as more important, and the Malawian curriculum was replaced with a Portuguese Mozambican one.
  • Camps for Burundians in Tanzania in the 1970s and 1980s focused on a Tanzanian Swahili curriculum, and many Burundians remain in Tanzania today. However, refugees from Burundi in the late 1990s were educated by the international community in a mix of French and Kirundi, under an official ‘repatriation only’ policy. Meanwhile, refugees established their own schools, with teaching in Swahili and English.
  • In camps for Afghan refugees in the 1980s, the international donor community funded conservative Islamist political parties to establish schools which promoted political ideologies, including an insistence that females be excluded from schooling. In the meantime, the UN and Western NGOs developed their own programmes promoting gender equity.
  • Perhaps most notoriously, schools in Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza promote a distinctly Palestinian identity. Palestinian children have been taught that they are both dispossessed, and foreigners in the Arab lands to which they fled. As a consequence, today’s Palestinian curriculum, which teaches that Jewish people unjustly seized Palestinian land, is a focus for the on-going Israeli–Palestinian conflict.

The role of schools in refugee populations

In administering schools, humanitarian organisations make decisions which have consequences for how power is distributed. Teachers are identified and promoted, a language of instruction is chosen and specific norms of deference and respect are enforced. The question that educators in refugee camps should ask is: what will such policies mean for a refugee population in one, five, ten or 20 years? This is a question that technicians focused on food rations, curative medical care or water systems can ignore, and still do a good job by keeping daily mortality rates under control. The questions that educators must ask, by contrast, are inherently political. Educational administrators in refugee camps ignore such political questions at their peril. This is because, in their decision-making in seemingly technical areas to do with curriculum, pedagogy and school administration, they plant the seeds of a future. This future may see repatriation, resettlement, the end of an old identity, or the beginning of a new one. But the identity cultivated may also be the basis for continued armed struggle. Education choices may also reveal something about the priorities of donors. In Afghan refugee camps in the late 1980s, for example, the US provided textbooks as part of what became known as the ‘Cross-border Humanitarian Program’. By the time educational support was wound down in 1994, over $50 million had been spent by the US and UNICEF. The goal of the programme was to give political legitimacy to the mujahedin commanders fighting the Soviet-led Afghan armed forces. The textbooks were also intended to promote powerful political messages. These are two quotes from a textbook prepared for the programme:

  1. The Mujahedin laid 260 anti-tank mines for Russian tanks. Out of that 180 mines exploded. Now find out how many mines are remaining.
  2. 15 Mujahedin attacked 100 Communists from one side. 17 Mujahedin attacked from the other side. Out of 100 Communists, 14 were arrested and 72 were killed. Find out: a) how many Mujahedin were involved in the attack and b) how many infidels fled.

This attempt to deliver political statements through the medium of numeracy is an important example of how and why national identity becomes embedded in a curriculum, even a seemingly benign subject like basic mathematics. By funding these militarised anti-communist textbooks, Western donors made a statement that opposition to communism was more important than humanitarian principles. When Thailand insisted that Indochinese refugees must be repatriated, rather than settle in Thailand, while at the same time insisting on a Thai curriculum, the decision made short-term political sense, even though the long-term consequences meant that many refugees in fact did not repatriate. Today in Chad, choices are being made by donors and the Chadian government about the future identity of refugees fleeing Darfur. Decisions are being taken about who will be schooled, and what the curriculum will be about. In northern Uganda, where children are housed in separate villages away from their parents to protect them from kidnapping, new relations are being established. A new ‘us’ is being created, and a new future imagined.

Kim LeBlanc is a graduate of California State University, Chico’s MA programme in Social Science.

Tony Watersis Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Sociology, California State University, Chico, and author of Bureaucratizing the Good Samaritan (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2001). Emails: and

References and further reading

Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (London: Verso, 1991).

Lynellyn Long, Ban Vinai: The Refugee Camp (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993).

Gonzalo Retamol and Ruth Adeo-Richmond (eds), Education as a Humanitarian Response (London: Cassel, 1998).

Francisco O. Ramirez, ‘The Nation-State, Citizenship, and Global Change: Institutionalism and Globalization’, in International Handbook of Education and Development: Preparing Schools, Students and Nations for the Twenty-First Century (London: Elsevier, 1997), pp. 47–62.

Elizabeth Rubin, ‘Prep School’, The New Republic, 225(25), 2001, pp. 16–19.

Tony Waters and Kim LeBlanc, ‘Refugees and Education: Mass Public Schooling without a Nation-State’, Comparative Education Review, 49(2), forthcoming, 2005.