Searching for an Education: The education crisis for displaced learners in South and South East Asia

In 2018, ALTO conducted research mapping the access to, and quality of education for displaced learners in the Asian / South East Asian region. Our initial focus was on eight countries where displacement due to conflict was prevalent. Our research then focused in on four specific countries: Myanmar, Thailand, Bangladesh and Malaysia.

Throughout the research project, the team engaged with UN agencies, governments, donors, INGOs, NGOs, CSOs, individuals and refugee and internally displaced communities themselves, including children. Our research took up to IDP camps in Thailand, urban refugee communities in Malaysia, and to the world’s largest refugee camp: Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh.

Conducting research with refugees and displaced communities is challenging: logistically in terms of access, context and location; and ethically in terms of ensuring that research is necessary, useful and does not re-traumatise participants.

Below are some excerpts from our research. To download the full report, please click here.

Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh (Source: ALTO Global Consulting)

Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh (Source: ALTO Global Consulting)

The world is witnessing the highest level of people displacements on record. Children, who account for over half the world’s 25.4 million refugees, are caught up in conflicts and disasters that irreversibly change their lives. Often having witnessed horrific violence and destruction, they flee, sometimes alone, most often separated from family members in search of safety and the chance to rebuild their lives. Yet, refugee children are five times more likely to be out of school. Only 50% of refugee children in low-income countries have access to primary education and just 22% of refugee adolescents attend secondary school (SCI, 2018).

Ensuring the education rights of displaced children is critical. It is well known that all forms of displacement and separation from family and community have a devastating long-term impact on a child’s psychological wellbeing, particularly when children experience trauma immediately prior to displacement (Ajdukovic, 2009). Displaced children face long, and often multiple periods of disruption to their education, and this diminishes the likelihood of school completion and future career prospects. As evidenced by research, education offers a sense of normalcy, a safe haven from the chaos and an opportunity to learn. Education provides a sense of stability and hope and is critical for addressing the social emotional needs of children and ensuring they reach their full potential (Panworld Education, 2018).

Key trends in South and Southeast Asia

The Asia region hosts some 9.5 million persons of concern (UNHCR), made up of 4.2 million refugees, 2.7 million Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and 2.2 million stateless people (UNHCR, 2017). The majority of refugees in Asia originate from Afghanistan and Myanmar, with the Rohingya from Myanmar constituting the biggest and fastest growing refugee emergency in decades.

Asia has borne the brunt of the Rohingya refugee crisis. In the past five years, stateless Rohingya refugees have made perilous journeys to reach Bangladesh, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia where they live in refugee camps, detention centres or in host communities with limited freedom and access to critical welfare services. Protracted crisis and long-standing political unrest are responsible for most of Asia’s refugees and IDPs. Adding to this is Asia’s high susceptibility to natural hazards and large and dense population, which contribute to the huge toll of internal displacement across the region, most notably in China, India, Bangladesh and the Philippines (IDMC, 2018).

A reduction in resettlement opportunities and the complexities of return

Despite the unprecedented movement of refugees throughout the world, durable solutions are hard to find. Protracted refugee situations now last an average of 26 years while resettlement opportunities have dramatically decreased due to the decline in resettlement quotas. In 2017, despite an estimated 1.2 million refugees in need of resettlement, only 102,800 refugees were resettled, a 54% drop from 2016 and a 94% gap between needs and actual resettlement places for the year (UNHCR, 2017).

Greater numbers in developing countries

Providing for the needs of refugees and other persons of concern often falls on the shoulders of countries least able to respond. A third of the world’s refugees are hosted in the least developed countries, with 85% of refugees residing in developing regions (UNHCR, 2017). This is compounded by the environments in which refugees and asylum seekers live. In South and Southeast Asia, more than two thirds of refugees and asylum seekers live in urban and peri-urban environments outside the confines of refugee camps or detention centres, leaving the population dispersed and hard to reach (UNHCR, 2018).

Urban environments present specific challenges in terms of humanitarian access which heighten refugee and IDP vulnerabilities (IDMC, 2018). Lack of legal status for refugees and asylum seekers in many South and Southeast Asian countries further exacerbates the vulnerabilities of refugees and asylum seekers. Without legal status, refugees and asylum seekers live in constant fear of detection and arrest or held in indefinite detention and have no rights to work or access to basic services, such as health and education. Plunged into poverty and scattered throughout urban areas, few of the tens of thousands of ‘invisible’ displaced children in Asian cities are receiving a quality education.

Temporary Learning Centre, Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh (Source: ALTO Global Consulting)

Temporary Learning Centre, Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh (Source: ALTO Global Consulting)

Key findings


  • Approximately 57% of refugees in Cox’s Bazar are children

  • Rohingya refugee children do not have access to the formal education system in Bangladesh and an estimated 40% of school-aged refugee children are not in school

  • Less that 2% of adolescents and youth aged 15 - 24 are accessing education services

  • There is a significant shortage of learning spaces to meet education demand due to space limitations within the camp

  • There is a dire need to address the complex psychosocial needs of Rohingya children


  • There are over 160,000 urban refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia, with 42,000 below the age of 18

  • The majority of refugees and asylum seekers are from Myanmar (Rohingya, Chin)

  • Only 44% of children are in primary education, and 16% in secondary education

  • Children are unable to access the formal education system in Malaysia, and instead rely on NGO / community run schools (Community Learning Centres)

  • Constant security and safety issues (risk of detention) exist for students and teachers, affecting teaching and learning


  • IDP numbers in Myanmar vary by state and ethnic group requiring humanitarian assistance: Rakhine (Rohingya) 715,000, Kachin 168,00, Shan 48,000, Kayin 10,000

  • An estimated 2.3 million children have either never enrolled in school or have dropped out of the formal education system and almost half of these children reside in ethnic states and regions

  • Huge disparities exist in access and quality between communities

  • Rohingya children are severely restricted from accessing education, with IDP camps offering the only structured education aside from host community village schools


  • There are almost 100,000 refugees from Myanmar residing in nine camps along the border

  • Almost 6,000 refugees and asylum seekers are living in and around Bangkok as urban refugees

  • Approximately 170 urban refugees and asylum seekers, including more than 50 children are in Immigration Detention Centres (IDCs)

  • 50% of refugees living in nine camps are under the age of 18 years, with a large amount out of school children

  • Refugee education is not recognised or accredited by the Thai or Myanmar governments

  • Urban refugees are legally entitled to access education, however restrictions on movement, the constant fear or arrest and detention, and the high cost of transport are preventative factors.