– The largest external displacement crisis in Latin America’s recent history is unfolding as countries open their borders to an influx of refugees from Venezuela following unprecedented political turmoil, socio-economic instability, and a humanitarian crisis.
“Venezuela’s ongoing regional crisis is such that more than 6.1 million refugees and migrants have fled the country, triggering the second largest refugee crisis today. Colombia alone is host to 2.5 million Venezuelan refugees and migrants in need of international protection,” Yasmine Sherif, Executive Director of Education Cannot Wait (ECW), tells IPS.
Sherif applauds Colombia for opening its borders despite ongoing challenges within its borders. For, 2.5 million refugees and migrants from Venezuela are in addition to Colombia’s own 5.6 million internally displaced persons (IDPs).
“The Government of Colombia has taken remarkable measures in providing refugees and migrants from Venezuela with access to life-saving essential services like education. By supporting these efforts across the humanitarian-development-peace nexus, we are creating the foundation to build a more peaceful and more prosperous future not only for the people of Colombia but also for the refugees and migrants from Venezuela above all,” she emphasizes.
An influx of refugees and IDPs has heightened the risk of children and adolescents falling out of the education system. As life as they knew it crumbles and uncertainty looms, access to safe, quality, and inclusive education is their only hope.
Girls, children with disability, and those from indigenous and Afro-Colombian peoples are highly vulnerable as they are often left behind, forgotten as a life of missed learning and earning opportunities beckons.
To avert an education disaster, as many children risk falling off the already fragile education system, ECW intends to continue expanding its investments in Colombia. To deliver the promise of holistic education and give vulnerable children a fighting chance.
ECW has invested close to USD 16.4 million in Colombia since 2019. The fund intends to extend its support with an additional USD 12 million for the next three-year phase of its Multi-Year Resilience Programme, which, once approved, will bring the overall investment in Colombia to over USD 28 million.
The new Multi-Year Resilience Programme will be developed during 2023 – in close consultation with partners and under the leadership of the Government of Colombia – and submitted to ECW’s Executive Committee for final approval in due course.
Sherif, who announced the renewed support during her recent one-week visit to Colombia, stresses that ECW works closely with the Ministry of Education and other line ministries in Colombia to support the government’s efforts to respond to the interconnected crises of conflict, forced displacement, and climate change and still provide quality education.
This collaboration is critical. Despite the government’s commendable efforts to extend temporary protection status to Venezuelans in Colombia, children continue to miss out on their human right to quality education.
In 2021 alone, the dropout rate for Colombian children was already 3.62 percent (3.2 percent for girls and 4.2 percent for boys). The figure nearly doubles for Venezuelans to 6.4 percent, and reaches 17 percent for internally displaced children.
“But even when children are able to attend school, the majority are falling behind. Recent analysis shows that close to 70 percent of ten-year-olds cannot read or understand a simple text, up from 50 percent before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down schools across Colombia,” Sherif observes.
Against this backdrop, she speaks of the urgent need to provide the girls and boys impacted by the interconnected crises of conflict, displacement, climate change, poverty, and instability with the safety, hope, and opportunity of quality education.
ECW’s extended programme will advance Colombia’s support for children and adolescents from Venezuela, internally displaced children, and host-communities, as well as indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities impacted by these ongoing crises.
“ECW’s investment closely aligns with the Government of Colombia’s strategy on inclusion and will strengthen the education system at the national level and in regions most affected by forced displacement. The programme will also have a strong focus on girls’ education so that no one is left behind,” she says.
As of November 2022, over half a million Venezuelan children and adolescents have been enrolled in Colombia’s formal education system. ECW investments have reached 107,000 children in the country to date.
“Financing is critical to ensure that no child is left behind. But funds are currently not enough to match the challenges on the ground and the growing needs. An estimated USD 46.4 million is required to fully fund the current multi-year resilience response in Colombia,” Sherif explains.
ECW’s Multi-year Resilience Programme in Colombia is delivered by UNICEF and a Save the Children-led NGO consortium, including the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), World Vision, and Plan International.
ECW investments in Colombia provide access to safe and protective formal and non-formal learning environments, mental health and psychosocial support services, and specialized services to support the transition into the national education system for children at risk of being left behind. A variety of actions to strengthen local and national education authorities’ capacities to support education from early childhood education through secondary school.