The impact of COVID-19 on refugees: Focus on Ethiopia


Authors: Thalia Seguin, IIEP-UNESCO

"I had to stop my classes but then my students kept on coming, and I had to send them away… I did not like that". Teacher, refugee camp, Gambella (UNHCR. 2020. Coming together for refugee education. Geneva: UNHCR)

The COVID-19 pandemic led to an unprecedented disruption of learning for children around the world. Yet, for some children, it has not only affected learning, but also heightened their risk of being left behind. Indeed, as expressed in the recent publication of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), Coming together for refugee education, “If you were a refugee child before the pandemic, you were already at a grave disadvantage - twice as likely to be out of school as a non-refugee child. The coronavirus could destroy the dreams and ambitions of these young refugees.” This article takes a closer look at the impact of COVID-19 on refugees in Ethiopia, based on interviews with representatives from the Ministry of General Education (MoGE), the Agency for Refugee and Returnee Affairs (ARRA), UNHCR, and Edukans, working at the federal level and in five refugee-hosting regions: Afar, Benishangul Gumuz, Gambella, Somali, and Tigray.

Learning outside of the classroom

Following school closures in mid-March 2020, Ethiopia’s MoGE introduced distance learning, primarily though through television and radio broadcasting. While interviewees emphasized that circumstances and available resources varied considerably between regions, in some contexts the barriers to distance learning for refugee students were described as insurmountable. As one interviewee from the Afar region explained, “Schools, because they were never taught about this kind of situation, just couldn’t respond”. The main challenges elicited through the interviews included:
  • Access to remote learning content: Limited access to electricity and radios was frequently mentioned as being a key barrier to remote learning. In some cases, radio frequencies could not be accessed, while, in others, radio towers did not serve areas where camps are located. 
  • Availability of household support: Interviewees suggested that, as their parents themselves may not have been to school, students often had limited support while learning at home. 
  • Monitoring: Even when equipment and materials were distributed, interviewees said, there were challenges to monitor the effectiveness of remote learning modalities. 
  • Teacher training: While teachers were paid during school closures, they received limited training on how to support students during periods of remote learning. This, coupled with protracted closures, also led some interviewees to express concerns about the long-term impact of COVID-19 on the teaching profession. 

At the same time, interviewees also drew attention to examples of effective or promising practices, including through partnerships with civil society organizations and other education stakeholders. Examples provided by interviewees included: 

  • In Afar, Edukans is distributing solar radios with pre-recorded audio lessons. In other regions, UNICEF and civil society organizations have distributed radios to allow children to follow programmes broadcast by regional education bureaux. 
  • In Benishangul Gumuz, during school closures, teachers prepared short notes and modules to help draw students’ attention toward key subject matter. Megaphones were used to share information with communities.
  • During school closures in Gambella, worksheets, content notes, assignments, and other printed education materials were made available to students.
  • In Somali, the COVID-19 Task Force co-led by ARRA and UNHCR, which includes a range of stakeholders such as school directors, was emphasized as being a key coordination mechanism for response and recovery efforts. 
  • In Tigray, home-based learning kits were developed by education and water and sanitation hygiene (WASH) and health specialists to raise awareness and inform students about good health and hygiene practices, as well as to strengthen reading and writing skills. 

A closer look at disparities and protection risks

Nonetheless, interviewees from all regions were in agreement that disparities had widened as a result of COVID-19. Certain groups, such as children with disabilities and girls, were identified as being particularly at risk. Several interviewees stated that in some cases, children have been expected to work and contribute to household income. School closures may have also affected access to important school-based services such as school feeding and psychosocial support. It was feared that the impact on girls could be devastating, with increased risks of early marriage, pregnancy, and gender-based violence. As one interviewee from the Tigray region explained, “Even though we are closing schools to protect them ... I do not think that they are safe when they are out of school.” For these most vulnerable children, concerns were raised that even once the pandemic has ended, they may never return to the classroom.  

Planning for the future


The COVID-19 pandemic reinforced the importance of crisis-sensitive planning measures, including those aimed at preparing for, preventing, and mitigating crises. As expressed by one federal-level interviewee, “This has provided an opportunity to see and test what can work and what should be improved in Ethiopia regarding distance learning … [COVID] has highlighted huge gaps.”
A key component of the country’s response plan, Ethiopia: COVID-19 Education Response Projectfocuses on strengthening emergency response and resilience, recognizing the pandemic as an “opportunity to strengthen emergency education response and resilience preparedness.” Efforts in this regard are vital and have the potential to benefit refugee and host communities alike: they can help the education system to overcome adversity and to rebound from crisis, and ensure that no one even in the face of an emergency is left behind. 
Thalia Seguin is an Associate Programme Specialist at IIEP-UNESCO, working on crisis-sensitive planning.
This project is made possible through a partnership with the Education Above All Foundation’s Protecting Education in Insecurity and Conflict programme (EAA–PEIC).


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