United Nations Struggles With Education Access, Quality in Mauritania Refugee Camps

In the Mbera refugee camp in eastern Mauritania, the UN agencies UNHCR and UNICEF are working to provide better education to children. According to the aid agencies’ estimates, only 4,298 of the 14,000 primary school-aged children in Mbera refugee camp are enrolled in camp schools.

The agencies are struggling with the challenge of getting enough schools built and improving education quality in difficult circumstances. The agencies also want to build schools for Malian refugee children to cover long-term needs, according to IRINnews.org.

Joelle Ayité, head of education for the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in Mauritania, said education has been a forgotten sector since 2012. In the Mbera camp, half of the refugees are of student age. She noted that funding for education has been coming in gradually, but “it’s not enough to cover the needs.”

If secondary school-age children are included in the total, just 17% of children in the camp are attending official schools, although some attend informal schools run by parents or retired teachers.

In Mbera, there is a severe shortage of classrooms. Several of the initial schools were constructions of plastic sheeting over a wooden framework, and were ripped apart by fierce desert winds. According to Hovig Etyemezian, who runs Mbera camp on behalf of UNHCR, a contractor team tasked with building more durable schools absconded with the funds.

UNICEF and its partner, NGO Intersos, plan to build 88 semi-permanent schools using local materials. This ambitious project is still in its early stages.

In Mbera camp, each teacher is paid $60 per month by UNHCR and UNICEF and also receives additional food rations for his or her family. But most teachers complain the remuneration is inadequate. Backott Ag Madelhadoui, a teacher, said he could make more running a camp shop. “We spend six hours teaching each day and work every night to prepare lessons – we should be paid more. We have children to support.”

But aid agencies are unable to pay more due the lack of funds. Two of the 12 officially employed teachers in the camp are Malian state teachers and thus continue to receive salaries across the border – the rest are community teachers. Students in refugee camps in Mauritania, Niger and Burkina Faso follow the Malian curriculum, though some classes at Mbera are in French and Arabic.

UNICEF said it is encouraging families to send their children – particularly girls – to school. The majority of Malians in Mbera are nomadic or semi-nomadic and often do not send their children, particularly girls, to traditional schools. Many children attend Koranic schools, known as madrassas, as the secular state schools do not meet their priorities.

UNICEF found that many children – 75% of them girls – aged 12-19 were illiterate and has set up literacy training groups for them. “It’s a very good opportunity to educate children who have not had the chance,” said Ayité. The idea is to train them in a trade that they can use back home.

UNICEF continues to work with the Mauritanian authorities to provide all returnee children with a certificate of attendance and validation of their course-work.