The impact of refugee experiences on education: evidence from Burundi

Sonja Fransen, Carlos Vargas-Silva, and Melissa Siegel

Journal of Development and Migration, Volume 8, Issue 6 (2018)


The 1993-2005 civil war in Burundi led to the displacement of an estimated 700,000 refugees, most of whom settled in refugee camps in northwestern Tanzania. The majority of the refugees returned to Burundi after the war. This paper examines differences in educational outcomes between returned refugees and Burundians who never left the country during the 1993-2005 civil war. Given the low levels of educational attainment in Burundi, the authors examine differences in primary school completion rates.

The analysis is based on a nationally representative survey (covering 1,500 households in 100 communities) conducted 15 years after the signing of the peace agreement in Burundi and after the return of most refugees to the country, enabling the analysis of longer-term effects of forced displacement on educational outcomes. The analysis also draws on data from the Kagera Health and Development Survey (KHDS) to compare the primary school completion rates of Burundian refugees with those of host communities in Tanzania.

Controlling for pre-war characteristics of refugee households, the authors find that former refugees who returned to Burundi had better educational outcomes than their contemporaries who never left the country (including those who were never displaced and those who were displaced internally).


  • Returned refugees were 16 to 28 percentage points more likely to have finished primary school than their contemporaries who never left the country. However, the average primary school completion rate for returned refugees was still low (37 percent).
  • An additional year spent as a refugee while of school age is associated with a 4 to 6 percentage point increase in the likelihood of finishing primary school.
  • There is suggestive evidence that returnees were also better off than their hosts in the Kagera region of Tanzania (28 percent of whom finished primary school), most likely due to the better quality of education offered in schools established for refugees.

These results are likely to reflect the better educational opportunities afforded to refugee children in Tanzania. Children who were of primary school age during the civil war, and who were displaced to refugee camps in Tanzania, had better access to UNHCR-funded schools. An estimated 90 percent of primary school age children who arrived in Tanzania after 1993 were enrolled in school in 2000. Even though returned refugees had better educational outcomes than their contemporaries who had never left Burundi, their average primary school completion rate was still very low (37 percent), with implications for their future labor market outcomes.

In contrast, children who were internally displaced in Burundi often found themselves in camps for the internally displaced, which frequently did not have educational facilities. At least half of school-aged internally displaced children did not attend school. Children who remained in their communities of origin would have suffered the adverse effects of conflict on schooling (for example, due to the destruction of schools, killing and exodus of teachers, recruitment of child soldiers, household income shocks, higher levels of insecurity, and decreases in government spending on education).

The authors conclude that children who stay behind when conflict erupts suffer serious gaps in their education, and they advocate for educational support programs that enable these children to catch up with those who are not affected by conflict.