UNESCO learning cities' responses to COVID-19 – outcomes of webinar on 22 April


© Janossy Gergely
29 April 2020

On 22 April, as part of its ongoing series for members of the UNESCO Global Network of Learning Cities (GNLC), the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning (UIL) hosted a webinar to highlight the measures cities are developing to address the needs of migrants and refugees amid the COVID-19 pandemic. A summary of the challenges facing migrants and refugees along with coordinated international responses was provided by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), followed by presentations on initiatives by the UNESCO GNLC member cities of Baalbek in Lebanon, Larissa in Greece and Medellín in Colombia.

On behalf of UIL, Mr Konstantinos Pagratis opened the session. He spoke about the living conditions facing refugees and migrants in large cities, which are often substandard. These conditions have been made worse by the pandemic: for example, language barriers may hinder migrants’ and refugees’ access to the latest information about the coronavirus, and crowded housing arrangements can exacerbate the spread of the virus. Mr Pagratis explained that the purpose of the webinar was to highlight the efforts cities have made in responding to the specific needs of migrants and refugees during the pandemic.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)

Ms Jacqueline Strecker, Connected Education Officer at the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, argued that inclusive responses are needed. This means engaging with national and city authorities and networks and initially placing focus on the national response; that is, taking into consideration the impacts of school closures, virtual learning and social distancing on refugees. It is important to consider equity; this calls for a multimodal approach for learners with different levels of access and resources. Different technologies are needed for learners of different ages too, with television and radio – including ‘edutainment’ programmes – best suited for early childhood.

In considering the needs of refugees and migrants, there is a necessity to plan a sequence of responses. At the start, there should be a focus on health and protection, with stakeholders advocating for and designing responses that promote equity and involve an assessment of access and needs across communities. It is simultaneously vital to promote national continuous learning, acquire and align content for dissemination (offline as well as online), set up communication channels with teachers and households, outline plans for medium- and long-term responses, and support proposals to secure additional resources.

The second step is to implement learning in low-resource contexts – for example, by using community radio and by preloading learning content onto SD cards or tablets – and to ensure teachers, caregivers and learners receive continuous support while schools remain closed.

The next stage, when schools reopen, involves accommodating students’ diverse experiences during the COVID-19 lockdown: not all would have benefitted from remote learning and so investments must be made in accelerated, catch-up and remedial programmes that leverage digital resources.

Finally, in the recovery phase – when restrictions are eased - attention shifts towards documenting experiences, identifying gaps, advocating for investments in online and offline infrastructure, and designing digital literacy programmes to counter digital divides. Ms Strecker pointed to supportive resources such as Kolibri, an open-source education technology platform and toolkit. In Kampala, Uganda, Kolibri content has been uploaded onto a national server and Wi-Fi connections established so that people can access learning even in remote locations.

Baalbek, Lebanon

Ms Abir El Khoury Jbeily, International Affairs Consultant for the City of Baalbek in Lebanon, began her presentation with a demographic snapshot: there are currently 60,000 Syrian refugees and 10,000 Palestinian refugees in Baalbek, which has a total population of around 200,000. The municipality has taken safety measures aimed at providing health security to all its residents equally, whether Lebanese or refugees. Before a full lockdown, the municipality worked to raise awareness through a social media campaign and ensure high-risk places remained closed and, since the lockdown began, Baalbek has ensured regular sanitization of public spaces takes place and imposed curfews to curb local activity.

Prior to the lockdown, the UNHCR and local educational authorities collaborated to provide education to residents in Lebanon, including open classes for Syrian refugees. Ms Jbeily confirmed that the UNHCR has played a pivotal role in ensuring the safety and security of refugees by providing financial aid, food, medical attention, educational enrolment and more. Unfortunately, initiatives at the local level may not be sufficient as the economic situation worsens: around 40 per cent of the population of Lebanon already lives below the poverty line, the national unemployment rate is expected to hit 50 per cent, and the Lebanese currency is losing value. Alongside local efforts, support from the international community is needed to cope with the fallout from the pandemic.

Larissa, Greece

Mr Dimitris Deligiannis, Larissa City Council Chairperson, highlighted the fact that Larissa supports the Greek Government’s efforts to provide accommodation and services to asylum seekers through the Emergency Support to Integration and Accommodation (ESTIA) programme. Even before the pandemic, social workers and interpreters have been enlisted to help this vulnerable group access medical services, employment opportunities, language courses and recreational activities. Actions have been coordinated for social integration and education, with local schools and community centres playing pivotal roles.

As a result of the pandemic, initiatives for refugees have expanded to include a 24-hour helpline to answer questions and provide support; text messaging to impart safety measures; the distribution of printed material by major health institutions; and door-to-door deliveries of cleaning materials, antiseptic fluids, sanitation gloves and masks. The Municipality of Larissa has tried to maintain daily communication with local refugees through video calls and, where necessary, visits. There have also been efforts to ensure that safety measures have been taken in refugee camps, including proper distancing. Refugee parents have been given the opportunity to enrol their children in the Panhellenic School Network and translated instructions have been provided, though the absence of computers and reliable internet connections in refugee camps has created obstacles. Mr Deligiannis closed with some issues for consideration, namely how to communicate across cultures and integrate closed cultural communities, and how to prevent xenophobia and the misconception of Greece as a ‘transit’ country for refugees from hampering local support efforts.

Medellín, Colombia

Ms Luz Angela Alvarez, Programme Leader at the Office of Social Inclusion, Family and Human Rights for the City of Medellín in Colombia, highlighted some of the measures in place to respond to migrants’ and refugees’ needs, many of whom are from neighbouring Venezuela.

The ‘123 Social Services’ initiative, for example, provides organized transport, food and support programmes for refugees. Additional actions covered by this service include psychosocial care, transfers to hospitals, healthcare management and emergency shelter. Ms Alvarez thanked Medellín’s strategic partners, whose help, she stressed, has made it possible to successfully manage the city’s resources during this exceptional time. In addition, as a further measure, Medellín’s Office of Social Inclusion, Family and Human Rights has set up the Institutional Board of Attention to Venezuelan Migrants, the aim of which is to support refugees and migrants with essentials such as monetary transfers and temporary accommodation.


Throughout the various presentations, participants were active in posting questions. Ms Marie Macauley (UIL) opened the debate by asking cities what steps they have taken to ensure the education of refugee children. Ms Alvarez pointed to Medellín’s ‘Good Start’ programme, which benefits children aged 0–5, including refugees. In the City of Larissa, there is a jurisdictional differentiation between refugees in private accommodation and refugees in camps: those in the former are under the city’s jurisdiction, whereas those in camps are not. This means that the city is better able to support the integration of young learners in locally provided accommodation.

The UNHCR has documented several successful initiatives to promote childhood education for refugees, including radio programming and television broadcasts for children. As a specific example, through the ‘Translate a Story’ project, books that are part of a country’s national curriculum are translated into various languages so that they are accessible to the children of refugees.

In response to Ms Macauley’s subsequent question – taken from the audience – on family learning for refugees and migrants, it was noted that the UNHCR sees the pandemic as an opportunity to encourage families and communities to become more involved in learning. Children can help parents and grandparents to understand the content of learning programmes, which demonstrates the important role intergenerational learning plays during crises such as COVID-19.

To close the debate, the ongoing challenge of monitoring the effectiveness of digital learning for migrants and refugees was underlined.

GNLC webinars

The online event was part of the UNESCO GNLC webinar series ‘UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19’. Devised as an opportunity for members of the UNESCO GNLC to share successful local initiatives during the pandemic, the webinars regularly attract hundreds of city representatives and other stakeholders. Cities from different world regions give presentations, and participants engage in thought-provoking debates about how best to deal with the current situation – namely, how to mitigate its worst effects and, in some way, seize unexpected opportunities. Click the links below to read summaries of the six previous webinars.

UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19: Higher education institutions’ support for local communities. Outcomes of webinar on 15 April.

UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19. The cases of Mexico City (Mexico), Bogotá (Columbia), Lima (Peru). Outcomes of webinar on 9 April.

UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19: Family learning and community support. The cases of Gdynia (Poland) and Cork (Ireland), as well as insights by experts from Germany and Pakistan. Outcomes of webinar on 8 April.

UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19: Equity and inclusion. The cases of Espoo (Finland), Chengdu (People’s Republic of China), Swansea (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland). Outcomes of webinar on 1 April.

UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19. The cases of Osan (Republic of Korea), Wuhan (People’s Republic of China), Turin (Italy), São Paulo (Brazil). Outcomes of webinar on 24 March.

UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19. The cases of Shanghai and Beijing (People’s Republic of China), Fermo (Italy), Kashan (Islamic Republic of Iran). Outcomes of webinar on 19 March.

Don’t miss the opportunity to join our upcoming webinars. Further details can be found at https://uil.unesco.org/event/gnlc-webinars-unesco-learning-cities-response-covid-19.

Watch our video interviews with mayors and other representatives of UNESCO learning cities on responses to COVID-19 at https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLivu_GCiL2mjYQOp64hcvzGNsC75QKSLw

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