Populist leaders in Europe may be playing to people’s fears, but the dystopian future they portray could become a reality if governments do not integrate refugees. When refugee children are not in education, a country’s economy, social cohesion and even national security may suffer.
The U.N. refugee agency recently outlined a plan to integrate refugees more efficiently. The Global Compact on Refugees (GCR), which should be adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in September, emphasizes that refugees should be integrated into national systems, including for education. The theory is that by channeling refugee support through national systems, rather than creating short-term parallel services, refugees will boost, rather than burden, the countries where they live.
The final draft of the GCR underscores the need to expand access to primary, secondary and higher education and to reduce refugee children’s time out of school to a maximum of three months. In 2016, according to the UNHCR’s latest report on education, 3.5 million refugee children were out of school. The European Parliament recently estimated that it can take several months for some refugees to access education in parts of Greece and Hungary.
This approach is welcome in theory, but comes with a pitfall: National systems are often entrenched in their ways and slow to adopt new techniques. For integration to be successful, the international community must invest in building the capacity of national systems, before fully relying on them to adequately deliver education services for refugees.
Looking at the experience of several countries shows the extent of the problem. In Europe, where nearly one-third of new asylum seekers last year were under 18, refugee education varies greatly. There is no common E.U. policy on refugee education, and some countries have decentralized national systems where education policies vary across school districts within the same country.
National systems are often entrenched in their ways and slow to adopt new techniques.
A recent report noted that few European countries specifically address the educational needs of children whose studies were interrupted before arriving in Europe. Of the 14 E.U. countries examined by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights in the report, nine have immigration detention centers with no education facilities; and in four countries refugees have no access to formal education in some regions.
In Italy, for example, refugee children have access to integration programs. Yet schools rely on programs designed for foreign students, rather than developing new support systems tailored to the specific circumstances of refugees, which may include exposure to trauma and family separation.
In Germany, the E.U. country with the largest number of Syrian refugees, the education system separates students early on into different education tracks, based on achievement. The majority of refugee children, like long-standing immigrant children, are channeled into a less prestigious vocational education track, which requires an apprenticeship at the age of 16. Refugees are often disadvantaged when applying for these training programs because of limited fluency in German and the need to renew their residence permits every six months. In addition, the current system may overlook gifted students who do not enter more prestigious educational tracks.
Turkey hosts the largest number of child refugees in the world, more than 1.2 million in 2017. Turkey provides several avenues for refugee education, including integration into public schools, “transitional education centers” (TECs) within camps and schools run by NGOs and local communities. Yet the reality remains that over 40 percent of school-aged Syrians were out of school for the academic year 2016–17.
Failing to integrate refugee children risks devastating consequences: Children and youth who are out of school and unemployed are more susceptible to crime, exploitation, abuse and possibly radicalization. Conversely, ensuring better education and employment for refugees can have a positive impact on countries’ economies.
To achieve the goals of the Global Compact, national education ministries will need support to take the following steps.
First, they should start collecting data on refugee children and assess the capacity of schools and education districts to absorb refugees. By specifically measuring refugee children’s access to and performance in schools, ministries will be able to better tailor policies and projects to refugees’ needs.
Second, they should provide support packages to schools that enroll significant numbers of refugees. The GCR-mandated three-month period to integrate refugee children will remain an unrealistic goal unless schools receive funds to expand their facilities to accommodate the increased number of students. These support packages need to include guidelines for teachers on education expectations and teaching students who are not native speakers and may suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Ensuring better education and employment for refugees can have a positive impact on countries’ economies.
Third, they should develop and encourage mentorship programs for students and families. Refugee parents often are not able to support their children’s learning to the same extent they used to in their home countries. Partnering locals with refugee families can help refugee children acquire language skills faster and help refugee families learn about available education options. Grassroots, peer-to-peer mentorship between local and refugee students can also help them master the local language and navigate the education system.
Fourth, they should encourage experience-sharing across school districts. Schools that successfully integrate refugees could share their practices and partner with schools that lag behind. For example, Berlin, a city accustomed to sociocultural diversity, integrates refugee students into regular classes with a higher degree of success than elsewhere in Germany. Education officials from other education districts often make trips to Berlin to learn about the ways that the capital manages migrant students. Schools in other countries could benefit from similar exchanges under the coordination of national education ministries.
Lastly, we must develop effective national and international evaluation and monitoring mechanisms to track improved access to education for refugee children.
These recommendations are not new. However, education ministries and schools have implemented them sparsely and selectively. We need a concerted push for these reforms at the community, national and international level. The alternative is grim, not only for refugee children but for every one of us. Without them, the Global Compact will remain a document with ambitious goals but no practical application, and the dystopian predictions of the populists will only increase. With them, this fearmongering can be disproved, and refugee children can become productive contributors to the countries in which they live.
The views expressed in this article are the authors’ and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.