The United Nations framework classifies inclusive and equitable education as one major Sustainable Development Goal due to its importance in ensuring peace, mutual respect and integration. Additionally, access to free primary education for all children is a human rights obligation stemming from the European Convention on Human Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Refugee Convention.
Taking into account the astonishing numbers of children asylum-seekers in Europe (grossly, over one-third of asylum applications for 2016 consisted of children from which a significant amount refers to unaccompanied minors) it is of pivotal importance to assess the degree of school attendance for refugee children in primary, secondary and tertiary education. This article attempts to present current data concerning the status of education for refugee children and identify shortcomings in state’s policies and initiatives in order to enforce future policy-making. The focus of this research will be narrowed within the EU context and is based on the latest report of the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights on migration situation in the EU.
A first point worth noting from this report, is that the majority of member states possessed concrete data in regards to refugee children participating in some form of education. However, no distinctions were made between different groups of persons and specific regions, and there was no consideration for children participating in vocational or training initiatives. Another common issue that all member states concern is children present in immigration detention facilities. Due to the indeterminate status of their situation and the presumably short length of their stay many member states neglect the access of refugee children to formal education. As an alternative, informal activities of education provided by NGOs seems to be the rule in immigration detention facilities. However, the United Nations Framework for Juveniles Deprived of their Liberty declares in Article 38 that children are entitled to access community schools outside the detention facilities which are administered by qualified teachers. Moreover, teachers should attribute special attention to any cultural, cognitive and linguistic particularities children may have.
An often neglected aspect of education concerns the provision for early childhood education programmes. It has been noted that encouraging children to participate in early childhood programmes is the best approach to guarantee consistent success at school and mitigate the chances of future drop-outs. Although exceptions as is the case of Austria where no substantial difficulties have been reported in the integration of refugee children in early childhood programmes (It has been reported that the last year of kindergarten in Austria is compulsory), multiple member states encounter difficulties in achieving this objective. Reportedly, long waiting periods to enter childcare facilities, difficulties in regards to the distance and accessibility of these facilities, the language barrier that exists between children of such a young age and insufficient funding to facilitate the participation of these children to early childhood programmes have been identified as the main hindrances.
Another aspect that is considered as essential in regards to ensuring a satisfactory level of education to refugee children is the existence of preparatory classes. Taking into account the prior situation of refugee children and the circumstances that render the prospect of unhindered school attendance in their country of origin impossible, it should be reasonably expected that many children will have special educational needs. The problems that arise are twofold and concern firstly the fact that a discrepancy between the actual age of children and their current level of school education exists. Additionally, many children might find themselves above the threshold of compulsory education age, therefore being deprived of their unconditional right to free education. Surpassing the compulsory age threshold does not however signify that children have obtained the necessary education. As eluded already, it is common for refugee children that their basic school knowledge lacks substantial aspects due to improper provision of education for them at an earlier age.
Having said that, it is fortunate that member states almost in their totality have adopted particular measures in order to address the specific educational needs of refugee children. However, the majority of these additional support classes focuses on language proficiency. As children often lack basic knowledge in a multitude of essential areas due to lost years of proper education, it is plausible that the specific educational needs of children shall not be restricted solely to familiarizing children with the native language. To the contrary, a need for further personification and adaptation of specific classes in reference to specific needs and gaps of knowledge that children may have shall be a priority. As a positive example, the educational centre LEDU was initiated in February 2017 in the Greek island of Leros. LEDU was designed to provide daily additional support for almost 80 children while the courses provided include Greek, English, Mathematics, Geography, Art and computing. Additionally the courses are carried out by qualified Greek teachers while members of the refugee community as well as Greek students are invited to participate in these classes.
In regards to other challenges that affect the integration of refugee children to the education system, it has been mentioned that many children are unmotivated to follow the education curriculum consistently due to the indeterminacy of their situation. Notably, many students consider the place in which they find themselves as a transition country and thus do not invest an effort to actually learn the new language. Consequently, high turnover rates impede the ability of students to follow the educational programmes. Moreover, one should be reminiscent of the tough and often traumatic situations that refugee children have faced in order to reach Europe. Many of these children had to face the violence of losing intimate family members, surviving smuggling operations, and lastly residing in an uncertain and often hostile environment. Not surprisingly, a huge amount of psychosocial support is required in order to cultivate resilience and faith in the mentality of these traumatized children. As a consequence the education process should respect the circumstances that these children face and adjust its pace to children’s needs and capacities.
Concluding, although most member states in the EU are aware of the need to ensure proper education to refugee children, the current education framework is inadequate from many perspectives. Issues pertaining to lack of consistent data and evidence to inform policy-making as well as lack of adequate teaching programmes that would incorporate the specific needs and knowledge gaps of refugee children are recurrent to most member states. On the other hand, proper management of human personnel and financial resources is a prerequisite for a succesful education framework. Lastly, the uncertainty that accompanies the situation of refugee children remains a significant hindrance to the integration of refugee children to education systems. Certainly, in order for children to thrive and develop themselves intellectually and mentally, a stable, inclusive and open society that is ready to embrace them in spite of cultural, religious and ethnic differences should be the top priority of the European Union while assessing the assimilation process of refugee children.