Refugee children: What is keeping them out of schools?

The Easter break is over and most pupils across Europe are now back to school. Sadly, school is just a distant memory for some of the 1 million children who have applied for asylum in Europe since 2015. No classroom, no homework and no playground for up to 4 years! Those children need to be sent back to school now!

European Institutions should ensure that Members States comply with the EU law.

Between 2015 and 2017, more than 3 million persons applied for asylum in the EU. A third were minors under 18 years. For them, education is a human right secured by several international conventions and European legislations. The EU’s Qualification Directive guarantees a full access to education for all minor beneficiaries of international protection, under the same conditions as nationals (mainstream curriculum), while its Reception Conditions Directive provides asylum seeker children with an access under similar conditions as national pupils (including parallel curriculum) within three months of lodging their application. Host countries have to comply with these legislations ASAP.

The vast majority of refugee children have already lost around 2,5 years of education when they arrive to Europe. You would think that they will be better off once they reach our borders. Wrong! Transfers from one refugee camp to another, lengthy asylum processes, absurd conditions and bureaucratic delays can add up to 4 years. They are kept out of schools for far too long without any justified reason and in total violation EU legislations. A new research report published by the Sirius network highlights the following common barriers:

Delays in the asylum (or relocation) process are common in Greece where children are stranded in one of the islands for several months and in Hungary where families spend months in transit zones, with no access to any kind of systematic education. When they finally move to respectively the mainland or a reception centre, they are likely to catch up with regular classes with very little support or attend a segregated school. In 2016, Greece launched a programme that provides special Greek classes to non-native pupils which has been progressively extended to asylum-seeking children under 15 since October 2017.

Age of compulsory education is another decisive factor, as children over 15 or 16 are not systematically enrolled. In some German Länder for example, young refugees might be denied the right to general education once they reach the age of 16 whereas there are no barriers for pupils at primary school or first secondary classes age.

Prospect of recognition also plays a role in the educational integration of minor age asylum seekers in Germany. Children from “safe countries” or with low perspectives for a long-term residence are accommodated in centres where schooling is at a minimum level. This implies a violation of Art. 28 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Lack of housing in urban areas in France (and transfers from centre to centre in Germany) as well as inappropriate transportation prevents refugee kids from attending classes regularly and puts them at a greater risk of dropping out of education. In Italy and in the Netherlands, issues might arise with the continuity of education throughout the asylum procedure, given that families change accommodations (thus schools) rather frequently. In Germany, due to the high numbers of arrivals in 2015/16, families stay in emergency accommodation for prolonged periods of time, which results in 7 to 8 months of non-school attendance.

Family situation can lead to double punishment for unaccompanied minors. Fleeing their home country, wandering months without knowing where to sleep at night and finally seeking asylum in another country is extremely difficult for children. Some are protected by their parents along the way, but others travel alone, making them vulnerable to all kinds of exploitation and abuse. For these unaccompanied minors, the process of resuming education takes even longer than for children with families: they firstly need to be appointed a tutor, even in countries such as Italy where children are more likely to continue their education without further major delays. This injustice has to stop. Sending unaccompanied minors back to school ASAP will protect from those risks.

Limited capacity prevents schools from offering extra support to learn the national language and catch up with the curriculum. Ad hoc initiatives are taken by civil society organisations to keep them busy and MOOCs are being implemented to bridge education gaps but like in a lottery, the destiny of these children largely depends on the places they are relocated to, available resources or the generosity of individual teachers.

All these barriers often demotivate refugee children and result in high rates of school drop-outs. The issue of refugee children integration in national education systems has repeatedly been raised since the beginning of the “crisis” in 2015. A study conducted in 2016 by the Migration Policy Group identifies their special needs and formulated recommendations. In 2017, a Sirius policy brief explained what it takes for refugee children to be successful in schools. But for them to perform well, refugee children first have to be included in schools, without the current unjustified delays and within three months following their first entry in the EU; as provided for by the EU legislation.

This process of integration currently depends on countries’ interpretation of “ensuring full access to education”. The EU legislation indeed allows Member States to organise classes separately from the mainstream curriculum and requires them to provide preparatory and language classes to facilitate asylum seeker children’s access to education but does not further clarify the organisational terms and quality of these classes. Consequently, support language courses for example can keep pupils out of school for prolonged periods. And so does many otherwise positive measures such as health checks and vaccination campaigns.

Therefore, in addition to ensuring compliance of current EU legislation, European Institutions should make the education of underaged refugees a priority of the new Common European Asylum System, with clear rules for all Member States.