Afghan migrant children in Oinofyta, Greece, wait for their English class to start. Photo: UNESCO
Afghan migrant children in Oinofyta, Greece, wait for their English class to start. Photo: UNESCO

Detention centres, parallel education programs and segregation… A new report from UNESCO shows that many countries aren’t doing enough to include migrant and refugee children in their national education systems.

Since the year 2000, the number of migrant and refugee school-age children has increased by 26 percent. Worldwide, school-aged migrants and refugees could fill half a million classrooms.

Unfortunately, many of those classrooms haven’t been made available by these children's host countries. According to a report released by UNESCO on November 20, the right to an education "is challenged daily in classrooms and schoolyards and denied outright by a few governments." In the past two years, these children have missed a total of 1.5 billion school days, the UN body said.

When looking at Europe, the report took special aim at Italy, where 73 percent of the 86,000 children who arrived in the country between 2011 and 2016 were unaccompanied minors, noting that "only a minority of unaccompanied minors regularly attend school." The report also pointed to Hungary and Austria, where asylum-seeking children in detention are given very limited access to education.

Austria and Hungary are among the six European countries (also including Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Poland, and Croatia) that have opted out of signing the UN’s "Global Compact for Migration," which is aimed at improving education for migrants and refugees.

Separating migrant children from other children

Another point of concern, UNESCO said, is the parallel education systems that some countries have set up for refugees, separating migrant and refugee children from native pupils. The report stated that although setting up seperate classes and even schools might seem natural for some countries when faced with an influx of migrants, it is simply "wrong." There is no reason for why migrant children can’t be schooled alongside their host-country peers, the agency lambasted.

"Some education systems treat immigrants and refugees as temporary or transient populations, different from natives. This is wrong; it impedes their academic progress, socialisation and future opportunities, and undermines progress towards diverse, cohesive societies," the report said, citing several cases in Afghanistan and Pakistan where migrant and refugee children "can only get an education in separate, non-formal, community-based or private schools, some of which are not certified."

In the case of Lebanon and Jordan, which host the largest number of refugees per capita, the lack of necessary resources have resulted in a severe school building shortage, making quality education more difficult to provide even if the host-countries wanted to. "Low and middle income countries host 89 percent of refugees but lack funds to cope," the report said, adding that this has resulted in many schools setting up "separate morning and afternoon school shifts for citizen and refugee children, which limits interaction between the two groups."

But the report also contained praise. Turkey, for example, which hosts some 3.5 million refugees, has committed to including all refugees in its national education system by 2020, meaning all children are set to be given the same opportunities to attend school.

Quality reserved for better neighbourhoods

UNESCO also pointed to what it called the "residential segregation" problem, a development that more often than not has resulted in the "education segregation" of many migrant children. Poorer performing schools are often situated in neighborhoods where the migrant children tend to live, whereas the better performing schools, tend to be located in the more well-off areas, where the country’s native children live.  

In Germany, an analysis of 108 primary school catchment areas in four districts of Berlin showed that in one out of five schools, the number of immigrant-background students enrolled was double the number living in the area. And in Italy, a 2010 circular set a classroom maximum of 30 percent first-generation immigrants. In practice, however, 17 percent of primary classrooms exceeded that limit. And in France, the report said, children born to non-European migrant parents were five times as likely to go to schools located in disadvantaged neighbourhoods.

Lacking proper documents

Many host country’s require migrant children to provide specific documents in order to enroll - another obstacle facing non-native students. In Cyprus and Slovakia, this problem has even been taken a step further, since schools there are obliged to report families without valid documentation to the immigration authorities. UNESCO said that even in cases when a host-country’s laws allow for the enrollment of migrant children who lack the standard documentation, discriminatory practices have been noted on both local and national levels.  

UNESCO also cited teacher shortages, especially that of qualified teachers, as a one of the main reasons for why many countries fail to provide migrant children with the same quality education they give their own children. Turkey, for example, would have to hire 80,000 more teachers if all the Syrian school-age children that now live there would enroll in school. And Germany needs at least 18,000 more educators and 24,000 more teachers to make its national school system more inclusive. But teaching migrant and refugee children requires special skills, and far from all teachers have been equipped to handle such students, UNESCO said. In the past two years, just 55 percent of Lebanon’s teachers and staff have been trained to deal with overcrowded, mixed-age or multilingual classrooms.


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