How education systems can support the integration of refugee children

By Lucie Cerna

Analyst, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

The ongoing refugee crisis has put many OECD countries under considerable pressure to accommodate and integrate large numbers of asylum seekers. From 2010 to 2017, the refugee population in OECD countries more than tripled, rising from 2 million to 6.4 million. A number of policies have been enacted to address this crisis, but many have failed to distinguish between immigrants and refugees, overlooking important differences that have major implications – particularly for children.

Refugee and asylum-seeking children face more obstacles than children with an immigrant background, including disrupted or minimal prior education. They must also deal with disrupted family networks, insecure housing, poverty, negative stereotypes and trauma – all while learning a new language and adjusting to a significantly different culture. Refugee children are easily overlooked in official statistics, as well. An estimated 12 million children around the world were living as refugees or asylum-seekers in 2016, yet the real number of children driven from their homes is likely significantly higher due to gaps in reporting and data collection. These gaps may limit the opportunity to inform policy development and offer effective support services.

A new working paper offers insights into the needs of refugee students, and proposes a holistic model for their integration in education. The paper notes that refugee children have a variety of learning, social and emotional needs that must be addressed in order for integration to be successful. It also highlights policies and practices that can respond to these needs.

Refugee children face a wide array of unique challenges when they arrive in their new country. They need to learn the language of their host country, overcome interrupted or limited schooling, and adjust to a new education system. They also need to be able to communicate with others, feel a sense of belonging and develop a strong personal identity. Refugee children need to feel safe, and must be able to cope with loss, grief, separation and trauma.

Schools and education systems can address these needs by adopting a tailored holistic model for refugee integration. Our model shows that refugee children can be integrated into education systems if all (or at least most of) their learning, social and emotional needs are addressed. The prevalence of these needs depends on various individual, interpersonal and institutional (school-level) factors, which, in turn, are shaped by a range of targeted policies and practices.

An important policy response to addressing the needs of refugee students is to provide access to education at all levels (especially pre-primary and post-secondary). Luxembourg, for instance, has extended multilingual education programmes to early childhood education, while Sweden allows immigrants between the ages of 18 and 25 to extend their temporary residence permit for the duration of their upper secondary school studies.

Ultimately, the integration of refugee students in education can only be promoted through a holistic model.

Other responses could involve providing refugee children with academic support from teachers and other professionals, assessing their skills and language abilities, offering relevant language support and providing a positive learning environment. Australian schools in Sydney, Wagga Wagga, and Southern New South Wales, for instance, have benefited from Refugee Action Support (RAS), a programme that combines tutoring for new arrivals with professional development for student teachers. With a focus on late literacy and numeracy learning, RAS empowers pre-service teachers to assist refugee students with homework and to support their studies in secondary school.

Policies and practices to address the social needs of refugee students are important, as well. These can include providing refugee children with opportunities to engage in social activities and community building, engaging in identity formation, and involving schools and communities in integration efforts. The international Kaleidoscope Cultures and Identity Programme, for example, is geared toward young refugees between the ages of 14 and 24. The programme seeks to explore the impact of living in a new culture and break down social isolation, alienation and dislocation. It also aims to build trust, bonding and an understanding of others, promote self-esteem and identity, and build a vision of the future through shared experiences.

Finally, it is crucial to develop and implement policies and practices that address the emotional needs of refugee students. For instance, the Pharos programme in the Netherlands and in the United Kingdom highlights the difficulties refugee children face, and strengthens peer support systems by offering opportunities to share their stories and experiences with other children. The programme also fosters teacher support for refugee children, and strengthens the coping ability and resilience of refugee children.

Ultimately, the integration of refugee students in education can only be promoted through a holistic model that addresses their learning, social and emotional needs. It is time to rethink current approaches to refugee integration, and to adopt a whole-child perspective that involves all stakeholders.

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