Barbara Janta and Milda Butkute / Oct 2018
As summer drew to a close, most children headed back to school. Ensuring children are enrolled, have all their books and supplies needed for classes, are signed up for extracurricular activities, and are back in their school routine can be both exciting and exhausting for children and parents.
But, imagine if your child was unable to start school in September. This is the reality for many migrant children who have arrived in the EU over recent years.
In 2017, 650,000 people applied for asylum in the EU, of which 31 per cent were children under the age of 18. Of these minors, 13 per cent were unaccompanied by a caregiver. The numbers were at a much higher level in 2015 and 2016 when the refugee crisis started in Europe. Still, the 2017 figures are more than two and a half times higher than the annual average during the period 2008-2013.
As summarised in the European Platform for Investing in Children’s recent policy memo, access to education is one of the fundamental children’s rights and is guaranteed under a variety of legal and policy frameworks. Education is also vital for helping children integrate into their new community as participation in educational activities helps improve language skills and social cohesion among young people, combats child poverty and fosters participation in the host society.
Yet, attending school programmes remains a challenge for many of the unaccompanied minors across Europe. For instance, enrolment of many migrant children to public schools can be delayed between three to six months in various member states, migrant children do not receive additional language support or they do not have opportunities to interact with local children as they are required to attend schools in separate classes for an undetermined period of time.
However, there are also positive examples of practices supporting migrant children and unaccompanied minors. Some approaches focus on teachers and teaching, such as the UNICEF supported programmes created to train teachers to work with refugees and migrant children in Croatia, or the introduction of ‘cultural mediators’ to assist children with their community engagement in the UK. There are also preparatory classes offered for learning the host country’s language in the Netherlands, Sweden, Germany and France. These classes aim to ease the transitional period and are a step towards preparing migrant children to continue their education.
Wider approaches focused on informal education are also carried out across European countries aiming to help faster integration of migrant children into host country’s communities and to prepare the children for independent adulthood. These services range from guardianship to mentoring programmes. A project run by SOS Children Villages in Sweden offers educational services such as workshops, information sessions or homework support. Informal programmes are also run for families and in the community centres where group activities encourage the building of new skills and a sense of belonging. One such example is an after-school programme for children at reception centres in the Netherlands that provides recreational and educational activities to help children expand their areas of interest and build relationships with others, particularly with the local community.
Yet, despite many approaches and initiatives adopted across the EU, a number of challenges remain concerning the development of effective long-term measures for migrant children. Ensuring that migrant children will not face a sustained gap in their education in their transition to adulthood will require more effort. Our actions towards migrant children are the litmus test of the European education systems. How we will perform depends on us.