The current migrant crisis in the European Union has become a daily news item on which everyone seems to have an opinion. From people protesting against the opening of new asylum centers to people opening their homes to take care of refugees in their own households, ways of dealing with the crisis differ widely. You can be pro or contra open borders, but the question remains as to how to deal with the entering migrants. In this article we will take a closer look at a particular group of those migrants, namely asylum seeking children, and their right to education. We will first consider different concepts and legal definitions, before looking at European practices. To conclude we zoom in on the situation in Flanders. (Featured Image ©UNESCO)
Since 2012, Josien Jense teaches Dutch to migrants and asylum seeking children of 12 to 18 years old in the center of Antwerp. She does this at the Sint-Lodewijk Secondary School for Trade, where a campus for new arriving children has been established.
Migrants, Asylum Seekers, Refugees
In the media the terms ‘migrant’, ‘asylum seeker’ and ‘refugee’ are often used interchangeably. However, it is important to understand the difference between refugees and other migrants. ‘Migrants’ is a general term referring to persons leaving or fleeing their habitual residence to go to new places, seeking opportunities or safer and better prospects.1 Refugees are those who flee armed conflict or persecution and who received the distinct legal status of refugee.2 While migrants often make a conscious decision to move for economic or other reasons, refugees are forced to leave their countries out of danger for their lives.3 The 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees sets out the legal definition of a refugee.4 It has been signed by 147 countries5, including all EU member states.6 Its provision are implemented through the national legislation of each country.7
While migrants often make a conscious decision to move for economic or other reasons, refugees are forced to leave their countries out of danger for their lives.
The European Union makes a clear distinction between asylum seekers and refugees. As explained on the website of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles8, asylum seekers are persons submitting a request for refugee status, which will not be granted unless the Member States decide they qualify, according to a defined legal procedure. This means someone fleeing from war will only be considered a refugee once his or her request for this legal status has been accepted. A different specific group of migrants are unaccompanied minors. This is a relatively small group, but relevant for our article. The term refers to minors arriving on the territory of the Member States unaccompanied by an adult responsible for him or her.9 Unaccompanied minors arriving on EU territory do not always apply for asylum.10 They can come to the EU for a number of reasons, such as to escape from war, but also as victims of trafficking in human beings destined from exploitation.11
The ECRE underlines that until recently, EU Member States had a large degree of sovereignty over the way migrants, asylum seekers and refugees were treated.12 Conditions and benefits for asylum seekers and refugees therefore varied widely in each EU Member State. The first steps towards a common system have been taken with the Common European Asylum System and the new Asylum Procedures Directive, creating a coherent institution which ensures that all Member States examine applications with a common high-quality standard.13 With the new Reception Conditions Directive, which came into force on 21 July 2015, the standards of reception conditions for asylum seekers waiting for a decision on their application have been improved and harmonized throughout the Union.14
Education, a Human Right
In spite of all these definitions and legal procedures, the media continues to show many heated debates on how to deal with the arrival of asylum seekers. Whether the reception conditions for asylum seekers are really that much improved and harmonized in all the EU Member States, is questionable. The numbers of migrants arriving in the EU are higher than anyone expected. In August 2015, only in one month time, there have been 125.025 new asylum applicants.15 As this number only shows those persons who have started the asylum procedure, the actual number of arriving migrants might be much higher. Amidst all the confusion caused by the migrant crisis, we should not forget that an important percentage of those refugees and migrants are children. There are no clear numbers on the current number of child asylum applicants, but the UNHCR states that almost half of the worlds forcibly displaced people are minors.16 What happens to their fundamental human right to education?17 This question is regularly asked by education advocates such as Malala Yousafzai, who at the recent UN Sustainable Development Summit asked world leaders to promise that every child will have the right to safe, free and quality primary and secondary education.18
What happens to their fundamental human right to education?
On the right to education for refugees, the Geneva Convention states the following:
- The Contracting States shall accord to refugees the same treatment as is accorded to nationals with respect to elementary education.
- The Contracting States shall accord to refugees treatment as favorable as possible, and, in any event, not less favorable than that accorded to aliens generally in the same circumstances, with respect to education other than elementary education and, in particular, as regards access to studies, the recognition of foreign school certificates, diplomas and degrees, the remission of fees and charges and the award of scholarships.19
The statement on elementary education is clear, refugees receive the same treatment as nationals. The second statement is less clear, leaving room for debate on what ‘a treatment not less favorable than that accorded to aliens generally in the same circumstances’ exactly is. Furthermore, as The Convention is only applicable for children who already received the status of refugee, it remains unclear what rights children can claim while they are still waiting for an answer in their asylum procedure. Luckily, as from July 2015, the following rules on education stipulated in the new Reception Conditions Directive are applicable in all EU Member States:
- Member States shall grant to minor children of applicants and to applicants who are minors access to the education system under similar conditions as their own nationals for so long as an expulsion measure against them or their parents is not actually enforced. Such education may be provided in accommodation centers. The Member State concerned may stipulate that such access must be confined to the State education system. Member States shall not withdraw secondary education for the sole reason that the minor has reached the age of majority.
- Access to the education system shall not be postponed for more than three months from the date on which the application for international protection was lodged by or on behalf of the minor. Preparatory classes, including language classes, shall be provided to minors where it is necessary to facilitate their access to and participation in the education system as set out in paragraph 1.
- Where access to the education system as set out in paragraph 1 is not possible due to the specific situation of the minor, the Member State concerned shall offer other education arrangements in accordance with its national law and practice.20
Those sound like clear conditions, although the last part leaves open room for national variations. As we mentioned, these rules came into force on the 21st of July 2015. It raises the question as to whether all national education systems turn out to be really adapted to confront the crisis and integrate the increasing number of asylum seeking children.
Examples of European Practices
Since the new Directive only recently came into being, there are no studies yet on the practice of education for asylum seeking children in EU Member States following the new rules. There are however interesting works on this subject from previous years, such as the studies assembled in the handbook on ‘Integrating Refugee and Asylum Seeking Children in the Educational Systems of EU Member States’ from 2012, by the Center for the Study of Democracy.21 It presents a review of the best practices in thirty-two countries, which enables generalizations on the overall developments of policy and practice in the educational integration of refugee and asylum seeking children in the EU.22 The authors establish that at the time of the research, countries varied enormously in their rate of granting protection to refugee and asylum seeking children and in the types of protection they grant, despite the efforts of the EU to harmonize asylum policies.23 Policies of individual countries may curtail a child’s right to education, and even when they grant the right, it may not be respected by those entrusted with the implementation.24
Policies of individual countries may curtail a child’s right to education, and even when they grant the right, it may not be respected by those entrusted with the implementation.
Considering the different ways in which the right to education is translated into policies, the handbook discerns two clusters of countries.25 The first cluster guarantees all immigrants the same educational opportunities as national citizens. This cluster includes Belgium and the Netherlands.26 The second cluster offers differentiated access to education, creating obstacles in the access to education according to the legal status of the migrant child. In this group we find for example the Czech Republic and Hungary, but also Germany and Sweden. Some of these countries create financial barriers to education by excluding asylum seeking children from public schools, or restrict access by creating limited availability in the few school which accept them.27 Considering the variety in national policies, the authors observe that policies are influenced by the size of migrant flows and the history of migration in the country.28 This notwithstanding, the decisive factor is political voluntarism. The responsibility for introducing and changing policies is assumed by the elites, and good or bad practices may disappear with changes of government. In an environment of restrictive policies, agents of integration such as teachers, volunteers and NGO activists play a crucial role in remedying the shortcomings of the state system.29
The Flemish System
In Flanders, the government introduced in 1991 policies to improve education and integration for migrant children.30 Over the years, this resulted in the creation of reception classes for foreign newcomers where they can learn Dutch in one, or in some cases two years before enrolling in regular classes. All migrants older than 5 and younger than 18 years old who have been living in Belgium for less than a year can sign up for these reception classes.31 This means access is open to all migrants and not limited to children who have already received a legal status. In primary schools, the migrants already follow some hours with children in regular classes.32 In secondary schools, the children only follow separate classes, sometimes in separate school buildings, concentrating on language and integration. They form very heterogeneous groups. A 17-year old migrant from Brazil who moved here because of his father’s job, can be sitting next to a 12-year old refugee from Syria. There can be unaccompanied minors, traumatized war victims, and illiterate children who have never been to school, all in the same classroom.
There can be unaccompanied minors, traumatized war victims, and illiterate children who have never been to school, all in the same classroom.
It is clear that qualitative education for asylum seeking children represents a challenge. One would imagine that teachers working with these children received specialized training, but generally this is not the case. Furthermore, the number of schools offering reception classes is limited. Regarding secondary education, at this moment there are 15 schools in the whole of Flanders.33 Considering the increasing number of asylum applicants, this will possibly turn out insufficient. It is important that education remains accessible to all migrants, as it contributes to integration, the overcoming of the marginalization of vulnerable groups, combating poverty and developing the full potential of pupils.34 Hilde Crevits, the Flemish minister of Education, recognizes this importance, as she recently promised more financial means for the reception classes in elementary schools.35 The government also plans to relax the rules on the organization of reception classes by secondary schools.36 The future will have to show if these measures are adequate enough to tackle the growing influx of migrant children and guarantee them the human right to education.