The refugee crisis: Thinking globally, operating locally


  • Education
  • Global
  • Social justice

The refugee crisis is one of the most pressing global issues we face today. The UNHCR found that at the end of 2015 there were 63.5 million refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced people across the world. Whilst national governments are often slow to respond to this, the number of displaced people continues to rise making this an ever deepening and urgent issue.

Many might associate the refugee crisis with the haunting images of displaced people travelling across the Mediterranean by boat, but the reality of refugees and migration is far more nuanced and complex. 86% of refugees live in a country that neighbours their conflict-affected country of origin. For example, Turkey currently hosts 2.5 million refugees, higher than any other country globally, and Lebanon’s population has increased by 30% since 2011, hosting the highest number of refugees per capita of any country.

Unsurprisingly, the level of educational provision for refugee young people is often significantly disrupted, despite the fact that education is stated as a high priority by conflict-affected children and parents. Within refugee camps, humanitarian aid constitutes just 2% of education funding which is even more worrying when considering that the average length of time spent in refugee camps is seventeen years. Mainstream schools often struggle to accommodate children who come from different educational backgrounds and who may not speak the language. Teachers also struggle to provide adequate provision for refugee pupils, particularly those still suffering from traumas teachers and fellow students may not understand. To further exacerbate the issue, media representations of refugees play a key role in shaping public perceptions and the simplistic view of refugees often contributes to refugee students being seen as ‘a problem’ before even entering the school.

Concerns of a refugee family can also be significant, particularly when birth certificates and written records of previous enrolment are required to register into a new school. Additionally if a family is struggling to establish and maintain a steady income, they may reluctantly choose for their child to work to help support the family income over staying in school. The multitude of obstacles faced by both refugee families and schools welcoming refugees face are clear. Not least because for a refugee family, new to a country, education is just one of several factors to consider and obstacles to overcome.

Although these issues stem from a global crisis, it is the response of urban areas that many displaced families arrive to that matter. According to a report by Eurocities, cities are often the first points of arrival for refugees. At least 60% of the world’s refugees are in urban areas owing to more opportunities for work and the fact that cities are often multicultural and more accepting of outsiders. Additionally while national governments can be slow and out of sync with need of refugees in their country, larger cities can sometimes be more responsive and willing to accommodate. Given that make up of cities is changing more dramatically due to the migration of displaced people, what is the responsibility of a city to respond to this as well as the opportunity? Moreover, how can learning and education be a tool of stability and empowerment for refugee young people?  

An RSA- ECIS Research Investigation: How can a city come together to transform learning outcomes for refugee children and young people?

Responding to this context, the RSA are currently embarking on a research investigation, in collaboration with ECIS, that looks at how the skills and expertise of different players within a city can be mobilised to best support the educational and psychosocial needs of refugee young people. In the context of uncertainty, budget cuts and limited resources, how can a city act pragmatically for refugee young people through collaboration and innovation?

This is a vast and nuanced area to interrogate and so we will use Athens as a case study for this research. Athens is a city that has seen over 850,000 refugees arrive by sea in 2015 and almost 160,000 refugees arrive since the start of 2016. The majority of refugees arriving in Greece in 2015 had intended to travel onwards to make asylum claims elsewhere. However with the recent closure of Northern borders, many refugees are staying and making an asylum claim in Greece. The Greek government is in the process of making plans to integrate refugee children and young people into mainstream education. And against the backdrop of significant cuts to school budgets, there are also multiple informal education programmes and initiatives emerging, led by diverse groups such as individuals from refugee groups, corporate companies, the voluntary sector and international volunteers. This shifting context provides a fitting opportunity to consider how a city-wide approach can incorporate players from within and beyond the education system to support and implement refugee education in unstable conditions.

Throughout the course of the investigation we will consider the following:

  • Which skills and expertise within a city can be mobilised to best support the educational and psychosocial needs of refugee children and young people?

  • How can a city-wide approach towards educating refugee children and young people help change public perceptions around refugees and promote positive integration?

  • How might a Cities of Learning approach support the educational needs of refugee children and young people, considering their often transitory status?

  • Which existing models of teacher training, curriculum design and pedagogy can we learn from and mobilise to influence practice?

  • How can the skills of adult refugees best be harnessed and developed to improve learning outcomes for young people?

We will hold a summit in Athens in November in collaboration with ECIS, WISE and ACS Athens which will convene practitioners, community leaders, social entrepreneurs and policymakers from Greece and the surrounding areas. We hope this work will help facilitate new partnerships, initiate practical actions and develop recommendations to support and implement refugee education, building on the many initiatives already taking place. Our aim is to use Athens as a case study in order to inform the approaches of other cities in Europe around the world who are facing similar challenges as a result of the current global situation. 

In the week of the UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants, where Obama and many other senior leaders discuss how to create more effective and responsive systems to large movements of refugees and migrants, these discussions need to consider both the micro and macro. Because it is only though empowerment and support at a local level that different players within a city can feel equipped to design and deliver solutions that suit their city and their people best.

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