Integrating the most vulnerable: education of refugee children in EU



Anna Krasteva&Elinor brown_Migration&Eduction_Cover_FinalFinal

Transform the luck of the few into the right of all.

Katarina Tomasevski,

special rapporteur on the right to education of the UN commission on human rights (1998 – 20040, founder of the Right to Education Project

I like my school. I really like my school”, shares an eight-year-old girl from Congo in Ireland.This spontaneous and joyous statement is wonderful expression of a successful educational integration. Children, as well as theoreticians and policy-makers, know what successful integration feels like. What children are not supposed to know is how to achieve it. The paradox is that adults in their institutional roles as theoreticians, politicians, and stakeholders cannot offer a definitive and convincing answer to this fundamental question but hesitate between varieties of perspectives. The term perspective is understood as a “looking at the field from a different angle and thus asking different questions, taking other units of analysis as a starting point and collecting new kinds of empirical material” (Pennix, Spenser and Van Hear 2008, p. 11).

The answers vary synchronically and diachronically, between the poles of multiculturalism and non-differentialism, as well as from one period to another. A second paradox is that as a general rule theories are better equipped than policies, the latter being not prepared, not willing, or not ready, to apply knowledge into practice. This is not the case of integration: both policies and theories vacillate, experiment, fail, and develop.

Two methodological preliminaries should be clarified: the first concerns the triangle concepts – realities – normativity; the second specifies the relations between the institutional incentive structures and the strategic decisions of migrants.

Integration as a concept faces two challenges – one which is empirical and one is normative: it covers a large gamut of practices and is heavily burdened with normative pathos:

The fact that the same concepts are used in different national and local contexts – integration policy or multicultural policies – may create the illusion of similar, if not the same, phenomena. Empirical research, however, has shown not only the ideas and assumptions behind such policies are different, but the practice and measures of such policies vary considerably between both places and situations (Pennix, Spencer, Van Hear, 2008, p.10).

Integration is conceived of as the result of the intersection of institutional incentive structures and the strategic decisions of migrants themselves (Freeman 2004, p. 950).

Integration models and strategies depend predominantly on four factors: the number of refugees; the history of their settlement; the type of host country– transit or target and the political will of elites.

Integration – typology of models

We need to be in contact with any people! All people! To be able to go to their homes. I feel a little bit scared because I don’t know the people here.

 16-year-old boy asylum seeker in Norway

Educational integration is understood as a “dynamic approach of responding positively to pupil diversity and of seeing individual differences not as problems, but as opportunities for enriching learning” (UNESCO 2005a, p. 12).

“I’m not comfortable with generalizations or details; only their encounter satisfies me”, writes Tzvetan Todorov (1993, p. XIII). The interplay between generalizations and “details” like empirical realities will be the focus of this chapter. It aims to analyse the concept of integration in two regards:

Typology – different models of management of the ethno-cultural diversity and examples of countries which come more or less closer to the ideal types;

Diachrony – the concept has evolved over the past decades oscillating from more multiculturalist to more civic ‘republican’ understandings.

The author shares Gary Freeman’s scepticism that “efforts to capture variations in typologies of incorporation schemes is likely to prove both futile and misleading” (Freeman 2004, p. 945) and that the variations among countries are significant: “Efforts at accommodation have run from apparent willingness to see immigrant minorities permanently excluded from full membership in the host society, insistence on more or less complete assimilation into a presume national cultural norm, to more or less enthusiastic capitulation to multiculturalism” (Freeman 2004, p. 945).

The European scholarly and political context could be summarized in four peculiarities:

  1. Immigration has been a fact in Europe for more than a century, but the road from the reality to the identity has proven to be long and hard. “The European states have consistently seen themselves as non-immigration countries, in contrast to countries like Canada, Australia and the US. While the rhetoric about being “nations of immigrants” is strong in the latter countries, it has been absent in Europe despite the fact that some countries have had higher immigration rates than the classical immigration countries” (Pennix, Spencer, van Hear, p. 5).
  2. Controlling immigrant flows and ensuring the inclusion of new settlers were distinct policies for a long period, the first based on national security, the second – on solidarity, tolerance and human rights. Now, they are becoming more and more interconnected: “Integration policy measures are used to select those immigrants that are able and willing to integrate and deter those who are not” (Pennix, Spencer, van Hear p. 6).
  3. The European Union is characterized by a large variety of immigration experiences, on the one hand, and a communitarisation of migration policy on the other: a framework for common migration policies started to be introduced after 1997 and for integration policies in 2003.

4         One of the political illusions of the post-communism was that the ethno-cultural lesson was an easy one to learn. Post-communism was both eager and ready to learn the correct, democratic way of management of minority and migration issues, and to apply it to respective groups in the various countries. This turned out to be a much more difficult task than originally envisaged for two reasons. First, there are several models of integration in Europe. Second, countries evolve over time; they revise or reject former policies and develop new ones. The elaboration of a balanced and fair model for dealing with change is a test for political maturity of both elites and civil society.

The integration policies of EU countries could be classified to belong to three types: interculturalism/multiculturalism, non-differentalism, human rights approach.


Interculturalism is based on the idea of public expression of ethnic, linguistic and religious differences between children and a school, which assumes the responsibility to encourage them. Ireland offers an elaborate political definition. It stems from the understanding of integration as a bilateral process aiming to integrate migrants within society and society with migrants. Intercultural education respects and recognises the normality of diversity in all areas of human life.

The intercultural sensitivity and openness of school to the cultural diversity is expressed in regard of the major indicators of identity like language and religion, as well as in other aspects like dress code and gender relations. The new reforms of education of migrants and refugees in several countries introduced intercultural approaches, diversity training of teachers, and  intercultural mediators.


The liberal understanding of integration is based on the vision of individuals as autonomous beings and sees particiation in society as an autonomous choice: “The individual chooses whether or not to participate, to what extent and by which means” (Ingleby and Deluym, 2012, p. 26).

France has always been the classic example of a civic republican approach. It is reluctant to multiculturalism because of the understanding of a direct link between the state and the citizens, not mediated by the communities. This conception is deep-rooted in the French political culture. France deliberately chooses not to regard refugees as a particularly weak or needy group and not to apply specific programs for refugee children. The school is considered as a space for integration and excessive differentiation is not stimulated.

Policies in various countries, such as France, Spain, the Netherlands, Sweden avoid ethnic, cultural, religious classifications and construct neutral categories, e.g. “newly arrived” children (France), “students with special needs” (Spain, the Netherlands).


Human rights approach

The right to education has formally been recognized as a human right since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and affirmed in numerous major HR treaties, such as Convention against Discrimination in Education (1960), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966). These treaties establish an entitlement to free compulsory primary education for all children (UNICEF and UNESCO, 2007, p. 7).

The Human Rights Based Approach is developed by UN and applied by its Agencies to education, health, employments, etc. Two of its principles are particularly relevant to educational integration of refugee children: universality and inalienability, as well as equality and non-discrimination. All people everywhere in the world are entitled to human rights. The human person cannot voluntarily give them up. Nor can others take them away from him or her. All human beings are entitled to their human rights without discrimination of any kind, such as race, colour, ethnicity, language, religion, national or social origin, birth or other status (UN 2003). It’s based on the idea of human development as expanding people’s choices with education being one of its three main pillars. The human development paradigm does not regard people as passive beneficiaries of economic and social activities. People must become active agents of social change. This connotes opportunities for participation, empowerment, and access to information (Fukuda-Parr and Kumar 2005). The human right based approach is an alternative to the needs-based or service-delivery approach (UNICEF and UNESCO, 2007, p. 9). People are recognized as key actors in their own development, rather than passive recipients of commodities and services (UN, 2003).

Germany and Austria label their approach to integration as based on ‘human rights’. This should be understood as a political and ideological label. By no means does it imply that the other countries are disrespectful to refugee rights. Human rights highlight empowerment of right-holder (refugees children) and accountability of duty-bearers (authorities in the areas of  asylum and migration, education, social assistance and child welfare services). This thorough and elaborate definition demonstrates the high normative pathos of the human rights approach. The integration conceived by the human rights perspective is mobilized several other politico-normative categories, such as equality, non-discrimination, participation, empowerment, and accountability.

Most countries mix elements, practices, experiences, experiments inspired or imported by one or the other of the main models.

The diachronic analysis is as eloquent as the typological one. It shows that policies are not crystallized models; the same countries can shift from one conception of integration to another, sometimes opposite one. The Dutch case is the most thorough in this regard. Three stages are distinguished:

  1. Initially, Dutch policy-makers assumed that migrants’ stay would be temporary and did not encourage any form of integration.
  2. Policies introduced in 1983 encouraged these groups to integrate while retaining their own cultural identity, and set up special programmes to improve educational opportunities and increase labour market participation.
  3. Towards the end of the 1990’s support for these ‘multicultural’ policies declined sharply, ushering in a new approach to integration. This focused on learning Dutch and accepting Dutch cultural norms. A similar shift can be observed in many European countries, but since Dutch policies had previously been overtly ‘migrant-friendly’, the change was felt all the more keenly (Ingleby and Kramer, 2012, p.252).

For decades the Netherlands had been an exemplary case of multiculturalism. Today, the country is again in the vanguard of a new trend – to more restrictive immigration policies, to a more liberal understanding of integration. The new political fashion shifts the focus – if before the emphasis was on the state and its responsibilities, now the migrant /refugee becomes the main actor of integration and is to assume much greater responsibilities. The host, which used to be friendly and welcoming, has become demanding and insistent. The burden – financial, cultural, and social – of integration is increasingly being placed on migrants’/refugees’ shoulders.

The same policy shift, from integration as a shared responsibility and two-way process to the migrant as a key bearer of the responsibility, is observed in Belgium: “In the 1990’s the term ‘integration’ still implied a two-way process, in which both the host society and migrants would adapt themselves to each other. From about 2000, however, the term was used increasingly to refer simply to what migrants had to do; this shift can be observed in many European countries (Ingleby and Ilse, 2012, p.12).

North-West European countries have moved from earlier conceptions of integration policies that “focuses on the position of newcomers in society to one that is primarily focussing on the cohesion of societies as a whole and on commonalities that are supposed to be crucial for such social cohesion” (Pennix, Spencer, Van Hear 2008, p. 6). Gary Freeman is more explicit in describing this shift:

Post-1960s scholarship delegitimized assimilation as either a policy goal or analytical concept, but there is growing concern this critique went too far. Alba and Nee have bravely called for the resurrection of the assimilation model, properly modified. Others [like Brubaker] detect evidence of a return to assimilationist policies in Western democracies (Freeman 2004, p. 946).

There is no one best model of the educational integration of refugee children, but a variety of experiences which resemble often a patchwork, bricolage of practices, projects, innovation, and experience. The time of the big ideological models is over as the new ones rely more on the imagination and activities of social actors:

“states possess a patchwork of multidimensional frameworks that hardly merit the appellation ‘type’. Some elements of these frameworks are similar across states, while others are not; some are consistent with stated government goals with respect to immigrant incorporation, whereas others are not” (Freeman 2004, p. 946).

Politics, policies, governance


It takes courage to be a refugee! Everyone comes from desperation. Everyone would like to live where he was born.

15-year-old boy asylum seeker in Norway


Immigration presents challenges for both politics and policies:

Politics refers to the instrumentalisation of immigration by the political actors and the role of (anti)immigration discourse for the political identity and strategy of a number of parties in various countries. This dimension remains beyond the scope of the present study, but is crucial for making sense of public policies. The political discourse defines the priorities and opens or restricts horizons to policies. In Nordic countries (Norway, Denmark) right wing parties have strengthen their positions. In Sweden the party Sweden Democrats entered the Parliament (2010) with a very conservative agenda to dramatically revise the migration policy qualified as “too permissive and generous”. The securitization of immigration policy in the last decade strongly influences the modalities, forms, and funding of integration. The UK clearly illustrates this trend. The drive of the previous British government for a comprehensive refugee integration policy led in 2004 to the issuing of Aiming High: Guidance on Supporting the Education of Asylum-Seeking and Refugee Children. “The change of government in 2010 led to the archiving of national good practice guidelines and removal from the website of the Department for Education. The good practice guidelines are no longer being promoted” (Rutter and Alexandrova, 2012, p.328). Two opposite trends can be identified in several countries: the societies become more multiculturalist in terms of demography, workforce and cultural practices, yet politics are increasingly reluctant and hostile to multiculturalism.

Policies refers to a variety of public policies among which educational one for the inclusion and integration of migrant and refugee children. The State holds the primary responsibility for the realization of the right to education. It has the obligations to fulfil the right to education by “ensuring that education is available for all children and positive measure are taken to enable children to benefit from it” (UNICEF and UNESCO 2007, p. 39). Governmental agencies should be hold accountable for the access and quality of education. UNESCO sets the standards for a good policy of educational integration: transparency, accountability, access to justice and stakeholder participation (ibid, p. 122). Norway provides an original example of institutionalization of governmental accountability: the Ombudsman for children. Although the Ombudsman is administratively under the jurisdiction of the Ministry for Children and Family Affairs, neither the Norwegian Parliament nor the Government have the power to instruct the Ombudsman. The duties of the Ombudsman are to promote the interests of children vis-à-vis public and private authorities.

The analysis emphasizes two groups of political factors with impact on educational integration and measures their degree of relevance. The first group of factors concerns the issue of integration and the way it is articulated in political discourse. The second makes visible the political interest in strategies and programs guiding public policies.

The concept of integration has different political visibility in European countries. In some it enjoys clear legal and political definitions and is articulated in activities, assigned responsibilities, timetables in strategies and programs. In others, such as Malta, no integration plan has been developed.

Therefore, two opposite cases can be identified. The Maltese one illustrates the first of a negative interdependence: the lack of political definition implies a lack of consistent integration policy and vice versa. Malta has not designed any national integration plan and ranked twenty third among twenty-eight countries in Europe in terms of integration. Poland demonstrates the opposite pole: integration is not defined in any legal document, but the country has a good record in refugee children integration.

Politics and representations

Political will and commitment are crucial prerequisites for the success of educational integration. Politics and public opinion are interdependent. The fluctuations of the latter are expressed in political parties’ discourse and the electoral attitudes. They do not determine but largely influence the orientation of both politics and policies. The last half century has seen a significant shift from positive and supportive attitudes towards refugees to more negative representations and demands for restrictive measures. Two factors are crucial for this change: overall numbers and educational levels. The less numerous and the more educated the refugees, the more positive the public support, while the more numerous and less educated they are, the more restrictive and negative the representations:

During the period 1950 – 1985, the image of refugees and asylum seekers was very different from that of labour migrants: refugees were often fleeing from despised regimes and many were middle-class, educated dissidents. The public thus held a much more favourable opinion of refugees than of migrants. In the last ten years almost all political parties have adopted an increasingly hard line on immigration and integration (Ingleby and Kramer, 2012, p. 257).

This analysis is based on the Dutch case, although it more or less applies to all major European countries with significant immigrant flows. Legislative and policy changes in the UK are moving in the same direction: building ‘barriers’, making the legal entry of asylum-seekers much more difficult, restricting asylum-seekers’ social and legal rights, including the right to work, benefits, housing and higher education; tightening the substantive by which asylum cases are judged, so that proportionally more asylum-seekers are refused refugee status or ELR than in the late 1980s (Rutter and Alexandrova, 2012, p. 312).

The political discourse on immigration, security, borders, defines the frames within which policies of educational integration are located. The increasing focus on security succeeds in marginalizing them in several cases, however, in some integration still defends a central position: in Norway the discourse on the need to control national borders competes with the discourse on protection of the child, while in Denmark the former discourse prevails. (Rydin et al, 2012, p. 20).


The political weight attributed to refugee children educational integration could be measured by the type of political documents the policy rests upon. In this chapter, the strategic plans and programs developed by some EU states will be examined. They testify to the significant political attention paid to integration and contribute to the policy’s sustainability.

The Irish approach is exemplary. Ireland has voted two strategies covering both the object – the children, and the means – the intercultural education. The National Children Strategy (2000) advocates a “whole children perspective”:

All children are cherished and supported by family and the wider society; where they enjoy a fulfilling childhood and realise their potential. The right of all children to play and the right to recreational facilities are also identified as basic needs” (Pasiut, 2012,, p.26).

Ireland is a pioneer in developing its Intercultural Education Strategy for 2010-2015. It aims to support and improve the quality, relevance and inclusiveness of education for every learner in Ireland, as well as to ensure that education respects the diversity of values, beliefs, languages and traditions. All education providers are assisted with ensuring that inclusion and integration within an intercultural environment become the norm (Pasiut, 2012, p. 20).

Lithuania has developed an Action plan Education for all for the period 2003 – 2015. Portugal has adopted a similar approach exemplified in the Action Plan of the Ministry of Education, elaborated and implemented to support students whose first language was not Portuguese, encouraging cultural pluralism, and making sure immigrant and refugee students are integrated into mainstream education. The National Action Plan on Integration and Against Discrimination 2010-2014 of Luxembourg has provisions concerning education, such as training the educational personnel in intercultural knowledge and launching an overhaul of educational counselling and orientation tools.

The strategic vision and the policy document articulating the priorities in short, medium, and long term perspective is needed in all countries , but still lacking in several of them.

The Strategies are an important policy instrument. They attest to the political maturity of decision-makers and contribute substantially to the sustainability of policies.


Whether refugee children should be identified as a distinct target group for educational measures is a major political question. The existing practices gravitate around two major clusters with a lot of intermediary practices in-between.

One set of practices is characterized by the development of specific programs and the formation of special classes. France offers special classes for pupils according to their level of studies: when pupils have received little or no education at all in their country of origin, they are placed in specific reception classes, according to age. If the pupils have already attended elementary school in their country of origin, they are offered some more specific study hours, which generally deal with teaching French. In middle and high schools, recently arrived foreign students are dealt with through CLA (Classes d’Accueil). Estonia also gravitates around this cluster with its practices of personalized approach and individual curricula for refugee children. It illustrates it by the good practice of a specialized school teaching each child individually, based on their age, language skills and personal preferences.

The other cluster unites countries which integrate refugee children in the general educational system without specific measures. Austria is a case in point. The Austrian educational system hardly provides specific programmes, pedagogical measures. This lack is compensated in some cases by the individual engagement of teachers (Sax, Ammer, Mandl, 2012).

There is also a trend of passing from one practice to the other.  The Netherlands is a typical example of a country in transition from schooling in special classed towards general ones. Schools do not differentiate between nationals and non-nationals. Ireland follows the same path of replacing segregated practice in favour of the age-appropriate integrated provision.

Education as empowerment


Develop children’s personalities, talents, and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential.

Convention on the right of the child

If there is a unanimous consensus among all scholars and decision makers, it concerns education as the royal road to integration, as empowerment. Empowerment means improving people’s capabilities to demand and use their human rights. The goal is to give people the power and capabilities to change their lives and influence their destinies (UNICEF and UNESCO 2007). The empowerment aims at helping people to overcome their passive powerless position by giving them tools (knowledge, skills) to become active agents in the fight for a better life. Empowerment is a powerful concept, because it emphasizes both on right-holders and their participation, as well as on duty-bearers with their obligations and responsibilities. The concept of empowerment develops the idea that “people cannot not be developed; they must develop themselves” (UNICEF and UNESCO 2007, p. 14). The Right to education project stresses children should be recognized as key actors in their own development, rather than passive beneficiaries of services (ibid).

Education can contribute to: overcoming the marginalisation of vulnerable groups; combating poverty and deprivation; integrating migrants; developing the full potential of pupils intellectually, socially and morally; empowering youngsters. The idea of the long term positive impact of education is nicely formulated in the title of one Lithuanian project “Active integration today – success tomorrow”.

A strong political expression of the idea of empowerment is the understanding of children as full citizens: “children are respected as young citizens with a valued contribution to make and a voice of their own” (Pasiut, 2012, p. 26).

Education is valued and ranked high among the key public issues. For such a perspective to be successful, it should be relatively independent of the governmental majorities and political fluctuations. It requires a national consensus and legal procedures to back and guarantee its high status. Austria is a case in point: “Enacting educational laws is similar to constitutional amendments, as it generally requires a qualified two-thirds majority in Parliament and therefore an agreement/compromise among the main political parties” (Sax et al, 2012, p. 104).

Child-centred pedagogy

In all aspects of the education system, consideration of the child’s best interests must be a primary consideration.

Education must seek to promote children’s optimum development.

Convention on the rights of the child and education

“The child-friendly learning concept promotes child-seeking, child-centred, gender-sensitive, inclusive, community-involved, protective and healthy approaches to schooling and out-of-school education” (UNICEF and UNESCO 2007, p. 66). The child-centred approach conceives the child as the centre of the educational universe and requires that programs and methods adapt to his/her needs rather than the other way round. It presupposes more flexible forms of teaching and organization. In the classical approach different curricula have been developed for children with specific (dis)abilities and problems, in the new one the regular curricula should be taught in an adapted way to children with different needs (UNESCO 1994). A flexible structure and timetable allow a less rigid and more inclusive approach. This pedagogy is particularly relevant to the refugee and migrant children.


The four A in practice

Before there were policies, there were practices: schools could not wait for policies to be formulated and debated when pupils were sitting in their classrooms who could not follow the language of instruction.

Glen and de Jong 1996, p. 406

The analysis is inspired by the concept of the four A – availability, accessibility, acceptability and adaptability, developed by the former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education, Katarina Tomasevski (Tomasevski, 2006): availability – that education is free and government-funded and that there is adequate infrastructure and trained teachers able to support education delivery; accessibility – that the system is non- discriminatory and accessible to all, and that positive steps are taken to include the most marginalised; acceptability that the content of education is relevant, non-discriminatory and culturally appropriate, and of quality; that the school itself is safe and teachers are professional; adaptability  that education can evolve with the changing needs of society and contribute to challenging inequalities, such as gender discrimination, and that it can be adapted locally to suit specific contexts (Right to education project).

Right versus access to education

Education must be provided without discrimination on any grounds.

Convention on the rights of the child and education

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognizes education as a human right: “Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory” (Universal Declaration 1948). The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights develops the idea of the “right to everyone” and states that primary education shall be compulsory and available free to all (The International Covenant 1966). The international standards for educational integration, equally applicable to refugee and migrant children, are defined by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child: access to education should be maintained during all phases of the displacement; every child irrespective of status should have full access to education, without discrimination, in particular, unaccompanied children; access to quality education should also be ensured for children with special needs, in particular for children with disabilities; any child should be registered with appropriate school authorities as soon as possible and get assistance in maximizing learning opportunities; children have the right to maintain their cultural identity and values, including the maintenance and development of their native language; adolescents should be allowed to enrol in vocational/professional training or education; early learning programmes should be made available to young children, children should be provided with school certificates or other documentation indicating their level of education, in particular in preparation of relocation, resettlement or return.

The right to education is translated in different policies with a changing proportion of universalism and multiculturalism. The practices form two clusters: the first offers equal access, the second – a differentiated one.

The first cluster of countries guarantees immigrants the same educational opportunities as the natives. In several countries like Ireland, Spain, Finland, Czech Republic enrolment in school is without prejudice related to status. Similarly, the UK guarantees open and equal access for all refugee children, even for irregular. The political weight of the principle of equal access is reinforced when endorsed by a specific policy. Flanders developed ‘equal educational chances policy’ aiming at offering all children, without exception, the best chances to learn and develop. This policy aims to stand against exclusion, social separation and discrimination. The Netherlands offers an excellent example of the transformation of the legal regulations into a tangible political goal of achieving 100% participation in early childhood education programs for immigrant and disadvantaged children

The right to education is interpreted also as an obligation of education by most European countries. This approach is by no means a good practice guaranteeing that parents do not withdraw their children from schooling for one reason or another. Some countries are quite strict in applying this policy: in cases of children who often miss classes without a sufficient reason, the National Education Welfare Board in Ireland is obliged to take legal action against parents. Poland does not pay allocations to parents whose children do not attend regularly school.

The second cluster of countries comprises practices of differentiated access. The main argument and criteria for differentiating access to education is legal status. The authorities of most countries are reluctant to offer educational services for irregular migrant children. Germany distinguishes two groups: minors with insecure residence status i.e. tolerated persons and asylum seekers and children without any status. Both groups face obstacles in their access to education. Sweden distinguished three groups: for children with a residence permit school attendance is compulsory and free of charge; asylum seekers have the right to attend school, but it is not compulsory; children who have been refused entry or expelled are not entitled to education, still the municipality can offer them instruction. This ambiguous policy which contradicts the UN Convention of human rights has been criticized and recommendations have been formulated for granting all children the right to education.

Other countries differentiate access in financial terms. The Czech Republic excludes asylum seeking children from the free language courses. Poland has opened up its public educational system for children with refugees and tolerated stay status. Immigrant children with a different legal status are entitled to education in public schools on a commercial basis. Hungary applies a similar approach and has introduced fees for irregular migrants and those who stay for less than a year.

Another criterion for differentiating the access is time. Hungary has introduced the requirement of one year of residence as a precondition for full entitlement to enter the public educational system.

Sometimes restricted access is presented in terms of lack of availability of places. Asylum seeking choldren can attend schools in Hungary only if there are places available in the few schools which accept them. If policy is formulated this way, not surprisingly practices are even more restrictive: a few  Hungarian schools refused to accepting Roma children from Kosovo. The crisis was resolved thanks to the EU-funded “Schooling programme” initiative of the Hungarian Interchurch Aid (Pasiut, 2012).

Language – the main vehicle of integration

The national language is the vehicle of the community of citizens, affirms and argues Dominique Schnapper (1994). Its high symbolic and political meaning is shared by both unitary states such as France and federal ones with two or more national languages such as Belgium. The importance of language training is further emphasised in a large comparative study by Glenn and de Jong (1996, p. IX), who concluded that inadequate proficiency in the language of the school is a primary reason for poor academic performance.


National language

The education in the national language is of crucial importance. The good practices cover a large spectrum – from national programs for language immersion to summer camps, from introductory classes to courses in reception centres.  They could be classified into three groups. The first refers to educational policy, the second – to language classes designed for refugee children and incorporated in regular school programs, and last one – to a variety of extracurricular activities.

The first concerns the political level and is expressed in guidelines, programs, and strategies. The impact is twofold. First, is emphasizes the high political priority of the national language teaching. Second, it guarantees stable and sustainable funding. National languages classes are included in the Czech State integration program.

The second group forms the larger cluster with a variety of introductory language classes (the Netherlands,), special language classes (‘classes passerelles’) in the French speaking part of Belgium to support minor newcomers to learn French and to become familiar with the Belgian school system, intensive language classes (Lithuania), preparatory studies facilitating entry into secondary education (Finland). Hungary provides extra funding for language integration programs. Poland offers language classes in Reception centres and Bulgaria has similar practices. In Portugal, upon arrival in the school, the student takes a diagnostic language test and according to the result he/she is placed in a specific proficiency level. Trilingualism – the requirement of speaking the three official languages – is a major difficulty for all children in Luxembourg and particularly for migrant ones. The public educational system offers special classes for French and German and pre-school classes for Letzeburgesch. They are adapted to the very early age of children and enable newcomers to acquire Letzeburgesch by imitation and practice rather than by learning rules. A key factor for the success of the language classes is the individual approach that takes into consideration the needs of children.

The third group of good practices are extracurricular activities, such as summer language camps, where children enjoy communication with other refugee kids and native children, as well as learn the language in a stimulating environment (Malta, Bulgaria), while innovative summer courses in Ireland teach the language through drama and sport.

Mother tongue

The right to enjoy their own culture, language and religion

Convention on the rights of the child and education

The Convention on the rights of the child stresses the right of the child to enjoy their own culture and to use their language. UNESCO supports mother tongue instruction as a means of improving educational quality by building on the knowledge and experience of the learners and teachers (UNESCO 2003). In opposition to the consensus on national languages, the views are divided on the question of mother tongue. Most scholars and policy makers agree on the importance of mother tongue for the children cultural identity, but differ in regards of which institution should assume the responsibility for the tuition. Two opposite visions can be identified.

The first considers that the immigrant communities and their organisations rather than the state should offer the teaching of mother tongue. Germany is a case in point: In several of the Länder the consulates of the countries of origin are responsible for voluntary mother tongue teaching, not least for financial reasons. Several countries such as Poland and Bulgaria prefer to “outsource” the tuition of foreign languages.

The second cluster of countries considers that the state should assume the education in both the national and the mother tongue languages. Sweden with the New Education Act (2010) assures the opportunity for children to develop both their mother tongue and the national language. Austria, which in other regards, such as the human rights approach, is similar to Germany, assumes a different perspective on the mother tongue education which is provided for all pupils with a different first language than German, including migrant and refugee children.

In Finland immigrant pupils in basic education may study their native language as their first language within the school’s normal curriculum. There is no country able to provide this opportunity everywhere; it is available only in a few schools. Luxembourg encourages the mother tongue tuition at the pre-primary level and ensures a mother tongue teaching assistant. Norway offers both mother tongue instruction and bilingual teacher.

Mother tongue education is undoubtedly one of the most divisive issues – countries similar in their integration policies and practices, such as the Baltic states, diverge considerably in this regard: Estonia and Lithuania provide mother tongue tuition, while in Latvia legislation makes no provision for measures of this type. Estonia and Lithuania form part of the smaller cluster of countries such as Austria, Sweden and Norway, where mother tongue tuition is included in the normal school timetable or its inclusion is recommended. Lithuania and Estonia have developed bilingual teaching arrangements for the national minorities established in their countries that may also benefit immigrant pupils.

The lack of consensus among EU member states on if and how to teach the mother tongue is supported by similar conclusions of the UNICEF study:

There is no simple solution, nor any one correct approach. Whatever approach is adopted, however, governments have obligations to ensure that children do not experience discrimination, that respect is afforded to their culture, and that every effort is made to prevent social exclusion and educational disadvantage as a consequence of speaking a minority language (UNICEF and UNESCO, 2007, p. 36).

Social and intercultural competences and acculturation

We have to learn everything when we come here. For example, learn how to use a knife and fork! Also the way of reading and writing, we have to learn it in a new way. We read from right to left in my homeland.

13-year-old girl asylum seeker in Norway

Language is a crucial, yet not a unique way to integration. Children are entitled to stimulating learning environment in multiple spaces. Acculturation involves learning the visible and invisible cultural rules. Language learning should be complemented by social competences training.

Temporality is among the most invisible, yet one of the most crucial characteristics of culture. Most migrant and refugee children, coming from diverse backgrounds, have a different perception of time, and have to learn western time management.

Respect the right of children to rest, leisure, play, recreation, and participation in arts and culture

Convention on the rights of the child and of education

Integration means learning, yet also creating. Learning the cultural and democratic rules of the host society, but also (re)constructing the child’s Self in the new environment, as well as transforming the society in the interaction with the new comers is paramount. In Homo ludens Johan Huizinga developed the inspiring idea that playing means creativity, imagination, construction, and self-perfection. The right to play is a crucial right which should be guaranteed to all children with special attention to the most vulnerable – the unaccompanied minors. Playing is present in the good practices in two ways:

  • by the claim of the right to play for all children with a special focus on unaccompanied ones and victims of trafficking;
  • as a rich gamut of extracurricular activities aimed at integrating refugee children in stimulating, interactive and creative environments. Two types of good practices can be posited: one type which aims to develop creativity and second one aimed at enhancing communicative skills.

Creativity and art are among the most powerful instruments for integration and empowerment. A plethora of good practices illustrate the potential of art for building bridges, creating understanding and promoting dialogue. Unaccompanied minors with video camera in hand is an inspiring Norwegian example with wonderful results: the children work with their own histories, providing them with a “space” to process and reflect upon experiences; they have been proud that they have made their own film which considerably increased their self-esteem; the films were presented at an opening night and national media reported the event (Rydin et al, 2012). Visibilization of the invisible is the most significant outcome – the invisible children have been given a voice

As for good practices whose goal is to develop creativity, Polish NGOs organize cross-cultural workshops, which include areas as diverse as film, art, music, drama, dance and photography, as well as cooking classes. An appropriately named NGO – the Foundation of Fun – organized an Intercultural Kids Club where children from different countries play together. The Netherlands is even more ambitious, aiming directly at happiness. The unambiguously named organisation National Foundation for the Promotion of Happiness provides creative workshops and projects for asylum-seeking children with music, sculpture, theatre, play and games. Spanish good practices are particularly susceptible to art, and mobilize a rich variety of artistic expressions: theatre, films, photo exhibitions, even string-puppet shows, which expectedly, happened to be an excellent means of communication for small pupils. In UK schools events such as International Week, Refugee Week, Black History Month, and End of Year Assemblies provide opportunities for creating displays, staging performances, storytelling, cultural and sports activities, sharing of food event.

The second group of good practices address communications in intercultural environment. “Refugees into Schools” is a British initiative. The aim is, through interactive presentations of their experience, to help children understand conflict, and what refugees often go through. The communicative outcome is twofold: British students better understand refugees, and refugee children start sharing their experience. To facilitate communications Luxembourg introduced intercultural mediators who provide ad hoc assistance with the reception of new pupils, interpreting services for information meetings on the school system, meetings between teachers and parents, or visits to school doctors or psychologists. A Dutch school experiments a nice communicative practice: the headmaster welcomes every child by name with a handshake. In this way, children can feel that they are seen, recognized and respected.

Sport is a favourite activity with an extremely strong integration potential. Ireland reports for a nice success story: a soccer camp held for boys and girls.

The actors of educational integration

A major goal of the analysis is to identify the crucial engines for successful integration. When policies fluctuate or stall, the time comes for the active and responsible citizens, professionals, and civil society activists. Although the States have a primary responsibility for education, the civil society with its organisations and activists is vital for the diversification of participation and the success of integration.

The Human rights based approach requires the identification of the human rights claims of rights-holders and the corresponding human rights obligations of duty-bearers as well as the immediate, underlying, and structural causes of the non-realization of rights (UN 2003). The capacity of rights-holders to claim their rights should be assessed, as well as the capacity of the duty-bearers to fulfill their obligations. If necessary, strategies should be developed to build these capacities (UN 2003).

For the schools to successfully implement the four A means that all actors have to embrace them:

The 4 As are to be respected, protected, and fulfilled by the government, as the prime duty-bearer, but there are also duties on other actors in the education process: the child as the privileged subject of the right to education and the bearer of the duty to comply with compulsory-education requirements; the child’s parents who are the ‘first educators’; and professional educators, namely teachers (Right to Education Project[2])


Intercultural teachers

The analysis of educational integration clearly demonstrates the key role of teachers with intercultural sensitivity, expertise and experience. Teachers “translate national policies into practical action in each school” (UNICEF and UNESCO, 2007, p. 93) and a quality education depends significantly on their commitment, enthusiasm, creativity, and skills. Creating an inclusive and child-friendly environment necessitates different skills and styles from teaching in a traditional school. Teachers need to develop competences and capacities on learning through participation; positive forms of participation and class management (UNICEF and UNESCO, 2007, p. 72).

Several models have been experimented. UK has introduced the role of refugee support teachers/new arrivals teachers. Belgium has introduced follow-up coaches, aiming to provide support to minors who have attended newcomer classes during the previous school years. Some British schools with large numbers of children from the same ethnic group employ bilingual staff. Malta introduced the role of the peripatetic teachers. They give additional lessons on Maltese, English, and math, but also resolve intercultural tensions and misunderstandings. One of their tasks was to discuss with Muslim girls and their parents the nature of mixed schools. Another interesting good practice is the “buddy-system” in Malta whereby a native child will team up with a refugee or immigrant child, who experiences difficulties integrating because of linguistic and other reasons, and help them accordingly.

The successful nexus

The Teachers – pupils – parents nexus is crucial in order for integration to be instituted and function in a sustainable and successful manner. The school ethos should be impregnated by a culture in which human rights are respected for all members of the school community. Human rights “need to be incorporated into all school policies in order that children and teachers are aware of what their rights, and consequent responsibilities, are and how to exercise them” (UNICEF and UNESCO, 2007, p. 76). Children have rights, as well as responsibilities. Mutual respect should be the norm in their relations with teachers: “As teachers have responsibilities to children’s rights, children have responsibility towards teachers” (UNICEF and UNESCO 2007, p. 22).

Consulting and involving parents is the aim of numerous good practices. The objective is twofold: stimulate parents’ participation, as well as support them in building their capacity and promoting their willingness to ensure their children’s attendance at school.

The school has to meet the parents with respect and through an open dialogue. Trust and confidence of parents and children in teachers and schools are paramount for the sustainable integration in the educational system. Norway has established a well articulated and developed scheme of relationships and responsibilities among various partners: pedagogical leaders, parents, interpreters, mother tongue assistants, etc. It covers three aspects: ‘what’ (activity/event), ‘responsibilities’ (who is in charge of a certain activity/event) and ‘when’ (time of the activity/event).

The nexus school-pupils-family is further developed and conceptualized in the holistic model of integration. It pays attention to education, as well as health and leisure time. All measures and activities are realized in close operation with the family. Sweden develops this approach.


The classic European models of integration – assimiliationist/non-differentialist and multiculturalist – are vanishing. Their contours can still be identified, and some countries come closer to the ideal types, but what prevails in EU countries is a common trend towards securitization – with more restrictive, less hospitable policies.

The question arises as to what the most relevant factors are that influence policies. The number of refugees has only relative relevance. EU countries are extremely heterogeneous – Germany and UK ranks among the ten top hosting countries in the world, France is among the top three in Europe, while refugee children in Estonia can be counted on one hand. The numbers are similarly low in other countries, such as Malta, Lithuania, Hungary, etc. Numbers do count when they are very limited like in Estonia; namely, the law does not distinguish between the different groups of refugee and asylum seeking children. Only much higher numbers allow the specification of refugee and asylum seeking children as children with disabilities, children with special needs, ex-child soldiers and militia workers, separated children, victims of crime, children involved with drugs, prostitution, and exploitative labour, or “street” children. At the same time, numbers do not count when targeting policies. Children with subsidiary, or temporary, protection status are more numerous than refugees everywhere, yet integration programs are conceived in reverse proportion – they are more comprehensive and numerous for refugees. Also, numbers of refugees do not count significantly when choosing the model of integration. This conclusion is illustrated by the fact that countries such as the Netherlands have shifted from more multiculturalist to more assimilationist policies for political not for statistical reasons. Furthermore, numbers do not count considerably either when access is defined: countries such as the UK, with a very high proportion of refugees, offer open and equal access to education, including for irregular migrants, while others, with much smaller numbers of refugee children, apply a more differentiated approach.

The history of settlement – i.e. the time of arrival and the duration of the stay – can influence the choice of good practices, but not so much the integration model. Countries with relatively recent immigration focus more on awareness campaigns, while others, with settled refugee populations, are more concerned with integration. The same difference is less relevant concerning the type of integration and we see among the multiculturalist camp countries with different migration histories and profiles (transit or destination). The rapid and radical shift of policy, Romania, Germany, Norway, Switzerland, and Slovenia as in the Dutch case, also relativize the path dependency factor.

Policies are influenced, but not determined, by the size of migrant flows and the history of migration. These conclusions imply that the decisive factor is political voluntarism.  Elites assume the responsibility for introducing and changing policies. Some good practices disappear with changes of government. A relevant example is the project with the emblematic name “Aiming high”, introduced by the previous British government, and abandoned by the current one.

The State bears the main responsibility for conceiving and implementing efficient policies of educational integration. A plethora of positive measures and practices have been identified, all of which are promising but likely to succeed only if they are backed up by solid commitment and careful monitoring.  Public authorities are not always able, capable, or willing to meet their obligations with regard to educational integration. The reasons could be summarized in three groups: • lack of resources – financial or human (skills and institutional capacity); • lack of responsibility – lack of political will and commitment to accept obligations; • lack of coordination between institutions and stakeholders. ‘Aiming low’ is the political choice on integration of numerous political forces and governmental majorities across Europe.

Who are the bearers of good practices in a situation of more restrictive policies? The most amazing conclusion, is that actors of integration – teachers, volunteers, NGO activists – play a crucial role. Most good practices are both initiated and implemented by active individuals, inspired by the values of tolerance, antidiscrimination, intercultural dialogue. Their motivation, energy, innovation, and activism are the extraordinary engines which foster dynamism and makes integration happen. A strong, vibrant civil society is the productive counterpoint to restrictive policies. Civil society’s good practices remedy the shortcomings of the state system.

Training teachers in intercultural communication is crucial for promoting diversity in schools and society, as well as being an asset and opportunity for mutual benefit. The practice of utilizing support teachers, including teachers and volunteers with migrant backgrounds, has proven to be beneficial and could be easily transferred. Creating networks of professionals in intercultural education for the exchange of information, ideas, initiatives, is non-costly and efficient good practice.

The inclusive ethos and environment promote a culture of respect for difference and introduce approaches to support all children, irrespective of legal status, language or ethnicity. Interculturality is a crucial dimension of the inclusive curriculum tailored to the needs of children. The learning materials should not send negative representations of any migrant groups. Child-friendly schools and participatory methods take account of the evolving capacities of the child and assure safe, welcoming and encouraging environment.

Educational integration is about what children learn, but also – as importantly – about how they learn. Crucial for its success is the respect for the agency of children, their active involvement and participation. Schools should respect the dignity of the child and promote self-esteem and self-confidence.

The teachers – pupils – parents nexus should be strengthened and expanded to include volunteers and NGO activists. The participatory approach enables the input of a large spectrum of stakeholders – teachers, parents, children, community leaders, and civil society activists. Children’s perspective is indispensable. Policies to support refugee children need to be seen as the responsibility of all school staff. Engaging parents is a factor crucial to both pupils’ success in schools and the integration of refugee families in the local communities. Parents should be considered as partners, though some of them could lack the knowledge and skills to interact effectively with teachers, and therefore should be supported in building these capacities.

Art and sport activities demonstrate impressively high potential. They allow preventing or overcoming misunderstandings and tensions, foster creativity and intercultural communication, create opportunities for playful exchange and dialogue, and empower participants. Stimulating opportunities for play and recreation are essential element of child-friendly environment. Guaranteeing the right of playing for all children is a powerful instrument for children’s self-fulfilment and self-esteem. A child asylum seeker in Norway synthesizes the empowering effect of the creative project of a book with stories of exile: “So we make a book about our different ideas and experiences, then one boy can be ten boys!” Creativity could transform traumatic experiences into artistic artefact and thus strengthens the symbolic capital of young creators.

Browsing through countries, policies, and practices, one realizes that what counts most – more than policies and programs which vacillate from one model to another – the main engine for successful integration are committed and active persons with intercultural sensitivity, ready to innovate, experiment, build bridges of understanding and intercultural dialogue.

Building inclusive, participatory and accountable education systems which treat children with dignity as result of sustainable policies and innovative local initiatives is the royal road for refugee and migrant children integration.


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[1] Several quotations and examples are from the INTEGRACE project – Integrating refugee ad asylum seeking children in the educational systems of EU member states.

This chapter is a version of the comparative report of the author.


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