By Silvia Costa, MEP.

Refugees and migrants education, especially minors, is a top priority, the best way to empower them and foster their integration, but also one of the principles on which the EU is funded. It is incredible, though, that education of migrants - especially forced migrants and refugees - seems to be underestimated, both while they are in refugee camps or while travelling, and when they come to Europe.
I have always thought that it is unfair and wrong that only a small part of the EU funds destined to Humanitarian aid  goes to education. Despite the important role of education in emergencies, this policy area received less than 2% of all EU humanitarian funds in 2014. That is why, 3 years ago, in cooperation with Linda McAvan as Chair of DEVE Committee, in my capacity of Chair of CULT Committee, together with the S&D campaign Go For 4, we approved a Resolution on education for children in emergency situations and protracted crises. Thanks to it, we obtained from Commissioner Stylianides 52 million euros more, destined to education in emergencies, de facto doubling the share of 2% out of the 32 billion dedicated to humanitarian aid. 

In the same resolution, I proposed to the Member States to adopt the so-called Education Corridors to provide thousands of university students in refugee camps or in emergency situations with the possibility to study in European universities, but also via distance learning. Five major Italian universities have immediately endorsed our proposal and a Protocol was signed by our Education Minister in 2016.

As the research points out, all around Europe we lack systematic data collection and monitoring mechanism concerning the enrolment of refugees in education, especially in the case of unaccompanied minors. It would be decisive to improve inter-sectorial collaboration bringing together all key stakeholders, in order to adopt a comprehensive approach to refugee children’s rights. 

To guarantee so, in Italy we signed an agreement between the government, regions and municipalities (SPRAR) to spread refugees across the national territory, while foreseeing a focused approach to unaccompanied minors that are assigned to dedicated accommodation centres, and enrolled in schools or in training courses. Last May, we passed a new law proposed by my colleague Sandra Zampa that provides a comprehensive framework for all aspects related to the protection system for unaccompanied minors. It is a pioneer law in Europe, which can provide a good model for the overall issue of minor migrants’ reception, especially unaccompanied ones. Among other things, it foresees the right to education for all, the appointment of an individual tutor, the recognition of diplomas and qualifications of refugee students, even in absence of the permit to stay when they turn 18.

In the European Parliament we also presented, together with other European local authorities, the so-called Charter of San Gimignano, a little municipality in Tuscany that has adopted some guidelines for the reception and integration of minors. In fact, I do believe that it is of utmost importance to share at both national and European levels, guidelines on the reception, inclusion and education of newly-arrived students. 

The EI report “Education: Hope for Newcomers in Europe” points out a need to reform the approach to newcomers’ integration and ensure that schools are able to accommodate diversity and address specific needs. It identifies key issues such as insufficient resources, lack of professional development for school staff, lack of specialised second language and language support teachers, absence of coordination and cooperation with other sectors and political-administrative levels in society. It also highlights that schools tend to segregate newcomers in their own classes and groups without carrying out a personalised assessment, based on the best interests of students. 

I believe that a strategic integration approach also includes non-formal education, sport, creative activities and inclusion in youth organizations, together with the active engagement of parents, particularly mothers. 

We need a comprehensive framework and not fragmented local projects. Inclusion must be a primary organisational model and a starting point in all discussions on “what is in the best interest of children”, in line with Article 3 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Professional development of teachers in the areas of education of newly-arrived children, intercultural pedagogy, and multicultural classroom management must be a national priority in every country.
National governments and international organisations, such as the European Commission, must invest more in longitudinal and country comparative research in order to scientifically inform policy making. 

The European Parliament dedicated many reports to educational aspects of migrants’ inclusion and the role of education in intercultural dialogue. In March 2017, the European Commission organized a Joint Working Group seminar on the integration of migrants in Brussels. 

It  highlighted a number of key challenges faced by policymakers and practitioners for the successful integration of newly-arrived migrants into education and training, such as the need to coordinate different levels of government, types of actors and policy areas; the need to support students to improve access to and completion of education (e.g. through mentoring, language learning support, careers guidance, recognising prior learning); the need to create learning pathways and incorporate non-formal learning for migrants out of formal education and training. 

In my view, students and teachers need to understand the history and backgrounds of the newly arrived students in order to see them as resources for enriching the school community. 

Lastly, I think that the EU also has a role to play in encouraging Member States and other stakeholders to provide more support for the integration of migrants and improving coordination across Member States in integrating migrants or promoting better skills recognition across countries. It is necessary to define permanent networks of confrontation and discussion to which also migrant minors and education unions are part. I think that it would also be useful to have some European-level guidelines to support their inclusion. 

Whatever strategies we may undertake, we risk to lose children’s potential if we only consider them as victims and do not see the resources they represent for our communities, in terms of humanity, professionalism, courage, determination, sense of togetherness.  

Note: This text is based on remarks made by Silvia Costa MEP at the Hearing “Refugees in Europe: Education as a Path to Inclusion” that Education International held at the European Economic and Social Committee in Brussels on 20 February 2018. Silvia Costa is a Member of the European Parliament (Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, S&D) since 2009. She is S&D coordinator and former Chair of the Committee on Culture and Education. She is also a member of the Intergroup on Children’s rights.