Education international has seized the opportunity of the first ever Global Refugee Forum to reaffirm the crucial role education can play in the context of forced displacement, and to urge governments, UN agencies and all stakeholders to ensure displaced teachers and students’ rights in and through education.

The Global Refugee Forum, held from 17-18 December in Geneva, Switzerland, was the first of its kind and comes at the end of a chaotic decade marked by conflict and natural disasters that have contributed to the rise in the number of refugees to over 25 million people worldwide. Education was among the six main themes discussed during the Forum and including arrangements for burden and responsibility-sharing; jobs and livelihoods; energy and infrastructure; solutions; and protection capacity.

Following-up on the implementation of the Global Compact on Refugees, the Global Refugee Forum represented an opportunity to translate the principle of international responsibility-sharing into concrete action. The Forum brought the international community together to announce new measures to:

  • Support host countries;
  • Enhance refugee self-reliance;
  • Expand access to third-country solutions; and
  • Support conditions in countries of origin for return in safety and dignity.

The Forum received pledges and contributions calling on States, refugees, development actors, the private sector, UN entities, civil society organisations, academics and faith leaders, among others, to play a part.

“EI pledges to mobilise its 400 member organisations, with a collective membership of 32.5 million educators across all levels of education, to make schools and all education institutions truly inclusive and welcoming to refugees,” EI’s Dennis Sinyolo stated, addressing the Forum.

He went on saying that EI “will continue to provide capacity building for union leaders and educators, provide tools for refugees and migrants and assess progress towards implementation of the Global Compact in education”.

Education International, he underlined, is calling on Governments, the UN and partners to:

  • Ensure the accreditation and recognition of refugee teachers’ qualifications;
  • Ensure the training and professional development of refugee and local teachers;
  • Guarantee the inclusion of refugee children and youth in the formal education systems of host countries within the first three months following their arrival. Please, do not offer an alternative inferior track to refugees.
  • Develop, finance and implement comprehensive policies to guarantee refugee teachers’ right to teach and children’s right to learn.

On 16 December, during a pre-forum Spotlight Session on “Teachers shoulder the burden: Improving support in crisis contexts”, co-organised by EI, the Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies (INEE) and the Columbia University, Sinyolo emphasised the challenges that particularly affect refugee teachers:

  • Lack of recognition of their qualifications, skills and competences;
  • Precarious employment;
  • Absence of adequate training and professional development opportunities (this last one facing local teachers teaching refugee children and youth, as well).

Sinyolo deplored that “there is a lot of brain waste and loss of talent as refugee teachers end up doing nothing or something else in order to make ends meet. It is therefore important for host governments to accredit and recognise the qualifications of refugee teachers.” He also underlined the paramount importance for host country governments of ensuring decent salaries and working conditions for refugee teachers.

He insisted that the new UNESCO Convention on the Recognition of Higher Education Qualifications, adopted in November this year, is an important instrument than can facilitate the validation, accreditation and recognition of refugee teachers’ qualifications.

“In-service training and upgrading programmes of good quality can help refugee and displaced teachers to improve their skills and competences,” Sinyolo went on noting, mentioning the example of EI and Oxfam Novib’s Quality Educators for All programme (Quality-Ed) in Mali and Northern Uganda.

He also reminded that education unions engage in social dialogue with governments and undertake advocacy activities promoting the rights of all teachers, including refugees. Most recently, EI and affiliated unions in eight countries in Europe and two countries in Africa have been conducting capacity building programmes for refugee and local teachers.

The EI European Region, the European Trade Union Committee for Education (ETUCE) and the European Federation of Education Employers (EFEE) just concluded a two-year joint project entitled “European Sectoral Social Partners in Education promoting effective integration of migrants and refugees in education”.

More broadly, the session emphasised the crucial role played by teachers in such contexts: INEE Director Dean Brooke stressed that “even in crisis contexts, teachers organise, bring children together and teach. They make a difference and protect those children. Let’s raise their profile and the profile of headmasters who keep schools opened in difficult circumstances.”

The refugee Convention of 1951 was born out of the profound feeling of shame following the Second World War due to the failure to respond to and receive those fleeing the Holocaust. That action of inaction condemned many to become its victims. Lest we forget, that Convention and the 1967 Protocol that expanded it, sprouted from and was nourished by that bloody soil. 

The attitude of far too many nations was that it was a “German problem” and neither their business nor their responsibility. It is in that context that we should appreciate that rarely, if ever, have any international instruments represented such a monumental change in attitudes that changed the meaning of “civilisation”.
The waves of refugees that followed the War were generally received with open arms, whether they were fleeing Hungary, Vietnam, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Afghanistan, South Africa or Chile.  

The Convention considers a refugee to be someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion. They are to benefit from freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining as well as education and social protection. Asylum is not dependent on having legally entered the country. Although they do not meet the standards of the Convention for refugee status, there are growing numbers of people leaving their countries because of armed conflict, other forms of violence and attacks, extreme poverty or climate change. They were left no choice.

Fleeing the suppression of their revolution in 1956, more than 200,000 Hungarians escaped, by foot, to Austria in two days. They got out just before the barbed wire was put in place to imprison them.  

Those refugees were immediately placed and absorbed in Europe, North America or elsewhere. They were received with warmth and even joy. Such a reception helped to ease the pain and cushion being so suddenly uprooted. And, they and their descendants continue to make invaluable contributions to their adopted countries.

When the iron curtain fell in 1989 and 1990, pieces of that barbed wire wrapped in ribbons with the colours of the Hungarian flag were distributed. They represented that change and became a symbol of freedom. 

Now, the barbed wire has returned to Hungary, not to keep people in, but to keep people out. 

After the latest election of President Victor Orbán, parliament adopted legislation that criminalized providing aid to undocumented immigrants and asylum-seekers. He argued that rejecting refugees is defending “Christian culture”, telling the German newspaper “Bild”, “We don’t see these people as Muslim refugees. We see them as Muslim invaders”. 

I am citing Hungary because, in 1956, nobody asked the fleeing Hungarians for either their passports or their baptismal certificates. But now, “it is not our problem” has come back into fashion. 

Responding to refugees in the spirit of the Convention also affects the work and mission of teachers and educators. However, they are obliged to be as concerned or more about the acceptance of refugees by many local communities as they are helping refugees adapt to their new homelands.  

Our European Region, the European Trade Union Committee for Education (ETUCE), and their employer counterparts, the European Federation of Education Employers (EFEE) recently carried out a study on refugees with on-site visits to Belgium (Flanders), Serbia, and Spain and materials from other countries. 

Their intention was to look at the education challenges for refugee students, but they discovered that they could not ignore the broader context of public hostility.

It came up everywhere other than Serbia. The report, “Promoting Effective Integration of Migrants and Refugees in Education” and the video documentary, “Education without Borders” are of interest wherever you live and work. It is no different from the electoral/political exploitation of fear and hostility in the United States or in many other countries. 

On 17 and 18 December, EI is participating in the First UN Global Refugee Forum. It is organised by the office of the UN High Commissioner on Refugees. It will be conducted in the spirit of the international instruments and in conformity with its contents, in other words, around all the positive things that need to be done. But, the attitudes of receiving countries are also bound to come up. 

Already last year, on the broader issue of migration, the Director General of the International Organisation on Migration (IOM)  António Vitorino, described the common migrant/refugee “reception” challenge and the attitudes of receiving populations by saying that we have the choice, “to answer migrants’ hopes with our acceptance; to answer their ambition with opportunities. To welcome rather than repudiate their arrival.”  

At the forum, I will make the pledge of Education International on measures for teachers and students, for children and youth, and for monitoring and evaluation.
Education International Call to Action

Host governments should act urgently to: 

  • Implement the UN Global Compact on Refugees and the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework.
  • Develop policy, legislation, financing and other measures to fully follow-through on both the Compact and the Framework.
  • Use the Global Framework for Refugee Education developed to help carry out the education parts of the Compact by the Global Refugee Forum Education Co-sponsorship Alliance (EI is an active partner). That means, among other things, guaranteeing quality and equitable education for refugee children and youth within three months of their arrival and ensuring the effective involvement of refugee teachers to further integration, including through accreditation, access to training, and decent and comparable wages and conditions and social protections. 
  • Develop and implement measures not just for refugees, but also with them. Both equity and inclusion are central. Their adaptation to and integration in their new homelands will be accelerated and their contributions will be enhanced if they are accorded full respect for their humanity, capabilities, talents, and skills.
  • Do everything within their powers to create a welcoming and enabling environment for refugees and fight bigotry, discrimination, and exclusion as called for in the Compact.

The development of the Compact by the United Nations was an impressive demonstration that the United Nations is capable of doing high-calibre work and negotiate strong and principled agreements, but it is far from being implemented. Education International calls on the UN to:

  • Do everything possible to generate and devote the necessary resources for effective, determined, and sustained action to implement the Compact and the Framework. 
  • Seriously monitor progress and failures, evaluate, and report. 
  • Do whatever is possible to build understanding that refugees are not just a “problem”, but also a way to transform tragedy into hope and trauma into energy. This “problem” is also an opportunity to enrich society, culturally, socially and economically.

Education International calls on citizens of all nations to:

  • Consider the facts about refugees and asylum rather than uncritically accept propaganda against them. 
  • Accept refugees as neighbours and members of their communities, and colleagues. 
  • Welcome and open up their hearts to refugees in the best traditions of the reception of refugees in the post-War decades.

We are not only taking this approach because that is what is expected of us at the forum, but also because we want to keep our focus on the real challenges. There is too much fear of and hostility to refugees in many countries.  

We refuse to be distracted and diverted by fabricated confusion and real hatred from normal human responses and instincts or from the mission of education. To be paralysed by adversity would be surrender to the same cruel, ruthless and obscene practices and collective irresponsibility that made the Convention necessary in the first place.

We continue to proudly count ourselves among those who refuse to allow darkness to snuff out the flame of tolerance, decency and hope.

David Edwards is the General Secretary of Education International, the global federation of education unions representing 32 million education workers in 170 countries and territories.

How can education social partners contribute to the inclusion of newcomers in Europe? The closing conference of the joint EI-ETUCE/EFEE project on social dialogue around education and migration presented the research and case studies gathered in the project. Key takeaways from the project were presented in a public hearing at the European Parliament, together with the premiere of the project’s documentary Education Without Borders.

The two-day conference (14-15 October 2019) was the conclusion of EI-ETUCE and EFEE’s joint project on promoting effective integration of migrants and refugees in education through social dialogue.

“This project doesn't just point out problems. It looks for solutions.” That is how Professor Nihad Bunar, the project’s lead researcher from the University of Stockholm, described his motivation to get involved. Indeed, the research which Professor Bunar produced over the last two years offers concrete case studies from Belgium, Serbia and Spain, shedding a light on the situation of migrants in these countries as well as the work that teachers and education trade unions are doing to foster inclusion.

Successful approaches are child-focused and supportive, integrating the children in regular classes as soon as possible while they receive additional support. In this context the first language of the migrant children is key. It should be used to underpin their learning and not seen as a barrier to the acquisition of the language of the host country. Likewise, it is important for teachers to have decent pay and working conditions, along with the tools, professional autonomy and opportunities for professional development that they need to guarantee all learners the required support. Successful inclusion is also directed towards families and requires engagement not just by schools but also by the community outside the educational sector.

Social dialogue can and must continue to play an important role in effective inclusion. For example, education social partners can ensure that policy discussions take note of the working conditions and professional needs of the teachers, trainers and school leaders who cater for migrants and refugees. These professionals are a fundamental part of any inclusion strategy, and they need excellent working conditions and professional development opportunities to be able to address the particular challenges of newly arrived learners.

EI-ETUCE and EFEE members discussed Joint Guidelines for the effective inclusion of migrants and refugees in education. This kicks off discussions with a broader set of social actors and European policymakers about a possible Quality Framework for the Effective Integration of Migrants and Refugees. Both outcomes will be proposed for adoption at the upcoming European Sectoral Social Dialogue in Education Plenary on 2 December 2019.

On the second day, the public hearing at the European Parliament 'Migration and education: Humanity and rights or fences and hostility?' was hosted by MEP Pierfrancesco Majorino and gave an opportunity to premiere the new documentary Education Without Borders, which tracks the debates and case studies throughout the project. The film was warmly received by the audience and those who were actively involved in the project over the last years. It sheds a personal light on the richness and opportunities that newly arrived children bring with them when arriving in Europe, and shows a variety of approaches that dedicated education professionals are taking to support them in their integration.

The public hearing gathered representatives of EI-ETUCE, EFEE and civil society organisations: SOLIDAR, PICUM, COFACE, the Red Cross, Eurochild. One of the main conclusions was that network building all over Europe is needed to ensure the integration of migrants into education, starting from a child-focused and rights-based approach to inclusion.

As EI-ETUCE President Christine Blower stressed, “all children have the right to education, no matter their migration status. If more refugees arrive in Europe, we need a bigger table not higher walls.” This successful joint project shows that education social partners are committed to this vision and have a lot to offer in its implementation.

Read the full report Promoting Effective Integration of Refugees and Migrants in Education.

Watch the documentary Education Without Borders.

More information on EI-ETUCE's website.

More than 50% of the 5.3 million asylum seekers who arrived in OECD countries between 2014 and 2017 were 18-34 years old. The OECD’s new report Unlocking the potential of Migrants uses practical examples to highlight the advantages of vocational education and training (VET) for the inclusion of young migrants in European society.

The analysis, published on 26 September 2019, draws on international policies and practices. It offers detailed examples from Germany, Italy, Sweden and Switzerland, but also explores data from other countries. The report provides guidelines for governments and other stakeholders on how to help young humanitarian migrants by placing them in vocational education and training.

The report sets out the benefits of VET: apprenticeships and work-based learning seem to be one of the most effective ways to integrate young migrants and refugees into society and the labour market. The report also investigates the challenges that migrants face in accessing upper-secondary level VET and what support they need.

The data show that the share of young migrants entering upper-secondary VET programmes has been rising in recent years. There were increases of 6% in Germany (2009-17), 5% in Sweden (2011-17), and 3% in Switzerland (2012-17). However, in Finland, Germany, Norway and Sweden a lower percentage of young migrants attend upper-secondary VET than native students and they are less successful in completing their VET. In Finland and Germany young migrants are 8% less likely to finish their VET than their native school mates, while in Norway and Sweden the gap is 16-18% . The reasons are various. For example, they might begin the course with weaker skills, might lack relevant social networks, and might face discrimination. There is sometimes a shortage of apprenticeship placements that they can take.

The OECD report suggests that countries could help young migrants and refugees by offering flexible VET provision, such as modular, shorter or longer programmes. Governments also need to give schools and companies clear information about the legal status of humanitarian migrant students and apprentices. Some countries are promoting intermediary bodies to build contacts between young migrants and employers. Such efforts can challenge discriminatory assumptions from employers, while giving migrants a chance to build social capital and a better understanding of employer expectations.

You can read the full OECD report “Unlocking the potential of migrants” here.


by Yasemin Can-Nizamoğlu

In Germany, the debate about the whys and wherefores of (school based) heritage language instruction (HLI or in German »Herkunftssprachlicher Unterricht«) is not over. In some German states heritage languages are taught via teachers directly employed by or sent by the consulates of the foreign countries (the so called consulate method) or alternatively via a public provision – or a mix of both. Either way, HLI remains marginal within the German education system. This piece will address why it is so marginal and what the arguments are for its support.

Heritage language instruction finds itself within a dilemma - supporters on the one side use the 'Interdependence' hypothesis of Jim Cummins (see Cummins, 2000)[1] as the basis for an institutional embedding of HLI for students with a mother tongue which is different to the country's / state's official language. The 'Interdependence' hypothesis argues that instruction in one language will, if certain conditions are fulfilled, effect learning in the other language. Critics of this approach who support a monolingual school argue that the time that needs to be invested in learning the heritage language should be invested in learning the official host country language. There are few empirical studies to support the 'Interdependence' hypothesis (see Wenk et al, 2016)[2].

Linguistic competencies connect in different ways. But the question of how they connect is unclear. It is however clear, that attending HLI doesn't have negative effects on learning German and that “it leads with certainty to a further development of the family language, which is additional language qualification” (Reich 2014, pg. 7)[3] There are strong arguments that the positive effects (on learning German) only occur when particular conditions are fulfilled – amongst these being: agreeing on teaching methods and cooperation between staff, quality standards, and the recognition of the HLI as a subject.

Regardless of the desirability of more research, heritage languages should be recognised as a valuable resource. Students with mother tongues other than German, bring “specific language and cultural resources with them, which should be recognised as a treasure not just for themselves, but for the whole community.”(Bremer / Mehlhorn 2018, pg. 11)[4].

Challenges and Problems in Practice – an example:

The challenges and problems shown up in a study conducted in Munich in 2013, are exemplary. The interview with a HLI teacher indicated that the conditions for the HLI were very unhelpful.

The instruction was on Friday afternoon which led to poor attendance. As the attendance was voluntary, the students preferred to enjoy their free time – particularly in the summer. The HLI offer was a double lesson (i.e. 90 minutes) in the school once a week. There was a wide range of ages in the group according to the teacher interviewed. One group consisted of students from grades 4 to 7, who also had a range of language competencies. Some of them had started the HLI that year – others had participated for a number of years.

The heterogeneity of the teaching group in terms of age as well as linguistic competency was a significant challenge for the teacher. The teacher worked completely independently in terms of the curriculum planning and selection of teaching materials. This was based in the difficulties of the textbooks used in the HLI. The planned content of the curriculum could not, nowadays, be fully covered within a school year. This is partially because the students do not attend regularly but also because the teacher ensures a variety of activities within the lessons. Without this variety, the students wouldn't attend the lessons at all.

In Bremen we can observe the same problems 5 years after the Munich study. In the context of the seminar “Der schulische Herkunftssprachenunterricht” (Heritage Language Instruction at School) (SoSe 18, Universität Bremen) which I offered, students observed HLI in schools to get an idea of how it was delivered and spoke with teachers on the courses. There were similarly unhelpful conditions – the example discussed above was not an exception, but rather a systematic reflection of general problems for HLI. These conditions make participation for the school students not particularly attractive. The initial question in this piece – why has HLI got such a marginalised position – is based in the fact that we are only on the way towards acceptance of multilingualism. This is shown by current media coverage for example the Bild (a German national tabloid) had an article with the headline: “only one of (these) 103 children speak German at home.” The supposition that only German is the language that everyone speaks at home is not really thought through. More than a third of families in Germany are multilingual. From that, growing up with an additional language to German is hardly an exception but rather normality - and this will grow in significance. The first important step would be the recognition and acceptance of heritage languages and multilingualism.

Recommendations ...

Heritage language instruction needs to be reformed - that's certain. Support in terms of educational policy and research is necessary to achieve this. Participation for students should be made part of an attractive offer. For example, student motivation could be enhanced by taking away the 'informal group' nature of the lessons, instead valuing their participation by awarding grades like in other subjects. This would also require a curriculum with set standards. In addition, in-service training for teaching staff with regards to linguistic diversity within the teaching groups is important. The HLI should be carried out in close cooperation with the teaching of German. Simultaneously the institutional connections between support in the student's first and second languages should be strengthened. (Woerfel 2013)[5]. The interaction between families, schools and research is equally important in achieving this as the recognising and using a natural multilingualism (ebd.).

... and Perspectives:

The struggle against the marginalisation of HLI has passed an important milestone with the establishment of a network for "Herkunftssprachlicher Unterricht"[6]. This network is a German wide organisation which plans to broaden research particularly in terms of the role and function of HLI. There are also positive moves afoot in some states. In the Saarland, for example, the consulate model will be taken into the state government sector and extended from the current Italian and Turkish, to include Arabic and Russian. Nord-Rhein-Westfalen has added two new languages to make a total of 22 - including Aramaic and Zazaki. We can hope that these positive developments continue and that heritage languages will be supported.

At the time of writing, Yasemin Can-Nizamoğlu was an academic staff member of the German as a Second and Foreign Language Unit, Area 10, Department of Language and Literature - Universität Bremen. Ms. Can-Nizamoğlu is now employed at Cologne University (Unversität zu Köln).


[1] Cummins, J. (2000): Language, power and pedagogy. Bilingual children in the crossfire. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

[2] Wenk, A./Marx, N./Steinhoff, T./Rüßmann, L. (2016): Interlinguale Förderung von Schreibfähigkeiten bilingualer Schülerinnen und Schüler. Zeitschrift für Fremdsprachenforschung 27 (2), 151-179.

[3] Reich, H. (2014): Über die Zukunft des herkunftssprachlichen Unterrichts. Überarbeitete Fassung eines Vortrags bei der GEW Rheinland-Pfalz in Mainz am 31.01.2012. content/prodaz/reich_hsu_prodaz.pdf [15.11.2018].

[4] Brehmer, B./Mehlhorn, G. (2018): Herkunftssprachen. Tübingen: Narr Francke Attempto.

[5] Woerfel, T. (2013): Interaktionen im multilingualen Spracherwerb- Nachteil Bayern? Vortrag, 3. Diskussionsforum Linguistik in Bayern »Interaktionen«, 25./26.02.2013 Universität Bamberg.