sponsored by TaalUnie
Committee on Culture and Education
Chaired by Bianca Zancan (IT)
In 2015, more than a million people tried to seek refuge in the EU because of violent conflicts occurring in their home countries. The number of people asking for protection from the EU and its Member States is increasing again after the pandemic and in the first half of 2022 alone, 405.500 asylum applications were lodged in the EU. Refugees often arrive in Europe after long and difficult travels, and they commonly lack one of the most basic means of integration in their country of destination: its language. This imposes plenty of challenges on them, as they often struggle to communicate with other citizens; and on the EU too: providing adequate education to newcomers is a most urgent one. It is therefore fundamental for EU Member States to promote a pragmatic and sustainable solution to the problem of linguistic education of refugees, and to provide them with the necessary tools to live a well-integrated life in their host country.
- Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the EU has received the largest amount of incoming refugees since the Second World War.
- By contrast, at the end of 2021 only around 10% of refugees worldwide lived in the EU-27.
- In most refugee camps, refugees can only get professional linguistic help from translators and interpreters working for non-profit organisations and NGOs.
- According to the UN Refugee Agency, 3.7 million refugee children are out of school.
- Different EU Member States have different policies to support refugees’ learning their host country’s language: some provide immersion classes outside the national education system, while others do not.
- Several studies have found a strong, positive correlation between language barriers and anxiety levels.
- Some countries are at the fore-front of this issue and have already adopted language policies concerning refugees, as is the case for the Dutch and Flemish government, which consider learning the Dutch language as a fundamental aspect of integration into society.
Makida’s story, told by the Guardian in 2016, helps us understand the struggles deriving from not knowing one’s host country’s language. Makida was, at the time of the interview, a 40-year-old woman with three children, who fled from Ethiopia to England due to political upheavals. She attended English classes for 10 years, but never managed to feel comfortable regarding her understanding of it. Makida tells how she used to cry when she had to talk to someone, both because of the language barrier and because of a conflict of customs. In fact, in Ethiopia, it was not considered respectful for a woman to “go up and talk to somebody”. Yet everything changed when she started taking English classes at home, with a private tutor. Through exercise, she gained confidence and finally started to understand English better. Her story has a happy ending: she now runs a catering company with her husband and has made friends with a foreign neighbour.
Yet it must be noted that this is not always the case: for many refugees, arriving in their future host country implies a frustrating setback. They often have advanced skills and experience, yet cannot enter the job market because of language barriers and their lack of financial and social stability. Therefore, to promote language learning and well-structured education policies is necessary not only to increase general education of refugees, but, most importantly, to help them integrate adequately in the EU1.
Even if Makida has found the happy ending she deserves, her story outlines some of the most worrying features of European integration programs. Looking at her case, we notice that the cultural conflict between her country of origin and her host country posed great emotional distress, making it hard for her to have conversations with other citizens, thus inevitably making her feel out of place. A partial solution to the problem was found in learning English, which Makida tried to do for several years through the national resources offered to her. Yet, these were insufficient: it was only when she started taking private lessons that she managed to finally learn English at an adequate level. This sparks the question: what role does economic stability play in the integration of refugees? And how can European Member States bridge the gap between what relatively richer immigrants can afford in terms of education and language learning, and what relatively poorer immigrants have access to?2
the 1951 Refugee Convention defines a refugee as “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 or a particular social group, or political opinion”. In the present text, refugees have reached their host country and have started an integration process in it.
the issue at stake is particularly urgent for children, since some age categories fall out of the scope of national legislation on mandatory schooling of Member States, thus making it difficult for them to get an education. Even when this is not the case, economic and structural resources of public education in several European countries often fail to address the needs of new students, who commonly suffer from psychological issues and, most notably, from the language barrier.
native citizens of host countries are affected (or believe they will be affected) by the influx of immigrants reaching the EU. Indeed, in all EU Member States, numerous citizens deem immigrants as a threat in terms of social, cultural, and economic stabilit
holding the executive power of the EU, it aims at managing cooperation at the EU’s external borders through Frontex (the European Border and Coastline Agency) and at implementing the Common European Asylum System (CEAS).
Council of Europe
founded in 1949, the Council of Europe is one of the continent’s leading human rights organisations. It has developed the Linguistic Integration of Adult Migrants (LIAM) project, born in 2006, thereby providing policy guidelines and pedological resources for its 46 member states.
United Nations Refugee agency
The UNHCR was founded in 1950 to safeguard the safety and well-being of people fleeing their native country. Both actively advocate for human rights and their respect, the latter paying particular attention to refugee rights.
Legal Framework/Measures already in place
As stated in the European Convention on the Legal status of Migrant Workers, migrant workers and members of their families are entitled “to general education and vocation training and retraining”, and to promote access to general and vocational training centres, “the receiving State shall facilitate the teaching of its language”.
The Council of Europe has been concerned with migrant language learning since 1968. One of its most ambitious projects on the topic, the Linguistic Integration of Adult Migrants (LIAM) project, was launched in 2006. It develops policy guidelines and pedagogical resources to help Member States provide satisfactory educational opportunities to adult migrants. The Council has also worked on the linguistic integration of migrant children: several conventions, recommendations, and resolutions have been promoted to try and outline effective measures to help children in obtaining sufficient linguistic knowledge.
Another important contribution to the issue of refugee integration into the EU has been provided by the European Council on Refugees and Exiles. Its policy paper tackles the issue of linguistic integration stating that “special education or language programmes for refugees” should be granted to them as soon as they receive the permit to stay in their host country. Further, it suggests that financial support should be available for general educational purposes and that all refugees “should be entitled to a minimum number of hours of free language tuition”.
The Language Union (Taalunie) is an intergovernmental, Flemish-Dutch, organization that develops and promotes policy concerning the Dutch language. The Language Union has no direct influence on national integration policies, but it does have an important advising and uniting function. For example, in 2019 the Language Union published an advisory text at the request of the Flemish and Dutch ministers containing nine recommendations to improve the teaching of Dutch to non-native newcomers. In addition, the Language Union also supports various initiatives around Dutch language acquisition for newcomers and regularly conducts research into the demands and challenges that exist in the Netherlands and Flanders in this area.
The first challenge the EU will likely need to face in trying to promote adequate linguistic education among refugees is the often-lacking availability of schools, classrooms and teachers in host communities. Of course, teaching any subject to children who struggle to understand the very words used to explain it is not an easy task, and teachers need in-depth, specific education to do so. This creates a significant cost for host countries.3
This challenge worsens when considering the direct and indirect costs of schooling: in countries where education is public, the costs of materials, books, and uniforms can be very high, sometimes making it an unsustainable expense for immigrants. Evidently, accessibility is a challenge that Member States will need to address in trying to improve educational possibilities for refugees.
The second challenge is of a political kind: in recent years, numerous populist political parties have won elections all over the EU. Among them, most are right-wing parties with strong stances against the arrival of immigrants, who are exploited as a catalyst of fear and anger. This is likely to increase the anti-immigration sentiment that has spread over the EU after the 2015 immigration crisis, during which virtually none of the Member States was equipped with the right tools to face the people arriving at their shores. Furthermore, anti-immigration sentiments negatively influence the educational attainment of children of refugees. The USA is an example of this: Southern-American children in schools are subjected to chants such as “Build the wall!”, as well as deportation taunts and jokes, coming from peers roughly their age. Of course, this cannot but disrupt a child’s learning process, while simultaneously putting him or her under tremendous pressure and anxiety. Therefore, to safeguard children’s (and adults’) linguistic education, the EU will need to try and mitigate the negative effects of the spreading anti-immigration sentiment.
In terms of what the future will bring, a good departing point consists in acknowledging how difficult and multifaceted the process towards linguistic integration has been and will be. Further, it must be considered that, while it is important to promote a united, coordinated, and sustainable European plan to tackle the issue at hand, different Member States will likely carry on different policies that will best be suited for them and their citizens, both native and immigrant. Finally, it must be noted that linguistic integration is not a symmetric process: while hearing new languages may trigger sentiments of fear and anxiety in citizens of host countries, who may perceive their culture under threat, immigrants face different, more pragmatic challenges due to the language barrier.
As suggested by the Council of Europe, some possible directions that European policies could take to improve refugees’ ability to receive adequate education include the implementation of language programmes that answer directly to each one’s linguistic and educational needs, both in terms of basic attainments (mostly for children, to help support their entrance into school) and tailor-made, high-quality courses (mostly for adults, targeting their skills and how they can be spent on the job market); ensure that formal tests conform to nationally accepted standards, thereby ensuring that refugees are not kept from entering the labour force; devise effective incentives while not punishing those who do not meet previously set standards. Last, but definitely not least, the EU must envision a programme of linguistic integration that takes into account the value of a refugee’s own language: diversity, after all, is one of the EU’s main sources of pride!
- How language barriers affect children on the move – a short animated video depicting the real-life, daily struggles of refugee children, who move to new countries without previous knowledge of their language.
- Education Without Borders – A documentary about migration and education in Europe – a short documentary on the effects of the integration of foreign children in Spanish, Serbian, and Belgian schools, and how these can spark reflection towards change.
- Migration and Education: Leveraging the Potential of Migration for a Better Tomorrow – extract from the Global Conference on Human Right to Quality Education, where key speaker Cécile Riallant talks about migration and education, and how we can improve the latter through the former.
- Platform Onderwijs Nederlands en Nederlands als Tweede Taal (PONT2) – an overview of Taalunie’s think thank on how to better implement policy regarding the teaching of Dutch at all education levels;
- NT2-Beginnersdoelen – an online platform by Taalunie to help beginners get started in the process of learning Dutch.
- NT2-onderwijs voor volwassenen – an article by Taaulunie that analyses the landscape of adult Dutch language education.
- Yared was a high court judge in Ethiopia before he had to flee to the UK in 2016. After having applied for over 30 jobs in his host country, he became a traffic warden. How can EU Member States make sure this kind of experience is made the most of, instead of wasted?
- If Makida had not paid to take private English lessons, would she have learnt enough to feel comfortable when speaking to others?
- Given that EU Member States invest different quantities of money on education (e.g., 15.2% of GDP in Switzerland, 7.4% in Greece), how can they all provide satisfactory means to help children refugees get an education?