Executive summary: Excluded and Segregated. The vanishing education of refugee children in Greece

In a report titledExcluded and Segregated. The vanishing education of refugee children in Greece, Refugee Support Aegean (RSA) tracks the different levels of barriers to education through the eyes of refugee children, their parents and education professionals across the country.

The report first identifies the absence of a regular detailed publication of official statistics on the number of school-age refugee children present in the country, the number of children enrolled and the number of children actually attending formal education. It highlights problems in the implementation and structure of the dedicated education framework implemented by Greece in 2016, such as the failure of the prompt establishment and staffing of classes and delayed transport arrangements. It then discusses how wider deficiencies in the asylum procedure and reception system of the country have a negative impact on access to education. Xenophobic stances at school, in local and regional level create further difficulties for those children. Lastly, the repercussions of COVID-19 movement restrictions affecting physical access to schools and inaccessible remote learning are discussed.

The Greek education system sets out three measures for the integration of refugee children: kindergartens inside Reception and Identification Centres (RIC) and mainland camps; Reception Facilities for Refugee Education (DYEP), i.e. afternoon classes in public schools; and morning Reception Classes within Educational Priority Zones (ZEP) in designated public schools. The framework is supplemented by Refugee Education Coordinators (SEP) who act as a bridge between the education system and refugee families.

The exclusion of refugee children from the education system has reached record levels. Available official statistics demonstrate a sharp and rapid drop in enrolments of refugee children in public schools over the past two years, from 12,867 in June 2019 to 8,637 in March 2021. Education professionals stress that actual school attendance is at a dramatic low.

Exclusion is owed to a series of deficiencies in the implementation of the education framework, ranging from delays in the establishment of classes and recruitment of teaching staff, to unavailable or insufficient transport services.

The case of Ritsona camp has become the flagship of exclusion of refugee children from formal education in Greece. Following a doubling in population in 2020, the camp currently houses 2,763 refugees, among whom over 800 school-age children. While the newly created classes are yet to be staffed, there are not enough busses to bring all the children to school to attend classes running since last year. At the time of the publication of this report, all the children of the camp remain out of school. Meanwhile, the local mayor opposed their attendance in local schools, arguing that the school infrastructure could not absorb the extra pupils and that their inclusion would create risks for public health during the COVID-19 pandemic. Hostile discourse against the schooling of refugee children, citing public health risks, persists in different parts of Greece.

“The most important problem is that the children are excluded from the right to education, there are about, 830 students that are out of school… We got a lot of empty promises but we are still waiting to get… this chance. And you know, if you are not able to communicate with a local community then how can you have a better understanding (of) each other and how can they know about us?”

(Α*, Afghan girl).

Refugee children’s access to education is marred by aggravating factors stemming from broader deficiencies in the Greek asylum system, including barriers in the asylum procedure, precarious living conditions and interruption of accommodation. The lowest enrolment rates are detected among refugee children on the islands. The vast majority of children cannot access education, even non-formal education, during their stay in the RIC.

“In the tent (in Moria) we couldn’t study. In summer it was too hot, in winter too cold. We had to spend many hours in queues. We couldn’t sleep calm, because there were fights and fires. We often woke up from the sound of screams. Sometimes the police came and beat people and threw tear gas when there were fights or protests. We were never feeling safe or calm.”

(H*, 11-year-old Afghan boy).

Under movement restrictions imposed in RIC and camps in March 2020 following the COVID-19 pandemic, only heads of families or group representatives were allowed to exit the facilities between 07:00 and 19:00. Movement restrictions were successively prolonged even after lockdown measures were eased for the rest of the population in May 2020, sparking sharp criticism about discriminatory treatment against refugees. While the closure of schools due to the COVID-19 pandemic led to a shift of the Greek education system to a challenging reality of online learning, most refugee children continue to lack the necessary means to access classes such as internet access, technical equipment, and the language skills to navigate the Greek platform set up by the authorities for online learning.

“In March 2020 with the first quarantine, my son couldn’t participate in online lessons, because we had only one phone, which was with me when I was working. The same happened in November with the second quarantine… Somebody donated us a tablet. But I have two children. One day I would allow my elder boy to learn, the other my smaller…”

(J*, Afghan father, Athens).

The insistence on the part of the government and the European Commission on large-scale camp facilities for the reception of asylum seekers located far from urban centres corroborates fears of further exclusion and segregation. The Memorandum on the planned “Multi-Purpose RIC” on Lesvos includes schooling on site where public school attendance is not possible.

“(…) Segregation is not the answer. To place those children in schools inside the camps or limit their education to remote schooling is not an alternative. Not only is it the right of every child to access education, but to exclude them further devastates their mental and physical health. We have to remember that many of those children have not been able to go to school in their home countries due to war and they have often faced violence and hunger. We have to embrace every child and allow them all to grow into our societies.”

(Education professional, Aegean islands).

Based on the observations made throughout the report, RSA makes the following recommendations:

  • The overarching aim of any meaningful education policy should be the inclusion of refugee children into state schools with the necessary support. To this end, the Ministry of Education should continue to conduct regular monitoring and evaluation of the operation of TY-ZEP and DYEP and consult the education sector on concrete ways to improve policies.

  • The Ministry of Education should ensure regular publication of detailed statistics on the number of school-age refugee children present in the country, the number of children enrolled and the number of children actually attending.

  • The Ministry of Education should ensure smooth and uninterrupted access of refugee children to the public education system through prompt establishment of the required classes, recruitment of teaching staff and transport arrangements.

  • Segregation in the education system should be prevented. Creating parallel education frameworks inside camps, based on remote schooling, or in the form separate afternoon classes as a rule for refugees results in creating “educational ghettos”.

  • Containment of asylum seekers in large-scale facilities away from urban centres, including at borders, does not enable the state to comply with its obligation to guarantee children the right to education, as consistently reflected by practice in Greece. The model of reception in isolated large-scale centres and the use of border procedures should therefore be resisted.

  • Public health measures should be non-discriminatory. Any emergency measures affecting freedom of movement should respect children’s right and obligation to attend school.

* Names have been anonymized to protect privacy and security 

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