Millions of refugees worldwide do not receive an education, despite it being recognised as a fundamental human right. States are legally obligated to educate all children residing within their borders, which extends to refugee and immigrant children as much as it does to citizens. According to UNHCR figures, 48% of all school-aged refugee children are out of school, and although the number of refugee children in primary school is relatively high at 77%, this plummets to around 31% in secondary schools, and only around 3% of refugees attend university. This situation has been exacerbated by COVID-19, as displaced children often lack the technology to access their host country’s distance learning efforts following school closures. Perhaps nowhere demonstrates the barriers faced by refugee children in accessing education quite as effectively as Greece.
According to Greek law, all children living in the country, even those with incomplete documentation, should be enrolled in the Greek school system. In theory, this is a textbook example of a state fulfilling its obligation to the right to education. As a state party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Convention on the Rights of the Child, both of which state that education is a human right, Greece is legally bound to respect such commitments.
Yet, in practice, thousands of refugee children across Greece are not receiving formal education. According to Greece’s 2019 report in the Asylum Information Database, it was stated that of the roughly 37,000 refugee children of school age, only around a third are enrolled in the school system, the majority of whom are based in cities, as opposed to those in the island ‘hotspots’ like Chios, Lesvos, and Samos, or residential centres on the mainland. Indeed, on the islands, the number of children enrolled in education amounts to around one quarter. This is particularly problematic as, according to law, refugees should only be in the island hotspot camps for around three months, but refugees often remain trapped for much longer as they wait for asylum hearings.
I have seen refugees struggle to get an education in Greece first hand, having spent eight months working with refugee NGOs across Greece. For example, in 2018, when schools reopened after the summer, secondary school-aged children had to wait many months for places in nearby schools, massively impacting their ability to study at the level of their Greek peers. I heard of some refugee children in Greece experiencing hostility from the public, who sometimes protested directly outside school gates. This is, of course, not to mention that many children are not receiving sufficient support in other areas: children may have experienced trauma during their displacement, or have special needs, and the majority of children simply do not have the language skills to succeed in Greek schools. As a result, many refugees are left with an education that is disjointed, disconnected and ultimately inferior to their Greek peers. These issues have led some scholars to say that refugee education in Greece is ‘segregated’, although indirectly. This is hugely problematic as not only will this harm any attempts at educational integration, it may also build resentment between the two groups.
This is not to say that the Greek state has not been working to help children in Greece integrate into the mainstream education system. In 2016, the Greek Ministry of Education began a series of mandatory afternoon and morning classes (DYEP) designed to help refugees better integrate in Greece and to prepare them for full engagement with the formal school system. Yet, despite the increasing number of DYEP classes in recent years, they have been criticised for furthering the indirect segregation between Greek children and refugee children as there is no interaction between Greek students and refugees in these classes. Also, as DYEP classes do not apply to youths over 15, older children are left out.
Many refugee children are being educated on a non-formal basis. There are dozens of international NGOs all over Greece providing refugees with informal education, but this too is an imperfect solution. For children not enrolled or not attending classes in Greek schools, attending in-camp informal education centres or youth spaces can be a fantastic way to find the structure, stability and opportunities for socialising that regular schooling offers. However, these centres are often underfunded (relying 100% on grants or donations), understaffed, and as they exist outside the formal school system, do not follow the official curriculum or offer children opportunities to interact with Greek peers. From my own experiences and observation, the relationships between some of these international NGOs and the Greek state can be tense, which has caused the closure of some NGOs. In addition, the lack of recognised certification can have negative impacts for refugee students in the future, especially in regards to higher education or employment.
Access to education for refugees in Greece has been exacerbated by COVID-19. As with many countries, schools in Greece were closed for many months and were recently re-opened on 14 September, with tougher restrictions. At the same time, accommodation centres (refugee camps) in Greece, given their often unsanitary conditions and overcrowding, became entirely quarantined. This meant that refugee children who reside in the camps are unable to attend schools even if they are enrolled, simply because they are unable to leave their camp. COVID-19 has also had a significant impact on NGOs; quarantines and lockdowns have meant that far fewer people have been able to volunteer than required, and that classes have been forced to take place online, which is not possible for many refugees who have limited access to the internet or digital devices.
So, as it stands, the educational provisions for refugees in Greece are inadequate and demand improvement, and the poor situation has been exacerbated by COVID-19. However, as Greece has by far the largest public debt in Europe and hosts a large proportion of Europe’s refugees, it simply lacks the means to provide the services required. This is not something likely to change. Other European nations should accept more responsibility, and consider immediately increasing the number of refugee families and unaccompanied children within their borders or substantially investing in educational initiatives in Greece. Currently, despite efforts by the Greek state and many NGOs, integration to the Greek or wider European society is being hampered. As quality education is fundamental to success later in life, the inadequate education many refugees have in Greece may have a detrimental impact on them for years to come.