Cover Image
close this bookThe Courier N 150 - March - April 1995 - Dossier: Refugees - Country Reports: The Bahamas, Guyana (EC Courier, 1995, 104 p.)
close this folderDossier
View the documentRefugees and displaced people
View the documentRefugee women
View the documentDevelopment-induced displacement
View the documentFleeing environmental devastation in the Sahel
View the documentIs there a refugee-specific education?
View the documentRefugee participation
View the documentRefugee assistance: a common approach
View the documentDefending humanitarianism at the end of the 20th century
View the documentMozambican refugees and their brothers' keepers
View the documentThe European Union's asylum policy: control, prevention, integration
View the documentAsylum procedures in the KU: towards a lowest common denominator
View the documentA European response to the global refugee crisis
View the documentRefugees from the former Yugoslavia - The view from Germany
View the documentDeveloping early warning systems
View the documentChallenging the assumptions of repatriation
View the documentAfrican hospitality takes the strain
View the documentInternational instruments concerning refugees.

Is there a refugee-specific education?

by Rosemary Preston

In both industrially advanced and less developed countries, the education required by adults who are refugees relates to their past, present and expected social and economic experiences and not to their status as refugees. However. the condition of being a refugee affects the extent to which education is accessible and the quality of such provision. The experience of becoming and being a refugee may influence attitudes to education and capacities for learning.

Refugees: status and rights

The most important characteristics of refugees are their inability to repatriate due to continued fear of persecution in their homelands and the absence of permanent settlement opportunities in their country of asylum or elsewhere.

In theory, in the case of those seeking refuge from persecution, states are bound to respect the principles of territorial asylum, by providing protection of the person and refraining from forcible repatriation. In addition, if they are signatories to the Geneva Convention and Protocol, States accept, on humanitarian grounds, a commitment to make certain social and economic provisions in respect of those formally designated as refugees, so as to promote their integration in the country of asylum Such States are required by the terms of the Convention to grant refugees, without discrimination, the most favourable treatment possible in this respect, if not the same treatment as the national population. The economic and social provisions listed by the Convention relate, among other things, to gainful employment and to education. Refugees should have the same entitlement to wage-earning employment and primary education as the national population. Their entitlement to other forms of employment and education should be the same as that enjoyed by other aliens.

In practice, these intentions are not always fulfilled. States do repatriate refugee-seekers against their will. Although signatories to the Geneva Convention and Protocol, States nowadays are choosing not to confer refugees status on large numbers of those applying for asylum and instead grant more precarious residential status with inferior entitlements. In any case, signatories may reserve agreement to such clauses when signing the Convention and many do, on both economic and political grounds. These grounds include, among others, the inability to pay for such assistance, the fear of angering the local population, the need to discourage greater numbers of immigrants from seeking asylum and to minimise friction with the government of the country of origin.

The ascribing of refugee status differentiates groups of asylum-seekers and those so labelled from the local population, whether national or immigrant. It simultaneously creates a popular image of victims or circumstances where it is morally justifiable to give humanitarian assistance. By providing such assistance from sources and through channels other than those that would be used to bring equivalent services to local people, governments can avoid the accusation of giving to foreigners that which rightfully belongs to the national population. Since the status of refugee depoliticises and denationalises those so labelled, international agencies and governments can finance such aid on the grounds that it is not partisan. These processes are, in turn, allowed to produce the impression that refugees are unable to help themselves or to recognise the kind of assistance that they need and so have no contribution to make in providing for those needs.

Since this image of helplessness is patently not grounded in reality, it has to be assumed that such constructions have political purposes intended to maintain refugees without a voice in socially marginal positions. Several researchers have shown that refugee groups take many initiatives to help themselves. Typically, they are quick to identify a cluster of needs, the fulfilment of which will enable them to resume self-sufficiency as individuals, households or communities. In locations where subsistence production is not an option, the primary needs are an opportunity to generate income and a demand for training in skills that will enable them to do so, in ways that are appropriate to their present place of residence and expected long-term settlement Only where refugees have been held for protracted periods of time in restricted settlements, without hope of a long-term alternative, does it seem that inertia undermines these initiatives.

Refugee futures

All education looks to the future, but not all people have certain futures. The often extended and changing uncertainty of refugee futures can make it particularly difficult to identify the most appropriate forms of education for refugee groups, whether children or adults. In Thailand and Pakistan, changes in both short and longterm settlement policies have resulted in major changes in the structure and content of educational assistance.

The influence of settlement characteristics on refugee educational and training needs is undisputed. Refugees are found in industrially advanced and less developed countries They live in rural and urban areas, settled by private arrangement with local people or in accordance with government policy. They may live in individual households or in open or closed group settlements These range from agricultural development schemes, such as those found in Zambia and Tanzania, to the closed. prison-like camps of Thailand and Hong Kong. When long-term settlement has been achieved, the refugee status lapses, administratively at least Until then, refugees endeavour to prepare for as many options as they see before them. These may include continued residence in places of temporary settlement. Iong-term residence in the same country, resettlement in a third country or, the internationally preferred solution, repatriation to their country of origin.

The decreasing opportunities for refugees from impoverished regions of the Third World to resettle in industrially advanced countries of North America, Europe and Australasia is discouraging poorer countries from offering initial asylum. These countries are also becoming less inclined to offer long-term settlement to those to whom they have given temporary asylum, sometimes for many years, while fruitless efforts have been made to ensure their safe repatriation.

The increasingly negative political climate surrounding refugees and asylum seekers explains in part the rhetoric of uncertainty that is used to inhibit decisive policy to enhance refugee futures. In industrially advanced countries, those given asylum without refugee status may be prevented from attending language and employment training that would be prerequisites for self-sufficiency. The failure of the second International Conference on Assistance to Refugees in Africa (ICARA II) to establish ways to provide long-term development assistance to refugee affected areas of the continent has meant that the transition from entitlement to emergency relief to development aid has advanced little and such provision as is made reaches only a minority of those who would benefit from it. The situation is similar in areas of Latin America and Asia which receive refugees

The education of adult refugees

The study of the provision of education to adult refugees and asylum seekers and its effects on them should be explicitly located in the changing con textual fabric within which it is embedded.

In different parts of the world, many people devote large amounts of time and effort to helping refugees obtain education In the face of what are sometimes enormous political, economic and logistical obstacles, their achievements are to be applauded. However, the proportion of refugee adults receiving education is small and politically determined, with members of certain ethnic groups and nationalities being given preference over others The costs per capita, in contrast, are high, distorted by the inclusion of the small number of refugees given scholar ships to study outside their country of asylum

Educational programmes for refugee adults seem to conform, with a few significant exceptions, to those provided for non-refugee groups of equivalent educational and social status. Whether initiated and administered by refugees. private voluntary agencies (PVOs) or governments, they include basic literacy and numeracy courses for those with no schooling, trade and craft skill training, post-primary levels of formal education and various professional and para-professional training courses. As with non-refugee groups, programmes may be directed at all members of the adult population or at selected sub-groups, differentiated by age, gender, ethnicity or nationality. Some programmes are devised to give selected refugees basic training to ensure immediate services for the refugee populations to which they belong. They include, for example, health worker and teacher training. This is in accordance with UNHCR policy, endorsed in many countries, that refugees should be responsible for services within the refugee community. Other programmes, taught and administered by refugees, are more concerned with engendering eventual self-sufficiency and longer-term opportunities. Among the exceptions to what are recognised as conventional forms of post-initial education are political socialisation and military training for refugees committed to the restructuring of government in their country of origin as a condition of their eventual repatriation. The provision of resources by international organisations (IOs) and donor govern meets to those who administer such programmes, albeit for stated purposes such as the primary schooling of children, is seen at times as a breach of the non-political, humanitarian rhetoric that they use as a platform for their intervention. It includes UNHCR contributions to SWAPO, FRELIMO and the Angolan national liberation movements

Thailand provides an illustration of the range of educational programmes for refuge-seeking adults of different national and ethnic groups (Hmong, Laotian, Vietnamese, Cambodian and now Burmese) with differing and changing expectations of long-term settlement In the late 1970s, Vietnamese and Hmong refugees prepared themselves for resettlement in English-speaking countries; Laotians, until the early 1980s, expected to be able to remain indefinitely in Thailand, but now expect eventual repatriation along with the Cambodians. A small group of Vietnamese, rejected for resettlement. have no prospect of remaining in Thailand or of returning to Vietnam under its present regime. At Site 2 holding camp in Thailand. the largest Khmer settlement outside Pnomh Penh, educational programmes, funded by a series of lOs and PVOs, are administered by the Khmer Peoples' National Liberation Front (KPLNF) government within the camp. Adult programmes include three-month basic education courses attended by thousands of refugees, both men and women, who have never been to school. followed by the opportunity to continue primary schooling Vocational training, for out-of-school youth or for adults of economically active age groups, is not available. Rehabilitation in craft and trade skills is provided for the handicapped, but restrictions are imposed on the kinds of tools and machinery that can be brought into the camp for this purpose. Participants are nearly all young men who lost limbs fighting or in minefield accidents.

The Khmer Women's Association provides women with work in silk and cotton weaving and other dress-making activities, as well as some basic educational opportunities Volunteers, usually expatriates employed by the different PVOs, are invited by the KPLNF government to train primary school teachers, literacy teacher trainers and community health workers. In the neighbouring camp at Khao-l-Dang, training is given in curriculum translation, design and materials production appropriate to the needs of the Khmer primary children. In Phanat Nikhom. a transit camp for those destined for resettlement in North America, Europe or Australasia, government orientation programmes are offered. Refugees also receive language training. The importance of military training in Khmer Rouge camps is well known, but little detail is available.

Listing and describing programmes in this way can read impressively, but little is known about the way in which the restrictions of the refugee environment affect the quality of these educational endeavours and reduce their scope for enhancing refugees' social and economic opportunities. With the exception of the resettlement orientation schemes which are mandatory, only a small proportion of the eligible population has the possibility of participating in these activities. This has clear implications for differentiation within the refugee population and in relation to the local population wherever long-term settlement occurs.

In the case of large refugee populations. in places of temporary settlement in less developed countries, the principal thrust of education is the primary education of children, who are likely to constitute more than half of the refuge seeking population. In advanced industrial societies it is largely concerned with adults, as children are entitled to attend local schools. However, apart from studies evaluating government sponsored reception programmes, little information is available about the extent, nature and effects of a plethora of educational initiatives

Two conferences recently held in London reflected appreciation of the efforts of authorities and individuals to promote education for refugees, but also criticism of the increasing difficulties encountered in access even to rudimentary English classes, let alone pre-employment and production-oriented training. Particularly strong criticism came from people with professional qualifications which were not given equivalent status in Britain The little research available substantiates these claims and, in the case of Britain, urges government to form a coherent policy

The lack of research on education for refugees is not restricted to the united Kingdom. On the contrary, it is widespread and particularly acute in less developed countries As has been argued elsewhere, most of the writing on refugee education, including that concerned with adults, displays humanitarian sympathy to refugees and assumes unquestioningly their right to education. Most of the research literature is in the form of project evaluations to governments and agencies. the purpose of which is to vindicate past, and justify future, expenditure. in places of initial asylum, the reports are biased towards project descriptions and some times to appraisals of project management and resource use They are not as concerned with the educational, social or political implications of what is being achieved. The few previous attempts to draw inferences from case studies on refugee education are more committed to the justification of increased and improved provision than to an analysis of achievements. The few more critical appraisals include Supote Prasertsi's idea of sequential stages in the development of refugee education in Thailand and Sarah Graham Brown's comparative study of Palestinian schooling.

Similar descriptive studies exist in places of long-term settlement. In addition, almost exclusively in industrially advanced countries. there are studies which analyse the extent to which the education and training given to adult refugees before and after arrival is enabling social and economic participation in the host society. Both the Canadian and American governments have initiated such research and some has been done by members of the academic community. These studies approach their subjects as members of ethnic minority groups and do not identify determination of behaviour and assistance that are peculiar to them as refugees. Further, the latent interest in such research may be seen to be the extent to which education provided to such groups contributes to the well-being of the wider society, as much as to that of its recipients.

The superficiality of the limited number of studies on refugee education derives from host government and funding agency unwillingness to risk the adverse publicity that this might entail. Governments may fear the ulterior political motives of researchers and in any case do not wish international portrayal of parsimony in educational provision for refugees. Agencies need to paint positive pictures of their activities in terms of finite projects, so as not to deter funders. Nevertheless, there are many reasons why, for the sake of all interested parties, such research should be extended.

Justification and plans for in creased and improved provision of education to adult refugees should depend on information about responses to the provision already made, in terms of participation and attainment. For the same reason, there is a case for analysing the effects of such education in terms of recipient well being and the well-being of both refugee and local communities. At a higher level, there is little information on the ways in which educational assistance affects relationships between governments, agencies and refugees to test the validity of claims that the negative effects (refugee expectations of indefinite local settlement, refugee consumption of scarce local resources and employment opportunities) outweigh the positive (generation of employment, diversification of the economy). if it can be shown that educating refugees can be beneficial to the social and economic well-being of all, there is a case for detailed qualitative research on the extent to which refugee resourcefulness and initiative can be tapped to overcome the web of petty restrictions and ensure the quantity and quality of educational services.