Afghanistan was the world's leading source of refugees in 2012. A plane takes off from the capital, Kabul./ Photo: Eliezer Gabriel

Staying or going? Educational needs of Afghan refugees in Slovenia

Literacy and language learning are top priorities for the handful of Afghan refugees in Slovenia. But motivation crumbles if eviction is a possibility.


In the 21st century we still witness violations of human rights and conflicts in the world, some of them unfortunately result in wars. One of them is the war in Afghanistan, the result of which are tens of thousands of dead and many who were forcibly displaced due to the fact that their lives were at risk in their homeland. Some of them seek asylum in Slovenia. In the article the life situation of Afghans seeking asylum in Slovenia will be briefly presented as well as their educational needs and future prospects.

Research on Afghan refugees

”In the school in Afghanistan we had only learnt religious contents, however, we would also need to learn other contents such as reading, writing, mathematics etc.” stated an Afghan refugee in Slovenia.

This is an excerpt from in-depth interviews with 7 asylum seekers and refugees from Afghanistan who now live in Slovenia and attend primary school for adults. They were from 18 to 35 years old, all were male. Other in-depth interviews were also made with 4 teachers who teach in this school in Ljubljana, the capital. These interviews are part of a research on the educational needs of migrants who have not finished primary school in Slovenia which was performed by the authoress of the article in 2013. The research was financed by the Ministry of Education, Science and Sport of the Republic of Slovenia. Some of the results were also obtained while I performed participant observation of 3 classes at this primary school during November and December of 2013; this is also the period when all the in?depth interviews were made. This article also builds on the results of the focus group with the teachers who teach literacy of migrants in Slovenia, which was performed in October 2013 at the Slovenian Institute for Adult Education.

In this article the life situation of Afghans seeking asylum in Slovenia will be briefly presented especially in relation to education. The answer will be sought to the following questions: what are the obstacles to their integration into the Slovenian society, what are the most difficult things to learn for Afghans in the primary school for adults, who helps them to learn, what are their educational needs and what are their future prospects in relation to adult education and their life in Slovenia?

Afghan asylum seekers in Slovenia

Slovenia is a country of approximately 2,000,000 people. The number of asylum applications is approximately 300 each year. The number is relatively low compared to other, especially Western European countries, because Slovenia does not grant many refugee statuses – therefore asylum seekers seek refuge in other countries. For example, in 2013 only 37 international protection statuses were granted in Slovenia (Ministry of the Interior, 2014).

For most of the Afghan asylum seekers and refugees who came to our country, Slovenia was not their final destination. However, due to the Dublin Convention, the asylum seeker has to file the asylum application in the first safe country that he or she entered. All the countries of European Union are safe countries. Although the Dublin Convention serves the purpose of refugee burden sharing among states, it is at the same time discriminatory, because asylum seekers and refugees have different conditions in different countries.

In 2013 19 asylum seekers from Afghanistan filed an asylum application in Slovenia, 7 of them were unaccompanied minors. 5 of them were granted the status of international protection in the same year (Ministry of the Interior, 2014).

Life conditions of refugees in Slovenia

The decline in economic status in the country of exile is very often characteristic for asylum seekers and refugees. The same is true for the Afghan asylum seekers and refugees in Slovenia. Most of them live in extreme poverty, because as a rule they remain unemployed. Those with a status of a refugee receive less than 300 Euros per month of social benefits, which does not suffice for decent living.

Some Afghan asylum seekers live in the Asylum Centre or the Integration House (funded by the Ministry of the Interior); some refugees also live in private rooms in rented apartments which are usually shared by several refugees. Their economic means do not suffice for independent housing and living. Another problem beside poverty that pesters asylum seekers is their unstable legal status. Most of them do not know for how long they will be able to stay in the country. They are waiting for their asylum application to be approved: if it is denied they appeal against the decision, but they live in constant fear of being expelled from the country. The most difficult thing is that they are left in limbo – they cannot return to their homeland because their lives are at risk there and they cannot move to the countries which would grant them better conditions due to the already mentioned Dublin Convention. Many cannot afford full health insurance. Such harsh conditions contribute to the constant stress that they experience and that also influences their motivation to learn the Slovene language and attendance of primary school for adults.

Primary School for adults

As most of the Afghan asylum seekers and refugees only attended some years of religious school in Afghanistan, they enrol in primary school for adults in Slovenia. However, their motivation for learning the Slovene language and other contents depends somewhat on their legal status. Those who have a permit to stay longer are as a rule more motivated for learning the Slovene language for integrating into the Slovene society. Those who live in fear of deportation are less motivated for learning, because they do not know if they will have an opportunity to use the learned skills in the future. As one of the asylum seekers explained:

“I do not have a refugee status, my application for asylum was denied and I appealed against that decision, therefore I do not know for how long I will be able to stay in Slovenia. I do not know for how long I will have the chance to practice Slovene in the future, so I am not so motivated to learn it. What is the benefit of learning Slovene, if one cannot use it in the future?”

All of the Afghan asylum seekers and refugees interviewed are not literate even in their mother tongue whereas some of them were taught to read and write by other family members in their childhood. The refugees were not included in other educational processes in Afghanistan besides a religious school. Many of them had to work during their youth and help their families to survive so they did not have enough time for learning. Their goal in Slovenia is to become literate and to finish primary and vocational school, so that they will be able to get a decent job in the future.

Primary schools for adults have adapted curricula for adults. However, the problem is that special textbooks for adults do not exist and they use textbooks for children. Some of the teachers make their own adaptations for adults, which means that a lot depends on the endeavours of a teacher. When teaching asylum seekers and refugees, the teachers try to take their culture into consideration, they learn some of the words in Afghan languages (Pashto and Dari) and they try to understand the difficult life situation of asylum seekers and refugees as well as the trauma they experienced. The teachers adopt a learner-centered approach, which is even more important, because the knowledge of asylum seekers and refugees differs from one person to another. Namely, a group of Afghan asylum seekers and refugees is not homogenous but very heterogeneous. The teachers I interviewed and whose classes I observed also improved their intercultural competences during the teaching. They respected asylum seekers and refugees, they thought their cultures were valuable and they had empathy towards them as they understood their life situation, their motives to stay in Slovenia and their difficult conditions for learning.

Some asylum seekers found occasional work usually in fast food restaurants, they had to work long hours for low pay. Very often they were not able to attend all the classes in a day in the primary school for adults, so it was difficult for them to acquire the knowledge demanded by the standards of primary schools for adults. Very often they are disappointed when they get bad marks at school. However, their life conditions do not permit them to study harder, because they very often work 12 hours a day, sometimes even weekends.

As the adaptation of the curricula to asylum seekers and refugees is left to the endeavours and innovations of teachers, the Slovenian Institute for Adult Education decided to prepare a new educational programme for migrants which includes numeracy and financial literacy. The Institute collaborates with the Centre for Slovene as the Second/Foreign Language (University of Ljubljana) and a literacy teacher from the Cene Štupar folk high school from Ljubljana. This new educational programme will be written at the end of 2014 and it will be intended to be used in primary schools for adults for illiterate asylum seekers, refugees and economic migrants. Namely, literacy is an important precondition for (forced) migrants to get included into receiving societies. Most of the jobs require that employees are literate. Excluded from the labour market, asylum seekers and refugees face social exclusion as well.

Educational needs of Afghan asylum seekers and refugees

The skills that the interviewed asylum seekers and refugees acquired in their homeland were predominantly manual skills. They all have some experience with using computers; however, their digital competences are limited, because most of them cannot afford to buy a computer. Teachers who teach in primary schools for adults most often help them to learn and also to do homework. Sometimes volunteers from the NGO Slovene Philanthropy help them to do homework which is sometimes difficult for them, because of the limited knowledge of the Slovene language.

One of the interviewees stated: “I have already made friends with some Slovenes and they help me to learn occasionally”. Another one explained that he has a Slovene girlfriend who helps him to learn if he needs help. Some of the interviewees have some knowledge of English, but not all of them. Most of them wished to have more opportunity for learning English in the primary school for adults. Among the interviewees there were also people who speak several foreign languages.

The most difficult thing to learn for Afghan asylum seekers and refugees are some words in Slovene that are not used so often in the spoken language, however, one can encounter them in the written language. Sometimes they also had problems with mixing certain letters of the Slovene alphabet. For those who attended higher classes it was difficult to understand the content of several subjects as, for example, society and nature, because of their limited knowledge of the Slovene language.

Despite hard conditions in which Afghan asylum seekers and refugees live, all the interviewees have a wish to stay in Slovenia. They all want to finish primary school for adults; some of them wish to finish vocational education afterwards. They all would like to find employment in Slovenia and settle down in our country. Their goal is also to earn enough to be able to pay for the costs of living and to be able to send some remittances home, because very often the survival of their family members in Afghanistan depends also on them.

In sum then, all interviewed Afghan asylum seekers and refugees in Slovenia are aware of the fact that becoming literate is their way to employment and thus it is one of their main educational goals.

Literacy of economic migrants, asylum seekers and refugees

In order to improve the literacy of migrants, it is important to improve the literacy in their mother tongue. Namely, it is easier to learn a second language if one has good knowledge of one’s mother tongue. If migrants are not literate in their mother tongue then becoming literate in a second language is a slow and long-term process which demands a lot of effort from migrants and teachers as well (Vrecer 2013).

According to UNESCO’s Global Report on Adult Learning and Education. Rethinking literacy (2013), literacy is a complex term which is differently defined in different countries. In the document Council conclusions on literacy, the Council of the European Union defines literacy as “a crucial life competence which empowers the individual citizen to develop capacities of reflection, oral expression, critical thinking and empathy, boosting personal development, self-confidence, a sense of identity and full participation in a digital and knowledge economy and society” (2012, pp. 2). UNESCO defines literacy as “a set of skills and practices comprising reading, writing and using numbers as mediated by written materials” (2013:17). According to this institution, literacy should occur at all stages of the learning continuum, regardless of the age of a learner, and the skills that we acquire can be forgotten later on in life if not used. The latter has been confirmed by the results of the first round of the PIAAC research (The Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies), in which the competencies of adults in 24 countries were tested (OECD 2013).

Investing in literacy is not important only for individuals and society, but also for the economies of specific countries. The Council of the European Union (2012) emphasizes that low literacy levels hold back economic growth and reduce its sustainability. Literacy is a key for all further learning. The already mentioned PIAAC results of the first round showed that lower literacy levels are characteristic for adult migrants than for the majority population (OECD 2013). Those results might be attributed to the fact that among migrants there are many of low social-economic status and many of them do not speak the language of the receiving society fluently and this is reflected in the survey results. According to the above-mentioned UNESCO report (2013) ethnic and language minorities are vulnerable groups in relation to literacy. When migrants come to the receiving states, which are usually developed states and highly technological societies, they face the situation, where most of the people are literate and literacy is a demand and everyday practice, therefore literacy is of key importance for their integration into receiving societies (see also Franker 2008).


All the interviewed Afghan asylum seekers and refugees have similar educational needs; they all wish to finish primary school for adults, because in Afghanistan they only attended a religious school. They all wish to gain literacy – learn to read and write, to acquire skills in mathematics and to learn or improve their knowledge of Slovene and English. Some of them wish to finish vocational school as well.

They all wish to stay in Slovenia, if they get a chance. However, their motivation for learning the Slovene language differs. Those who got a status of international protection and have more prospects to stay in Slovenia are more motivated to learn the language of the country of exile, while asylum seekers whose legal status is unstable feel less motivated for learning Slovene, because they do not know for how long will they be able to stay in Slovenia and thus have the opportunity to practice the language.

When teaching asylum seekers, refugees and economic migrants, teachers have to be aware that some of them speak more foreign languages, because some of them have already lived in several states. It is recommendable that they will be able to improve the knowledge of these languages in the country they are currently living, however, the knowledge of the language of this country is crucial for their integration into receiving country, namely if (forced) migrants have no or limited knowledge of it, they cannot fully express their competencies, thus their various skills can be overlooked to the employers and to the majority population. This can result in downward mobility or even in social exclusion of forced migrants.

This article is produced in cooperation with the InfoNet adult education correspondents’ network.


Ongoing war in Afghanistan

German Bundeswehr in Fayzabad, Afghanistan in 2009. Photo: High Contrast

Afghans seek asylum in the world including Slovenia, because their lives are threatened in their homeland. Afghanistan has seen 36 years of long-lasting war. War in this country began in 1978, when the Saur Revolution occurred – the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) took power in a military coup and the uprisings against the PDPA government followed.

Soon the Soviet war followed in 1979 which lasted until 1989. The Soviets fought for the communist regime in Afghanistan. Mujahideen resisted the Soviet invasion. Millions of Afghans fled the country, mostly to Pakistan and Iran. The Afghan communist regime survived until 1992. In 1992 the Peshawar Accords was agreed on by the Afghan political parties and the Islamic State of Afghanistan was established.

Militia leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar opposed the agreement and started the bombardment of Kabul. Besides, three militias engaged in a violent war against each other. When the conflict was about to settle down, the Taliban emerged as a new force taking power in Kabul in 1996 and establishing the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

In 2001, NATO intervened in the Afghan Civil War following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 in the USA. NATO’s goal was to remove the Taliban from power, to dismantle al-Qaida and to create a democratic state. The USA and allies drove the Taliban from power, however, most al-Qaida and Taliban were not captured, many of them escaped to Pakistan and to rural and mountainous regions. In 2004, in popular elections Hamid Karzai was elected president of the state named as the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. Soon later the NATO endorsed an exit strategy for withdrawing its forces. The Afghan government began UN-backed peace talks with the Taliban. Until 2014, tens of thousands of people have been killed in the war and it is still impossible to foresee the end of the war.



Council of the European Union (2012). Council conclusions on literacy.

Franker, Q. (2008). Literacy for Migrants. The Nordic Example. In: UNESCO (2008). Literacy and the Promotion of Citizenship. Germany: UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning,pp. 48-53.

Ministry of the Interior of the Republic of Slovenia. (18. 1. 2014)

OECD (2013). Skills Outlook 2013: First Results from the Survey of Adult Skills.

UNESCO (2013). Global Report on Adult Learning and Education. Rethinking literacy. Germany: UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning.

Vrecer, N. (2013). The Report on the Analysis of The Educational Needs of Migrants Who Have Not Finished Primary School. Ljubljana: Slovenian Institute for Adult Education.

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