Refugees on the border between Serbia and Hungary. / Photo: Ognjen Zoric

Adult education along the refugee route

Three voices Serbia and Italy are on the refugee route, while Germany is the goal for many fleeing war. How are adult education communities in these three countries responding to the European refugee crisis?


The current influx of refugees into Europe is historical in its scope. In the first eight months of 2015, some 350 000 detected refugees crossed the EU’s borders, compared to some 280 000 in the whole previous year.

The refugees come from the Middle East and Africa, with largest numbers from Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia.

But why exactly now?

There are various reasons for the quickening of the migrants’ movement. Prolonged wars, the entrance of the Islamic State (ISIS) on to the world stage, worsening refugee camp conditions in neighbouring regions – all play a part.

An additional cause is that the Balkan route into Europe is increasingly well-known and open since Macedonia lifted its entry restrictions in August 2015. This route begins in Turkey, continuing through Greece, Macedonia and Serbia into Hungary, and ultimately into Germany, which is the goal of many migrants.

We asked adult educators in Serbia, Italy and Germany –countries on migratory routes – how their adult education communities are responding to the refugee influx.

Serbia: a transit space

Around 10 000 refugees, mainly from from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq have entered Serbia in the first four months of 2015. This number is expected to exceed 30 000 by the end of the year according to the Belgrade Centre for Human Rights.

Once in Serbia, refugees typically express intent to apply for asylum, but instead continue their journey towards countries of the European Union.

According to adult educators Maja Maksimović and Nikola Koruga, the refugee situation has not sparked much debate in the Serbian adult education community.

-Serbia is seen as a temporary transit space for the refugees, therefore integration processes are not seen as a priority. Furthermore, adult education itself is marginalized and underfinanced: there are no clear structures which would raise their voice and call for strategic action, Maksimović points out.

Maja Maksimović (l.) works as assistant professor for pedagogy and andragogy at the University of Belgrade. / Photos: Maksimović’s archives

Nikola Koruga (r.) is project manager at the Adult Education Society. / Photo: Koruga’s archives


Grassroots activism

Educational NGOs are nevertheless active. One of them, Belgrade-based Mikser House organized a campaign to collect aid for refugees, stressing the necessity to fight discrimination and inequality and to raise awareness about universal human rights.

Another organization, The Heartefact fund supports the production of theatre pieces that provoke questions about the refugee crisis and violence in Serbian society.

The Ministry of Education is active too, planning to organize educational programmes for refugee children, focusing on play.

-It is important to highlight that self-organized civic actions react immediately and provide the most adequate help. Some people have organized direct support in the form of food, goods, and a warm welcome, Nikola Koruga explains.

Attitude shift for the positive

General attitudes towards refugees in the Balkan nation have changed remarkably over the years. When the first refugees started arriving in asylum centres some years ago, there were protests in the local communities where the centres were located. Negative attitudes were fanned by the media, which presented refugees as criminal and uncivilised.

-In addition, local politicians tried to scapegoat the refugees as causing a possible financial collapse in the country, Maksimović explains.

This atmosphere has since changed completely, both in the media and government. According to Maksimović and Koruga the shift in attitudes began with the prime minister and other government politicians visiting refugees. Soon the refugee crisis was lifted as a key topic at regional meetings and discussions with the EU. A policeman who was filmed cuddling a Syrian child got a national prize.

-But still Serbia does not have a clear strategy for handling the refugee crisis, Koruga describes.

Media sets the mood

Maksimović and Koruga point out that national journalists and editors play a crucial role in shaping public opinion and fostering either tolerance or animosity towards refugees.

-Even the words one uses has huge significance. For instance, is there a refugee “crisis” and for whom? Or in a newspaper you see a headline using the term “refugee” but in the text the journalist switches to “migrant”. It is a task for adult education to make people conscious of this, and one target group for education measures should surely be the journalists!


Italy: promising local integration

Italy is the touchdown site for most North African refugees making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean.

Maria D’Ambrosio is a pedagogy professor and immigration assessor for the Neapolitan Frattamaggiore municipality. She senses a certain atmosphere of fear and insecurity in her country, caused by the influx of refugees. She believes, however, that direct contact with the newcomers breeds acceptance and hospitality among ordinary Italians.

There is a national program for Asylum Migration Integration, providing training and continuing education for migrants, she explains. This programme can be implemented also on a local level, in provincial centres for adult education.

-With refugees, non-formal and informal education would work particularly well, creating a “social space” where the development of the individual –in this case the refugee – is at the same time development of the community.

Maria D’Ambrosio is Professor of Pedagogy at the Neapolitan Suor Orsola Benincasa University. / Photo: Gianluca Vassallo

Include community stakeholders

Generally, however, immigration policies operate rather on the logic of control and order.

-This is a pity since there are many positive examples of socio-educational integration in communities.

These positive cases have something in common: the different stakeholders in the region have concretely and directly participated in the development of active integration measures and training on rights and employability.

Germany: a welcoming destination

Germany is a favoured destination for many refugees, all the more so because of Chancellor Merkel’s welcoming policy. An estimated 800 000 refugees are expected to arrive in the country this year.

Michaela Stoffels works as an integration and language expert at the German Adult Education Association (DVV). She describes the atmosphere in her country as tensed – but of positive tension.

– There exists a national will to help those in need.

The refugee situation takes up a great part of Stoffels’ work. She estimates that some 100 000 refugees have a good perspective to enter into the German integration system, which combines language training with training in daily life skills. These programmes are often arranged in adult education centres and mostly financed either by the federal states or cities, sometimes even private donors.

Michaela Stoffels descibes a lively debate on refugees in the German adult education community. / Photo: Michaela Stoffels’ archive.

Take learning outside the centres

According to Stoffels, the content of integration courses should be adapted to the large number of incomers.

-We should refocus the curricula so that they fit the refugees’ immediate needs: flexibility regarding time and place of the courses and possibility to take lessons outside the adult education centres, for example in cultural institutions, to get in touch with German urban communities.

A first priority is psychological help for those traumatized during their long journey to Germany.

Resources for adult education will reflect the increased responsibility for integration.

-We got a clear sign from the federal government that the budget for integration and language courses will be elevated for next year, Stoffels explains.


EAEA calls for European solidarity over the refugee crisis

The European Association for the Education of Adults (EAEA) published a statement on the refugee crisis in September 2015. In its statement, the umbrella organization for national adult education associations points out that adult education providers and civil society organisations can provide key support in responding to the arrival of refugees and to their long-term inclusion in their host countries. At the same time, the organization calls for more political courage from EU Member States to welcome refugees.

EAEA’s statement stresses that adult education can help both the refugees and the hosts: adult education institutions provide refugees with language and citizenship courses and information on their options and rights. For locals, these institutions organise intercultural meetings, helping locals to understand who the refugees are, where they come from and why they have fled.

– Education for tolerance and respect is very much needed at a time in which messages and acts of xenophobia are increasing all over Europe, the report emphasises.

Read the whole statement

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