Syrian and Iraqi immigrants arrive on the shores of the Greek island of Lesbos. / Photo: Ggia, Wikimedia

Overview: refugees and adult education in Europe

Where are we now with the “refugee crisis” in Europe? How is adult education helping?  


We took a snapshot of the refugee route in Europe, from South to North, to investigate how Europe is responding to the influx of refugees. What role does education play in integration? What is the general mood towards refugees?


Greece -solidarity with the “others in need”

George K. Zarifis, Assistant Professor of Continuing Education, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki

Public mood: solidarity for “the others in need”

Most Greeks tend to be very supportive of the refugees. We see ordinary people offering their country houses to refugee families with small children, and NGOs and citizens’ initiatives involved in primary health care and basic services.

Some extreme negative reactions are occasionally manifested by nationalists, but they cannot overpower the overall benevolent reactions of the majority. The Greek media helped a lot in drawing public opinion towards the refugees’ conditions. Combined with the economic and social crisis Greece is going through for the seventh consecutive year, the refugees became in a sense the “others in need” (probably even more in need) for many Greeks. With Greece’s impoverished state structure stretched to breaking point, refugees have been dependent on the kindness of strangers.

Better planning and counseling is needed

There are several issues the refugee crisis has raised to the national agenda. Firstly, a common refugee strategy is needed – not simply about registration and documentation but also about providing them with a feeling of safety.

Secondly, refugees need to be counseled of the opportunities the may have in any European country. Greek NGOs have recently launched a platform with an application for mobile phones in order to inform current and prospect refugees on what to expect when they enter the country. A common training strategy that volunteers and NGOs could orientate their activities around, is missing.

Educational initiatives: more synergy

Most educational initiatives are organized by NGOs in large cities and are mostly targeting refugee children and less adults.

For example the NGO Civis Plus announced the launch of a program providing supplementary schooling and creative activities in Greek for migrant and refugee children aged 7-12 years in central Athens. In some cases there are also lessons for parents wanting to learn Greek. Another NGO called PRAKSIS operated a project titled ”From Alpha to Omega” for the learning of the Greek language, history and civilization for adult immigrants.

Despite such efforts the adult education field in Greece has not come with a clear agenda or a plan regarding this issue. Adult learning communities (I deliberately include here higher education institutions as well) do not seem to react promptly to the matter although a certain concern is there. NGOs organising basic adult education on non-formal basis to refugees in Reception Centres seem to be more active in terms of provision, but more synergies among the NGOs and existing local adult education structures like KDVMs (Local Lifelong Learning Centres) is needed. Resources are currently extremely low.

Housing difficulties

General immigration policies differ from those that apply to refugees and asylum seekers who most of the time carry no legal documents.

In total it is estimated that about 100.000-150.000 undocumented refugees and migrants enter Greece each year, among them maybe around 10.000 unaccompanied minors. At the moment, housing for the refugees is simply insufficient. As a result, most refugees sleep ”rough” or in informal hotels run by co-nationals, thus being exposed to all kinds of exploitation and violence. Currently, however, new Reception Facilities are being prepared on the Aegean Sea islands and in the Attica region.

Italy – unease and empathy

Teresa La Marca, journalist, Naples

Public mood: between fear and empathy

In the last years many disasters have happened to refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean to reach Italy. Many of the migrants come from Africa.

Public opinion seems to be divided about this phenomenon. On one hand, people are fearful and insecure about the refugee influx -a phenomenon most do not understand well. On the other hand citizens are worried about the dehumanizing conditions refugees live in.

Pope Francis has urged Catholics to help and to host boat people. Recently, after the most recent boat tragedy, he reminded us of our “responsibility”  for the refugees’ destiny.

Without doubt, there still is disinformation and confusion in the public opinion and an often misguided sense of insecurity has emerged after the ISIS terror attacks in Europe.

Refugees as political currency

The refugee crisis has raised many issues into national consciousness. Discussion on moral aspects and duties about refugees is mixed with debates about national and European solutions to the crisis. Another question which emerge often is whether refugees are somehow connected to international terrorism. Political parties often use this topic as an interior-political weapon to attack each other.

Artists have their say too. A documentary film by Gianfranco Rosi called “Fire at Sea” has become famous. It was shot over one year on the island of Lampedusa and it narrates the ongoing drama of migrants’ attempts to cross the Mediterranean. The film won the Golden Bear for Best Film at the Berlin Film Festival.

Local efforts of integration

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

The network of the SPRAR System (Central Service of the System for Protection of Asylum Seekers and Refugees) consists of a network of local au­thorities conducting local projects and reception activities for asylum seekers. (Read more of the Italian integration model)

This territorial approach is contributing to a culture of hospitality culture in local communities and facilitates socio-economic integration of refugees.

Migrant policy follows European law

Italy’s borders are generally open to immigration, but under very strict requirements.

Italy follows the European law, called “Dublin II Regulation” establishing precise rules indicating the State which is responsible for the examination of an individual’s asylum application. Such rules are enforced very strictly.

The migrants for whom initial rescue must be provided are hosted in recep­tion centres, set up and managed by the Central Directorate of Civil Services for Immigration and Asylum. This is done in order to avoid their dispersion in the local area and to allow the authori­ties to check the legal position of the migrants. This checking could then result in an order of expulsion or access to international protection.

Asylum seekers are hosted in the reception centres for asylum seekers (CARA), and currently, also in temporary facilities.

Serbia – civil society leads the effort

Maja Maksimović, Ivana Jovanović and Nikola Koruga, Adult Education Society/ University of Belgrade

Civil society speaks loud for the migrants

Serbia has gone through its own refugee crisis in the 90s, so the population is sensitized to this situation. The government has a clear stand that we need to support people who are running from war. On several occasions, we hear the negative views of some government representatives and intellectuals, but the public pressure from other intellectuals and some citizen groups was very strong, sending a clear message that the refugees need help until the crisis is resolved.

The civil society in Serbia is the most active instance supporting refugees. Non-governmental organizations, art groups and individuals are working with the refugees and the local population in order to increase their mutual cooperation and understanding.

Currently, the main question discussed in Serbia is: What to do with refugees after the Balkan route has been closed?  When the EU closed the borders, around 2000 refugees were in Serbia. Most of them do not want to stay here.

Education: validation mechanisms would help

A great deal of attention is dedicated to children and their primary education. However, most of the refugees are just passing through Serbia. This is why it is difficult to speak of systematic and organized education. NGOs together with international organisations have done valuable work to support children during transition.

Once the migrants gain asylum seeker status, a right to education is guaranteed. However, there are no mechanisms developed for refugees to exercise this right. First of all, Serbia did not develop mechanisms for validation of prior learning. The situation is easier if refugees had their documents and certificates of completion of formal education, but often this is not the case. Nor is there a strategy for vocational education and training for people who decide to stay in Serbia – leaving them without the opportunity to work at what they are qualified for. Unfortunately, adult education is not recognized as a tool for support.

Adults not recognized as a target group for education

Based on the needs of refugees, activities implemented by NGOs or individuals can be divided into three groups: legal advisory, educational activities and cultural and artistic activities. Most of the educational activities support children in shelters.

Adults are still not recognized as a target group. Some language courses are available for people in shelters, but not as a part of an organized integration plan. A great contribution is coming from refugees who have found their place in Serbia and who are engaged as volunteer teachers.

Educators in the country discuss the specifics of education for people in transition. What kind of topics should be included? What should be the methods? How can adult education be open for stories of migrants? We need to listen to the refugees themselves more, instead of imposing certain activities and learning outcomes.

Adult education is also crucial for development of intercultural dialogue among the local population and refugees. It is more than provision of language courses. Informal learning activities, exchange of opinions and sharing can make a positive impact on social cohesion. We should also develop a critical approach regarding global politics and support people to critically analyze what we in Europe call the “refugee crisis.”

Everyone agrees that education is very important, but at this point, policy makers are still not paying enough attention to it. Our Serbian Adult Education Society started consultations with NGOs that have been involved in the work with refugees in order to map the needs of adults and bring adult education for refugees on the national agenda.


Hungary – skeptical about migrant motives

Ferenc Lindeisz, President, KIFE (Catholic Youth and Adult Education Association), Szeged

Fleeing from war or fantasizing about Europe?

Hungary was caught by surprise by the sudden influx of illegal immigrants entering through our Serbian border – so much so that our authorities could not cope with the situation. We see masses of males of military age, entering villages close to the border, behaving irresponsibly, even helping themselves to the fruits in the orchards.

It then transpired that many of these migrants were not originally from the war-torn regions of Syria and Iraq, but from as far as Pakistan and Afghanistan. We ask ourselves: are these people fleeing war or are they having dreams of a better life in Europe? We should help people in need, but we suspect a large number of refugees are economic migrants.

Hungary wrongfully vilified

Starting from late summer 2015, Hungary started to build fences around its borders to regulate border crossings. This prompted an international uproar against Hungary, even labelling us as Nazis. This is unreasonable since Hungarians are not xenophobic. Our government policy is in line with EU policy and Schengen regulations.

An element of party politics plays into this. Our present government is termed as right-wing and nationalist, and supporters of the government tend to support a harder line towards immigration. However, our government’s immigration policy is constantly gaining more popularity in polls.

Incidentally this split between multiculturalism and nationalist-conservatism is also present all around Europe.

A transit space needs few educational initiatives

Hungary seems to be very much a transit space for refugees, and hence no major, state-funded adult education initiatives have emerged. A good case in point is an initiative one of our member organizations organized. Their intention was to start a language learning programme in one of the nearby refugee camps. But before the programme could get off the ground, the camp was already empty.


Netherlands – a stable situation

Maurice de Greef, Professor, Vrije Universiteit Brussel 

Public mood: two camps, as expected

In the Netherlands, public debate has two camps, as expected: pro-refugees and those who think the country cannot accommodate a large influx of refugees. The public mood has remained more or less the same since autumn 2015, when the refugee crisis started. There have been no dramatic swings in general opinion.

More resources for language learning  

Three issues dominate the national debate about refugees. 1) How to give the migrants a (temporary) place to stay, 2) how to support their integration, especially through 3) language learning.

This agenda has been constant and communities actually have more resources to support language learning.


Germany – the culture of welcome survives

Michaela Stoffels, expert for language learning and integration, DVV, Bonn

Germany remains welcoming, despite critical undertones

Talking about “public opinion” in general is always hard, but I think people are still mostly thinking positively about the refugee question. People are still willing to help refugees who are really in need. You have to bear in mind that actually, we are talking about more than 1 million refugees who arrived in Germany in 2015. Half of that number are still waiting to be able to request asylum. This is why some people in Germany might feel that the German authorities are not really able to face the problems. Others notice the Pan-European phenomenon of increasing popularity of right wing parties (at least in Eastern Germany)

Therefore, there might be a slight reduction in the “welcoming culture” Germany was famous for in 2015.

Nevertheless, we still have open borders. The situation is more relaxed at this moment, because less refugees are coming to Germany (from February 2016 onwards), due to the closed borders in Eastern European countries and the new refugee deal between the European Union and Turkey.

Less tolerance for racism

The refugee crisis has brought new themes on the national agenda:  firstly the overwhelming understanding that Germany is an immigration and migration country which should take this fact into account in its integration policy, very early measures towards language learning and professional and social integration.

Also people are much more aware of antiracist themes than they were before.

Integration education: variation between federal states

There are differences between the Länder: some establish well financed language and vocational programs, while others only work with refugees who are officially declared with a good perspective of staying in Germany (generally people from Syria, Eritrea, Iraq and Iran).

But since October 2015, refugees with a “good perspective” can enter the German integration courses. This system will be renewed and provided with better financing until 2017, including more and more elements of professional integration as well as a discussion of certain politically important values.


Where are all the refugees? Portugal prepares for an absent guest.
Whereas some countries in Europe struggle to process and accommodate the extraordinary number of refugees, some countries find themselves very far from the refugee route. One such case is Portugal. The Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa has announced that the country can receive up to 10 000 migrants and the head of Portugal’s refugee council explicitly wishes for more refugees to revive deserted areas of the country. Portugal has a ready integration infrastructure built together with civil society. However, at the time of writing, only 180 refugees have come.
Susana Oliveira is an adult education advocate and international coordinator, based in northern Portugal. For her, the reasons behind Portugal’s lack of refugees are complex.
-The first thing to remember is that no one can be forced to come to Portugal. Most asylum seekers intend to go to northern European countries, like Germany or Sweden, attracted by family and friends living there, but above all, by the expectation of having work and a high standard of living. Of course, these countries have better life conditions than those we can offer here.
It is known that many refugees run away from shelters the day before being replaced in Portugal or, which is more common, they go to central or north of Europe a few days after being installed in our country.
For those who do stay, the next steps are learning the language and finding work.
Is Portugal’s commitment to take more refugees somehow reflected in the adult education sector?
– Civil society, through the creation of PAR – Platform for the Refugees’ Support, shows a strong motivation to have everything prepared, both in terms of reception, both in terms of installation and monitoring of newcomers, education included. A volunteering framework exists, where citizens can offer to help according to personal expertise – teaching Portuguese, for example, or even offer to host a refugee family at their homes.
The central government has also created a set of initiatives to increase awareness in the native population of the arrival of refugees.
However, more support from the central government would be welcome, for example, in adapting or creating a specific education strategy addressing the refugees – how to validate competences of these people, for example- Many refugees often have high formal and academic qualifications, but don’t have their certificates with them. The national system is prepared to work on this, but since we are dealing with a group of people that requires special attention to their disadvantaged condition, we need a stronger focus on this.


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