Supporting refugees in your school community

Written by: Suzanne O'Connell | Published:
Photo: iStock

In some parts of the world, going to school means putting your life at risk and as a result many child refugees in the UK will carry with them traumatic experiences from the past. Suzanne O'Connell looks at the process of becoming a refugee and how schools can help

In some parts of the world, going to school means putting your life at risk and as a result many child refugees in the UK will carry with them traumatic experiences from the past. Suzanne O'Connell looks at the process of becoming a refugee and how schools can help

In the UK, we expect that school is one of those safe places that children can rely on. For some it is a haven when challenging family circumstances mean that all is not well at home. But what if school represents something different? In some countries school can be a dangerous place to be and for children with this experience, settling into their new environment will take some adjusting.

Schools are quite often a target in countries in turmoil and can be a focus for terrorist activity. It is not only the school itself that might be attacked. Landmines might be planted on footpaths traditionally taken by children on their way there. Education can be used as a political tool and children find themselves caught in the middle of it.

These past experiences of refugee children and their parents will influence their behaviour when attending school in the UK too. There can be a reluctance to take part in after-school activities that take children out when it is dark. Parents may be reluctant to come into school and find it a source of anxiety rather than comfort.

However, going to school helps children feel normal again. For most refugee children it is exactly what they need to assist them in fitting into the country they are now living in. Very importantly, it represents an opportunity to access the learning that should secure their future.

It is important that schools provide the opportunity for these children to be normal. However, it is also important to be aware of some of the experiences they may have had on the journey here and how they can be supported in the next stage of their integration.

Escaping your country

The Refugee Council is concerned that misinformation is constantly spread about refugees. In fact, Britain is not Europe's top recipient of asylum applications, with Germany, Sweden, France and Italy all receiving more.

In the year ending March 2015, the top five nationalities applying for asylum to the UK were from Eritrea, Pakistan, Syria, Iran, Sudan.

The reasons that children and their families become refugees are varied. Many leave because of political opposition that then results in them being the target of abuse, including rape and torture. Members of their family may have already been killed. In some cases just being associated with a political activist or helping one can make them vulnerable. The level of danger for these individuals can mean that they only have one option.

They may arrive in the UK after a treacherous journey of months where they have perhaps seen others die along the way. Following the trauma of this they must then prove their legitimacy through the asylum-seeking process. Children and their families may have arrived without any form of documentation and the age of children can be in dispute too.

Some children travel on their own. In 2014, 1,861 separated children applied for asylum in the UK with the highest number arriving from Albania, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Syria, Vietnam and Iran. They might have been directly involved in conflict or been persecuted because of their political, ethnic or religious identity.

Their parents may have been killed or have died on route. They are even less likely to arrive with any resources to their name. Flight must often be arranged so quickly that there is insufficient time to sell assets or collect items together. They may not even have had time to inform other members of their family.

While seeking asylum refugees might be detained. There is no end date to this either and children can still be locked up indefinitely despite moves to prevent this practice from happening. During their application for refugee status, they can be in terror of being sent home. A return to your country of origin can be a death sentence with arrest by the forces you are fleeing soon following.

Resources for asylum seekers are meagre and many families are not able to pay for the basics such as clothing and nappies. They are not allowed to work and have to rely on state support that can be as little as £5 a day. It is the UK Border Agency that makes decisions about asylum and applicants must go through a screening interview, a first reporting event and a substantive interview to prove their claim.

From asylum seeker to refugee

If you do receive refugee status the battle to secure a reasonable future does not end there. The accommodation and financial support provided by the UK Border Agency ends after 28 days.

Refugees must then move out of their accommodation and integrate into society.

They have to navigate the same benefit system as a UK national, with all the additional difficulties that not having access to a computer or fluency in the language can bring. They have to open a bank account, apply for welfare benefits, attend the Jobcentre Plus offices, register with a GP, look for housing and demonstrate that they are looking for work. If they don't follow the instructions given by Jobcentre Plus, their benefit payments might be stopped.

Finding appropriate housing can be a particular problem. Refugees must rely on either finding private accommodation and paying rent or social housing from the local authority. Although any refugee with children will be classed as being in "priority need" they must still be careful not to make themselves intentionally homeless and can be housed wherever the local authority chooses.

Permanent social housing is in very short supply and renting from a private landlord is often the only real option available. Information that is spread about refugees and asylum seekers living in luxury accommodation at the tax-payers' expense is really not true.

Supporting refugee children

With these experiences behind them, it is not surprising that refugee children can arrive in school traumatised. This will be particularly the case if they were targeted at the school they were attending in their home country.

These children can remain hyper-alert and struggle with crowds and noisy activities and gatherings. Break times and unstructured parts of the school day can be a particular problem.

It is not just the children who will struggle. Parents can be anxious when separated from their children and be reluctant for them to take part in extra-curricular activities and school trips. They will need reassurance that school is a safe place and be helped to understand the school's expectations.

Schools need to be aware of the impact that certain topics might have on children who may have witnessed traumatic events. Children should not be asked to explore their experiences in classroom activities even if these are through imaginative tasks. Children should not be asked to explain why they are in the UK or to describe how they got there.

Instead schools should focus on ensuring regular attendance and reassuring parents and children of their safety. Their previous school experience will be very different and they may have had little formal education and lack basic skills in their own language too.

Methods of communication can be different and children will often not be used to more interactive teaching and independent learning styles. Refugee children can be very quiet not only because they have experienced traumatic events, lack confidence and language, but also because the cultural norm for them is to accept whatever the teacher tells them.

If you do have refugee children in your school, the best resources are others within their own community. Those already settled from the same region will have a better understanding of what the issues are and can help to integrate a new child. Staff need to be aware that refugee children are likely to have faced a range of challenges that are different to those of other migrant children.

It is beneficial for the child to be given a mentor who knows more about their previous experiences and who they can go to if they are anxious. Finding someone who can translate for the family will help establish links and parents can be reassured about security and have school routines and practice explained. Parents may know someone themselves who can translate and also act as a point of contact. If your school has a counselling service, this can be a beneficial route to explore depending on the child's level of English.

Perhaps most important is to focus on the positive. These children will have skills and a range of abilities that can shine through the language barrier and cultural differences. Helping them to find their strengths and sharing these with the class can provide a basis for assimilating the child into school.

Refugee children have much to offer and the fact that they have managed to come so far is evidence of this. It is up to us to help them make the last part of their journey to settlement as smooth as possible. 

  • Suzanne O'Connell is a freelance education writer and a former primary school headteacher.

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