Supporting refugee children

Written by: Emma Stevenson | Published:
Accessing education: Refugee children learning in a Serbian camp, as featured in this year’s Comic Relief school resources (Image: Nikolay Doychinov/Comic Relief)

The plight of the millions of child refugees and their fight for education is being highlighted in the run up to this year’s Red Nose Day on March 15. Emma Stevenson looks at the work of two charities and seeks some advice for UK schools on how they can support refugee children

The number of people worldwide who have been forcibly displaced from their homes as a result of persecution, conflict or violence currently stands at 68.5 million.

According to UNHCR – the UN Refugee Agency – 25.4 million of these people are refugees who have had to leave their own country to try to find a safe home. More than half come from just three countries – South Sudan, Afghanistan and Syria – and, shockingly, more than half are under the age of 18, many of whom are unaccompanied or separated from their families.

Amid the danger and insecurity of life as a refugee, these children experience devastating disruption to their education. Just 61 per cent of refugee children attend primary school, compared to a global average of 92 per cent. This has a profound impact on their long-term wellbeing and prospects. Being able to access an education:

  • Empowers refugee children by giving them knowledge and skills for the future.
  • Provides life-saving understanding to keep children safe.
  • Helps to address the complex emotional issues that result from trauma.
  • Helps to promote community cohesion.

A safe place to be

At Comic Relief, our work to support refugees falls under our “A Safe Place to Be” programme. We believe everyone should have a safe, secure and decent place to call home and want forcibly displaced people to have access to legal, safe and dignified routes to settlement.

Worldwide, we are currently focusing on funding organisations that support refugees along the migration routes from Africa and the Middle East into Europe. In the UK, we fund work to help refugees rebuild their lives and make positive contributions in their communities.

Educating children permeates all of our work. So what are the main issues, challenges, priorities and strategies at different points of the refugee journey? And what advice would people on the ground give to school leaders looking to integrate refugee children in their school?

I spoke with Nico Stevens, the chief operating officer of Help Refugees, and Laura Wilson from the Resettlement Team at the British Refugee Council.

Help Refugees

Help Refugees provides humanitarian aid to, and advocacy for, refugees around the world. It works with more than 80 projects in Europe and the Middle East, including 10 funded by Comic Relief in countries from Lebanon and Greece to Serbia and the UK.

As Mr Stevens explained, each context is unique and it is hard to generalise about when, where and how refugee children are educated.

He told me: “On the whole, children are out of formal education when they’re on the move. Wherever possible NGOs provide them with informal learning, particularly around dealing with trauma, early childhood development and psychosocial support.

However, if they come from war-torn countries where their schooling has already been disrupted, children can be out of formal education for years.”

Refugee centres offer structured educational provision in mobile facilities (for tented communities) or classrooms. For primary-aged children, classes might include play with purpose and basic maths, science and language skills. As well as learning in their mother tongue, children are introduced to the local language as soon as possible.

“The aim is to prepare children to join local schools,” Mr Stevens continued. “This involves everything from building their self-confidence and improving behaviour to activating memory skills and getting them up-to-speed with the local curriculum. Learning the local language is a priority; some children become fluent within three months.”

When it comes to integrating refugee children into local schools, good communication is key: “When a Greek state started introducing refugee children into schools, local parents circulated a letter saying they weren’t welcome. However, talking to the families revealed that this wasn’t founded on prejudice, but concerns about whether the refugees had been vaccinated. Engaging the refugee parents is equally important; desperation can make families prioritise bringing in income over education.”

So what advice would Mr Stevens give to headteachers in the UK welcoming refugee children into school?

“Be particularly aware of what the children have gone through, where they have come from and experiences they might have had on the journey. And make sure that the child has a champion in school – someone who really gets them. I believe that if a child feels one person in the world loves them and truly wants them to thrive, they can do anything.”

The Refugee Council

Supporting the education of refugee children who arrive in the UK is a key part of the British Refugee Council’s work. It ensures school places are allocated and accompanies families to a first meeting to discuss additional support needed (e.g. money for uniform, interpreters, aids to learn English). On-going support is then provided for three years post-arrival, which may include mediating with the school if issues arise and providing support with homework.

The language barrier and gaps in education are major challenges for refugee children integrating into UK schools. Ms Wilson explained: “Providing a comprehensive induction with interpreters, making the curriculum accessible and recognising previous educational achievements is key.

“Schools often provide extra resources or interpreters within lessons. If a child is struggling, we allocate a volunteer to provide extra tutoring or refer them to a homework club for extra support. Children tend to learn English incredibly quickly, particularly when they are supported by teachers who understand the challenge of learning another language.”

Cultural differences also create problems. Refugee children often find it difficult to mix with their peers, especially if there is not much diversity. Mental health issues caused by trauma can create behavioural issues and, unfortunately, bullying and hate crimes also occur.

Ms Wilson advises that schools should focus on children’s strengths and take active steps to counter prejudice: “Ensure host children play a role in creating an environment that is safe and, if children have been affected by trauma, separation and bereavement, employ professionals to support them.

“Engaging parents and families, with the help of interpreters is a must. Parents need to know how to communicate with the school.

“Follow guidance on best practice and share your experiences in forums with other schools. Make sure you collect pupil feedback and act on it. And, vitally, treat trauma as a psychological issue rather than a behavioural one; have counsellors available for children who need them.”

  • Emma Stevenson is a senior investment partner with Comic Relief.

Comic Relief 2019

n Red Nose Day 2019 will take place on Friday, March 15. The primary film and learning resources focus on the story of Farhad, an Afghan refugee who is living in a refugee centre in Belgrade, Serbia. To find out more, download resources and order your free fundraising pack, visit

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