Social distancing measures introduced around the world have pushed all of us into isolation to some extent. UK schools were closed on 20 March 2020 to help decrease the spread of Covid-19. School closures and social distancing, while necessary measures, pose significant challenges to refugees and asylum-seeking students who often have a history of prolonged absences from school. Additionally, confusion about their entitlement to services and lack of formal and appropriate support may trigger trauma related to feelings of hopelessness and isolation. This post explores these issues by looking at the impact of school closures on refugees and asylum-seekers.
Many refugee-background students struggle with barriers to access and thrive in education due to various issues, including long waiting lists, lack of clarity as to whose responsibility it is for their enrolment, lack of sufficient spaces for children with special educational needs (SEN), lack of appropriately trained staff in schools to support them, and cultural unfamiliarity (Ott & O’Higgins, 2019; Gladwell and Chetwynd, 2018). In the current circumstances, they are experiencing further isolation and educational challenges due to limited access to technology and educational support at home. Invisibility and silence around the needs of this population are not new. However, these young people are put in an even more vulnerable situation during the pandemic.
Access to education
Accessing education was already a challenge to refugees and asylum-seeking students in the UK. They are disproportionately affected by educational policies, which include limited access to further educational support (Morrice et al., 2019). The right to education is protected by law and policy; however, there are no specific educational policies for refugee children. As a result, the right to education is implemented inconsistently across the UK. Young refugees and asylum-seekers have to wait several months for a school place due to ongoing age disputes, assessments and reluctance by schools to grant a place to students out of fear students' scores may affect their overall exam results (Ott & O’Higgins, 2019; Gladwell & Chetwynd, 2018). Since refugee education is not centrally managed in the UK, support varies from school to school. Many refugee children struggle with the curriculum, due to language barriers and insufficient English language support (McBride, 2018). Furthermore, many refugee and asylum-seeking students do not have reliable access to computers, phones, and internet connection at home, making it harder for them to access online education.
Digital poverty and inequalities in education
COVID-19 has sparked a dramatic shift to digital learning and posed additional challenges to refugee-background students who may not have access to adequate technology and internet at home. The move to online education has highlighted how digital poverty contributes to learning inequalities. It is not transparent how the Department for Education (DfE), schools and colleges are responding to disparities in access to technology at students' homes. While some students may qualify to receive digital devices and internet access support from the government, many continue without access to technology and appropriate remote education. Online learning is complex and has posed significant barriers to their educational success. Students are also missing out on other vital assistance available through their schools, such as school meals.
UK immigration policies have prevented many asylum-seeking children from accessing free school meals during the lockdown as they do not have recourse to public funds. It is not clear whether the government or schools have made any exceptions to this during school closures. However, many asylum-seeking children have not been receiving free school meals during the lockdown (Câmara, 2020). Asylum-seekers in the UK are given £5 per day to live on, which is especially insufficient during a pandemic. Charities have written a joint letter asking the government to increase the weekly allowance given to asylum-seekers in the UK by £20, following the increase in Universal Credit due to the pandemic (Freedom from Torture, 2020). Nevertheless, asylum-seekers are still living on about £5 per day. Their exclusion from social welfare policies and the lack of official national guidance on how to address their educational needs have left this population without appropriate means to support their education and well-being.
The importance of education to refugees and asylum seekers
Lack of access to appropriate educational support during the pandemic has added another layer of disruption to refugee-background students’ education and further isolated a group of already marginalised young people. Access to and support to thrive in education are crucial because education helps children have a sense of structure and normalcy, which is essential to successful integration (O’Higgins, 2018). Development of English language proficiency is fundamental in building friendships, social inclusion and achieving successful academic outcomes (Madziva & Thondhlana, 2017). There is good practice in many UK schools and dedicated teachers who deliver quality education to their students. There is still, however, much silence around the needs of refugees and asylum-seeking students and what resources are available for schools to support them. The educational system must provide more explicit guidance on refugee education provision and assist schools in supporting their educational needs. They need an accommodating curriculum, which values their knowledge and experiences, and suitable English language support. Refugee-background students would benefit from an education that is sensitive to their diverse backgrounds, and which considers that they have to transcend their own social and cultural understandings to function in a new culture. It is unclear how COVID-19 will continue to impact schools and access to education; however, the education system needs to ensure that all children have access to quality education in schools and at home, when needed.
Perhaps a silver lining is that the current circumstances have reinvigorated our understandings of the hardships endured by this population. The pandemic and school closures will have long term effects on students’ education. Therefore, it is paramount that measures are put into place to provide specific educational support for these students. We must ensure that refugees are receiving the protection and treatment required by their legal status and that more humane policies are implemented to account for the specific needs of asylum-seekers. The education system has the responsibility to ensure that the needs of refugee-background students are met and to support the growth and development of all students.
Câmara, J. (2020). “The Government Gives Me £35 A Week To Buy Food… During The Lockdown, My Kids Do Not Receive Free School Meals”. [online] openDemocracy. Available at: <https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/opendemocracyuk/the-government-gives-me-35-a-week-to-buy-food-during-the-lockdown-my-kids-do-not-receive-free-school-meals/> [Accessed 28 May 2020].
Freedom from Torture. Joint-Letter On Increasing Asylum Support Rates In Response To The Covid-19 Crisis. [online] Available at: <https://www.freedomfromtorture.org/news/joint-letter-on-increasing-asylum-support-rates-in-response-to-the-covid-19-crisis> [Accessed 5 April 2020].
Gladwell, C. & Chetwynd, G. (2018). “Education for refugee and asylum-seeking children: Access and quality in England, Scotland and Wales.” Refugee Support Network.
Madziva, R., & Thondhlana, J. (2017). Provision of quality education in the context of Syrian refugee children in the UK: opportunities and challenges. Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education, 47(6), 942–961.
McBride, M. (2018). Educational Needs And Experiences Of Refugee Children In Scotland. [online] Whatworksscotland.ac.uk. Available at: <http://whatworksscotland.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/WWSEducationalNeedsAndExperiencesRefugeesFullReport.pdf>.
Morrice, L., Tip, L. K., Brown, R., & Collyer, M. (2019). Resettled refugee youth and education: aspiration and reality. Journal of Youth Studies, 23(3), 388–405.
O’Higgins, A. (2018). Analysis of care and education pathways of refugee and asylum-seeking children in care in England: Implications for social work. International Journal of Social Welfare, 28(1), 53–62.
Ott, E., & O’Higgins, A. (2019). Conceptualising educational provision for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in England. Oxford Review of Education, 45(4), 556–572.
Jáfia Naftali Câmara is a doctoral researcher based at the University of Bristol. Her research focuses on refugee and asylum-seeking students' experiences and perspectives of education in the United Kingdom. She holds a MA from New York University and a BA from the University of California, Davis.