Overcoming language barriers to include refugees in host country education systems

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Photo of children in a refugee camp. Photo of children in a refugee camp.

Today is World Refugee Day. On December 17, 2018, the United Nations General Assembly affirmed the Global Compact on Refugees. It states that countries and relevant stakeholders “will contribute resources and expertise to expand and enhance the quality and inclusiveness of national education systems to facilitate access by refugee and host community children (both boys and girls), adolescents and youth to primary, secondary and tertiary education.” In other words, it affirms the principle of inclusion of refugees in host country education systems, rather than providing them with education through alternative means, such as separate schools in refugee camps.

Providing inclusive education to refugees is complex and challenging. On the supply side, challenges include the availability of schools, classrooms, and teachers in host communities  – often compounded by legal constraints on the movement of refugees. On the demand side, the direct and indirect costs of schooling play an important role: even where education in public host community schools is free, the cost of learning materials, uniforms, and transportation can be prohibitive for refugees. In addition, the opportunity cost of education for refugee children can be very high in terms of foregone income or domestic chores. Demand for education is also affected by the perceived benefit of education, especially as children get older. As of 2018, around 50 percent of refugee-hosting countries did not allow refugees to work (Stepping Up – Refugee Education in Crisis, UNHCR 2019), and this limited access to formal labor markets reduces the incentive to enroll and complete post-primary education. Once in school, refugee children have additional needs to ensure smooth integration into formal schooling, often revolving around having to learn the host country language.

The lack of knowledge of any European languages was one challenge I (Dina) raised with my cousin Haitham back in 2015 when he first told me that he was thinking of leaving Damascus with his wife and 6-year-old twin boys. All of them were born and raised in Damascus, children of Palestinian refugees to Syria back in 1948, and spoke only Arabic. I knew how perilous the journey to Europe would be, and I was looking for any reason to dissuade him from making the trip. But when he said to me: “Dina, my children have no future here”, I had no reply. And so, in August 2015, Haitham and his family embarked on a journey that would last 23 days, passing through the opposition-controlled north of Syria to reach Turkey, then the Greek island of Rhodes, crossing into Macedonia, then Hungary, Austria, and Germany before reaching Luxembourg. As with countless refugees before them, they relied on smugglers at times, squeezed through barbed wire, risked their lives on an inflatable raft in the open sea, walked for days, hid in forests, and slept on streets. Finally, they surrendered to the authorities and sought refuge in Luxembourg – a country of not 1, but 3 official languages to learn: French, German, and Luxembourgish.


Map of countries of study for NEUDC 2020
Source: Constructed based on Haitham’s account of the journey from Damascus to Luxembourg.


Within days of arriving in the country, the boys started school at grade 1, with instruction in German and teachers explaining lessons in Luxembourgish. Once they moved out of their temporary reception center, Haitham and his wife began learning French, and having mastered that language at the intermediate level, continued with Luxembourgish, to be able to apply for citizenship. Meanwhile, the boys became fluent in German and Luxembourgish, and have been taking French since grade 3. Haitham is full of praise for the support provided to his boys by their teachers, including encouraging the boys to participate in a range of extracurricular activities to allow them to better integrate with their classmates. Haitham’s family was lucky: this support is not available in many developing countries, which host nearly 85 percent of the world’s refugees.


photo of a family
Haitham and family, in their apartment in Luxembourg.


The policies and provision of language instruction for refugees vary vastly across countries.  Germany provides second language instruction in elementary schools, and special immersion classes also in secondary schools. In Greece, language courses are provided as part of the Reception Facilities for Refugee Education curriculum. In 2016, the Turkish government initiated a large-scale project to improve Turkish language instruction for Syrian refugees while integrating Temporary Education Centers into the public education system. In Sweden, refugee children receive language support through immersion classes and must be granted some teaching hours in regular classes until they can make the transition (How the different policies and school systems affect the inclusion of Syrian refugee children in Sweden, Germany, Greece, Lebanon and Turkey, Crul et. al, 2019).

Many developing countries struggle to provide such support. In response to refugee influxes, host country education systems are forced to use whatever learning resources are readily available. In Kenyan refugee camps, refugee children must learn both Kiswahili and English from the first grade. While refugees from Burundi and DRC have prior knowledge of Kiswahili, a large number of children from South Sudan and Somalia do not; most refugee children lack English proficiency and cannot be placed in age-appropriate grades (Language, education and power in refugee camps: A comparison of Kakuma refugee camp (Kenya) and Thai-Myanmar refugee camps, Le, 2021). Many teachers in these settings lack adequate pedagogical skills to provide effective language instruction in these linguistically diverse environments.

I work in Jordan, where Syrian refugees are allowed access to public schools, albeit with some restrictions around documentation. Of course, Syrian refugees do not face language barriers in Jordan. Today, roughly a quarter of Syrian students are in the first school shift with Jordanian students, another half attend a second shift (available only at the primary level and dedicated to Syrians), and another quarter attend schools in refugee camps (accredited as Jordanian schools).  Nonetheless, Syrian refugee enrolment rates are significantly lower than those for Jordanians, especially beyond the primary years, where child labor and early marriage begin to play a role, as well as restrictions on employment for Syrians of all education levels.

In Lebanon, where Nathalie is leading the World Bank’s education program, Syrian refugees may also access public schools; however, of those who get a space, the majority end up in the afternoon shifts making the integration with other children of other nationalities difficult. Despite a steep increase in enrolment over the past ten years, more than 50 percent of school age Syrian refugees remain out of school, and for those who make it, just over 2 percent continue to secondary education. Though language barriers are again not there in principle, Lebanon – just like Luxembourg – follows a trilingual education system with the language of instruction in key subjects starting in grade 4 often being either English or French, creating challenges, particularly for older children. And many teachers are unable to provide adequate support. According to a recent Rebuild for Resilience (R4R) Vulnerability Study (forthcoming), more than 84 percent of surveyed students in Lebanon reported that teachers did not help them when they needed help.

During Nathalie’s recent trip to Luxembourg, I set up a meeting between her and my cousin – ostensibly so that Nathalie, born and raised in Luxembourg, could meet a new fellow citizen. But secretly, I wanted Nathalie to test Haitham’s language mastery, so that I could later tease him about it. Much to my dismay, Nathalie only expressed admiration for Haitham’s excellent language skills – in both French and Luxembourgish.

Language-of-instruction issues impact millions of refugee children, contributing to low academic achievement and high drop-out rates  (GPE Blog: Displaced children need education support in a language they understand). Beyond a policy of inclusion, for vulnerable families whose children are enrolled in public schools, extra academic support must be made widely available. It is equally important to provide teachers with the necessary training on addressing these children’s needs. Fluency in the local language not only impacts the ability to learn, but also influences the pace and degree of social and cultural cohesion with the host community that is so essential to adapting to a new context. It is, therefore, a cornerstone to an effective inclusive refugee education policy.


Dina Abu-Ghaida

Lead Economist, Education Global Practice (Middle East and North Africa Region)

Nathalie Lahire

Human Development Program Leader

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