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Refugee children’s lack of access to the educational system

On 13th September, 2021, Human Rights Watch issued a press release according to which the Greek government should urgently reform discriminatory policies so that children seeking asylum can go to school during the school year of 2021-2022. According to the data presented by this international human rights organization, only one in seven children living in camps was able to attend school in the last school year (2020-2021), and the authorities should immediately hire teachers, arrange school transportation and remove measures that block asylum-seeking children from school under the pretext of the Covid-19 pandemic.

There is no doubt that Greece’s failure to respect asylum-seeking children’s right to education violates EU directives, which require all EU member states to integrate asylum-seeking children into their national school system within three months of identifying them.
The European Commission, which has given billions of euros to Greece for “migration and refugee issues management” including education, routinely takes measures against EU member states that do not fulfill their obligations under EU law, and therefore it is highly possible that it will compel Greece to end its noncompliant, discriminatory policies in this field, in order to protect the rights and futures of thousands of children. However, it is noteworthy that the Greek government did not fix access to education for refugee children before the beginning of the current school year.

Moreover, according to the decision  of the European Committee of Social Rights of the Council of Europe, an independent body that monitors and adjudicates compliance with the European Social Charter, Greece is claimed to be violating the rights of asylum-seeking children, including the right to education of children on the Greek islands where new arrivals from Turkey are contained. Greece did not put in place the “immediate measures” to “ensure access to education” that the Committee had indicated were necessary in May 2019, the decision says.

In addition, the Greek Ombudsman for children’s rights reported in April 2021 that more than 10,400 school-age children seeking asylum in Greece live in camps on the mainland and the Aegean islands, but 86 percent of these children were not attending school in early 2021 . According to the UN and government data, during the 2019-2020 school year, a total of 31,000 school-age refugee children were living either inside or outside the camps, but only about 13,000 were enrolled. The government does not publish enrollment figures. Children seeking asylum in Greece are “severely discriminated against” by persistent delays in launching classes for children who do not speak Greek, the Greek Ombudsman reported. Every year, the classes are delayed. In 2019 they had started in November.
According to the humanitarian group “Refugee Support Aegean”, in 2020 the ministry of education waited until December 15 to publish calls for hundreds of teaching positions needed for classes in the academic year that began in September and in some areas no teaching positions had been posted by the beginning of the year. 

Greek regional authorities are responsible for providing transportation from camps to schools but failed to provide any from many mainland camps for months after the start of the school year in 2020-21 and in previous years, according to the Ombudsman, parents and staff of child protection organizations interviewed.

Barriers to education were exacerbated for all children in Greece by restrictions imposed to limit the spread of Covid-19. In-person schooling was halted on March 10, 2020 and partially restarted in mid-May before the summer holidays in June. The start of the 2020-21 school year was delayed by one week, until September 14, high schools provided only distance learning until February 2021, and all schools in the country were closed for most of the period from November 2020 to February 2021.

Asylum-seeking children were disproportionately affected by these measures. Even when schools were open for Greek children, children in camps across Greece could not attend. Beginning in March 2020, officials locked down camps in response to relatively small numbers of Covid-19 cases, and did not allow schoolchildren to leave. Government decisions about Covid-19 measures allowed camp managers to lock down camps but did not address children’s access to education, which is compulsory until the age of 15. Camp managers generally want kids to attend schools, but local politicians do not, and some officials had arbitrarily refused to allow children in camps to enroll.

About 480 children in Malakasa camp were unable to enroll last year because local officials said there were “not enough classroom spaces,” as the Ombudsman reported. Local officials refused to let children from Ritsona camp enroll in schools nearby claiming that they do not have the money for [school] heating, or that they would need more janitors. In Ritsona camp, from January to September 2020, about 850 children were left waiting for school.
When schools were physically closed, children in camps had almost no access to distance learning due to the lack of Wi-Fi and necessary devices. There are supposed to be Wi-Fi hotspots in camps, but none of them was working, while the Education Ministry did not provide even one single laptop to refugees.

The EU says it has allocated €3.45 billion (US$4.12 billion) in “migration management” funding to Greece since 2015, including education projects, as well as €625 million in support for inter-cultural schools. Separately, in 2020 the EU helped finance an additional €816 million (US$975 million) of Greece’s national education budget, including for refugee children. The EU has shifted funding from non-governmental groups and UN agencies to the Greek government directly, but Greece has failed to spend substantial amounts of the EU support it received for refugee integration.
In a positive move, in June UNICEF and Greece agreed on a plan to provide all school-age refugee children with formal and nonformal education over three years, beginning in September 2021. The plan, based on a proposal by Theirworld, a global education charity, is contingent on €34 million ($40.3 million) in funding, or roughly €1 per child per day.

Some local officials have proposed opening schools in camps instead of allowing children to attend public schools, which would deny the children an opportunity to integrate or to have a regular respite from the grim conditions of the camps. According to Human Rights Watch, Greece should welcome children into the national education system, as EU and Greek law require and in compliance with the best-interests-of-the-child principle. 

It is obvious that the European Commission should reconsider its support to other projects in Greece that could limit children’s access to quality education, such as the construction of new, closed camps in remote locations on the islands, building concrete walls around camps, and plans to build walls and fences around 24 more mainland camps.

The Greek government has repeatedly promised to provide education for all children without discrimination. The future of tens of thousands of children who fled to Europe for safety depends on the decisions taken now by Greek and European Commission officials.