Written by Caren Thomas
Refugees are those who have a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion. Experiencing such fears in early childhood will critically impact a child’s cognitive, social, emotional and physical development.
As articulated in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, children have specific rights. These include principles of protection from harm, provision of basic needs, recognition and participation of children as rights holders.
Through the Temporary Protection Regulation passed in 2014, Syrian refugees are provided specific protection to specific rights, including education, shelter, food, water, housing, social security mechanisms and the labour market.
Via the 2015 EU-Turkey joint action plan, both sides aim for enhanced educational opportunities across all levels and a commitment to assisting the host nation, Turkey, particularly in aspects like infrastructure and various services.
In 2018, the Global Compact on Refugees set a goal that governments should be in a position to include refugee children and youth in the national education systems within the time period of three months of displacement.
The earthquake in February 2023 inflicted additional distress upon refugees and other displaced children in Turkey, particularly impacting their access to education.
Education is a fundamental entitlement for every refugee and individual seeking asylum. Turkey is facing a significant influx of asylum seekers and is also a host to a substantial refugee population, a majority composed of Syrians. Unfortunately, these refugee children are unable to access education due to their circumstances. The existing educational framework for refugees in Turkey is burdened with numerous difficulties and obstacles.
Many enrol in Turkish schools after obtaining an international protection identification document bearing the foreigner identification number. The tuition fee waiver announced by the council of ministers only applies to students from Syria. Turkish classes are offered at Public Education Centres free of charge. For this, the international protection identification document is required. However, if insufficient persons are enrolled, said classes may not commence on the requested enrolment date.
Individuals hailing from Syria are eligible to enrol in Temporary Education Centres, whereas refugees and asylum seekers from different nations are exclusively permitted to register at Turkish public schools. Temporary Educational Centres are schools which provide educational services for persons arriving in Turkey for a temporary period. These were initially staffed by Syrian volunteers who UNICEF and other NGOs financially compensated. As per the Ministry of National Education, a considerable proportion of the refugee children were out of school in 2019. However, there has been a substantial decline in the number of children not attending since the initial years of the Syrian refugee crisis. As of 2017, the Turkish authorities have been implementing measures to integrate Syrian refugees into the country’s public education system.
Statelessness within the Syrian population residing in Turkey presents a notable issue. Challenges persist due to factors such as the lack of proper civil documentation, difficulties in acquiring birth certificates in Turkey, and the citizenship regulations of Syria. Notably, Syrian nationality can only be inherited by a child from their mother if the birth occurs within the borders of Syria.
Within Turkey, if the mother’s relationship with a Syrian or Turkish father is unestablished or unclear, then the child faces the risk of statelessness. An absence of Turkish citizenship or permanent residency leads to them being guests within the country and failing to be integrated into Turkish society.
While Turkey is a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, it has submitted a request for geographical limitation. Consequently, individuals such as Syrians and those arriving from various other nations are ineligible for complete refugee status in Turkey. Alternatively, they are registered under the “temporary protection” regulation.
This Temporary Protection Regulation allows refugees access to essential resources such as healthcare and education. Once the refugees are registered under the Temporary Protection Regulation, they are required to remain within that province.
Additional issues arise from the lack of recognition of temporary and international protection status in 16 provinces across Turkey. The reduction of 25% to 20% foreign population within a given neighbourhood continues to cause significant issues. Finding jobs becomes a difficulty since the individual is forced to look for jobs only in the area the individual is registered in, thereby limiting the job opportunities that may be available to them in other places, such as Istanbul.
A recurring trend observed worldwide is that during times of crisis, the education sector is frequently the first to be halted and the last to be reinstated. It is crucial to be have access to education regardless of whether you are an international protection applicant or status holder or if you plan to resettle in another country or go back to your country. It helps the children develop skills, stability as well as integrate them socially and academically into the education system.
In a study conducted, it was seen that the main problem was that of language. The employed teachers did not speak Arabic, and the children, in this case, did not speak Turkish. There are no activities carried out within the classroom setting to facilitate their learning. There is no varied material brought in to help aid their understanding. Teachers need to be provided with vocational training to better facilitate the learning process for refugee children through teaching strategies and teaching aids.
The teachers have little to no awareness on these refugee children, not just from an educational point of view but also on a psychological level. A majority of these students have been subjected to post-traumatic stress disorder, primarily due to the conditions they are coming from.
The children’s communication barrier furthers the issue within education. When the refugee children are put with other students who can speak the Turkish language, they are often subject to mockery, lack confidence and isolation due to the language barrier.
Familial background and trauma
In a gender analysis carried out in 2019 to explore the Syrian refugee journey with a focus on the difficulties encountered by refugees in Turkey, it was observed that a notable portion of Syrian refugee children were not attending school. Among those who were in school, there were elevated levels of trauma. This significantly undermined the educational advancement of these children.
Children were initially not sent to schools since parents felt their stay in the country where they sought asylum would be temporary. However, once the families realised the permanency of their residency in Turkey, the enrolment rate in schools by refugee children steadily increased.
Research has consistently shown the positive effects of education on children who experience post-traumatic stress and develop coping and resilience skills. This can prove particularly helpful and effective for refugee children in the long run.
However, despite the positive impact education has, it comes with complications. An unstable or unsupportive home environment hinders a smooth educational process for these children and impacts the quality of education.
Refugee families typically find themselves having lost all they had. This, alongside the financial strain, forces their children into early marriage, leading them to drop out of school. Worth mentioning, is that in 2020 there was a drop in boys attending school. It was seen that reasons such as sending children to work due to augmented economic hardship were one of the reasons to withdraw boys from schools.
Decline in services
Natural disasters, epidemics and wars spare no children. Turkey was gripped by conflict following Covid-19 and the earthquake in February 2023. Refugee children are often subject to poverty, poor living conditions, minimal access to safe drinking water, healthcare and food, as well as compelled to work owing to the unfavourable economic circumstances faced by the family, leading to the children being forced to neglect their education. The Conditional Cash Transfer for Education for Syrians and Other Refugees and the Promotion of Integration of Syrian Children into Turkish Education were seen as ways to address the economic barriers to enrolment and attendance.
These children have been victims of distressing experiences at a young age, such as the maiming and death of their near and dear ones. Due to the unstable environment, this results in a delay with their access to education. These children may end up receiving education in inadequate educational facilities, thus hindering their ability to fully grasp and unleash their full potential.
Racism and xenophobia
Instances of racist and xenophobic assaults have experienced a substantial rise as well. This has been further exacerbated by various politicians within the country. This continues to subject refugees from Syria and other places in constant danger throughout schools, homes and workplaces. Taking into consideration the duty Turkey has towards its refugees, especially as a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, the politicians, members of the government, policymakers, and other influential persons should make a conscious effort not to instigate animosity towards refugees within the country.
Teachers and other resource persons need to make a conscious effort to bring awareness among the children of the host state that discrimination, racism, bullying, and other such acts are unacceptable behaviour. The citizens or parents of the students of the host state also need to be made aware to end discriminatory treatment towards these refugee children and teach their children to be respectful towards their fellow peers. Basic language skills among refugee children would allow for both parties to have a basic level of interaction. If not, refugees will persist in grappling with the notable issue of being excluded and marginalized.
The host nation must actively strive to comprehend the challenges that refugees encounter within an educational environment, encompassing issues like bullying, discrimination, language barriers, and similar concerns. These factors impact the necessity of forging connections and fostering a sense of belonging.
February 2023 earthquake
The earthquake that struck the nation in February 2023 has exacerbated the challenges faced by refugees. Basic resources, such as education, are now inaccessible for children. Several schools are being repurposed as shelters for those affected by the earthquake.
UNICEF has managed to help 140,000 children with access to formal or non-formal education and has provided more than 260,000 children with access to mental health and psychosocial support. UNICEF and AFAD have played an active role in helping the Ministry of National Education with temporary education measures such as tents for catch-up classes and exam preparation. However, even UNICEF recognises the need for longer-term support needed for rebuilding and recovering the lives of these children and their families.
It is a common pattern that education, particularly for vulnerable groups, tends to be disregarded and relegated to a lower priority. This situation could potentially push these vulnerable children into engaging in child labor as a means of supporting themselves or their families during these challenging circumstances. The increase in bias and impoverishment persists among these Syrian refugees, and when combined with the restricted educational access, they find themselves compelled to work merely to sustain their livelihoods.
The hosting country should make efforts to guarantee the integration of displaced children, regardless of their specific classification as refugees, internally displaced persons, asylum seekers, or unaccompanied minors, into the local education system in their respective residential areas.
Considering the massive influx of migration that Turkey receives due to global humanitarian crises, it would be wise if Turkey took an active initiative not only in policy-making but in its implementation regarding the education situation for said displaced children.
Partners within the country as well as internationally should step up to help the Turkish authorities by equipping them with the required support in the form of financial aid, technical assistance, expertise in terms of teachers who have the talent to speak the relevant languages, subject knowledge and to be able to cater to the different kinds of difficulties that come with teaching children that are coming from volatile environments.
It’s important to acknowledge that a teacher tasked with educating refugee children, along with those who are internally displaced, asylum seekers, or unaccompanied minors, is instructing a group that faces challenges beyond what is typically encountered in a standard classroom setting.
These children may have disabilities from birth or due to violence in their countries, have seen family members and friends killed or injured, or have even been victims of sexual violence. It’s highly probable that their education might have been disrupted well before their arrival in the host country. As a result, teachers in these contexts need to possess not only strong teaching skills but also a profound understanding of their classroom environment and a sensitivity to the unique situations they are confronted with. This is a difficult challenge.
The host country and other partners assisting the host country must also be mindful of this fact while hiring teachers and other resource persons. Education, especially for refugees, is exceptionally beneficial for social restructuring and socioeconomic development.
As the viability of the Turkiye Compact is under ongoing evaluation, particularly given the difficulties involved, its execution would notably contribute to supporting Turkey and enhancing the nation’s economy. Additionally, it would assist refugees in achieving greater self-sufficiency and decreasing their reliance on humanitarian aid funding.
Introducing a universally recognized certification system for these children would enhance the ease of educational transitions, if they were to occur. This system would facilitate enrollment, attendance, retention, progression, and completion, fostering a more inclusive, equitable, and high-quality education for both refugee children and youth.
Ignored, bullied, rejected and discriminated against are common words used to describe the experience of refugee children in schools. It is high time this narration and plight are changed. Turkey must uphold its treaty obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Convention against Torture and continue to uphold the principle of nonrefoulement. Ensuring education provides a robust platform for children to be emboldened and enrich their future. It is an immense responsibility that should be shouldered by the state and non-state actors at the local, national and international levels to maximise all efforts to ensure a safe space for these children.
- Diamond, M., & Oberg, C. (2019). Gender-Related Challenges in Educational Interventions with Syrian Refugee Parents of Trauma-Affected Children in Turkey. Children (Basel, Switzerland), 6(10), 110. https://doi.org/10.3390/children6100110
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