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date: 07 December 2019

Education of Refugee and Asylum-Seeking Children

Summary and Keywords

There is an increasing interest in policy and research regarding the educational experiences of refugee and asylum-seeking children. In many countries across the globe these children constitute a growing segment of the student population. Like other student categories, refugee and asylum-seeking children have rights to an equal and meaningful education. Nevertheless, numerous research contributions have proven that these children are, from the outset, in a disadvantaged position that has been further exacerbated by poorly educated teachers, a lack of resources, the absence of appropriate support, exclusion, and isolation. There is far less evidence of positive examples. Three distinct perspectives have been widely discussed in the literature: a) inclusion and exclusion through organizational spaces; b) pedagogical practices and classroom-based interventions; and c) relations between schools and refugee and asylum-seeking parents.

A review of the literature suggests that refugee and asylum-seeking students or, for that matter, other migrant students with poor socioeconomic status in a host country will never have equal educational opportunities unless their previous experiences are properly assessed, understood, and recognized and unless their first language is acknowledged as a vital vehicle for learning. Furthermore, scaffolding must be provided by language support teachers, and students must be granted access to inclusive spaces on the same terms as other non-migrant students. Finally, parents ought to be provided with platforms for active involvement and a tangible opportunity to advocate for their children’s educational rights.

Keywords: refugee and asylum-seeking children, newly arrived students, inclusion, first language, language support teachers, refugee parents and schools


Migration is human destiny. It has always existed and will always exist, in different forms and for various reasons, because of forced migration caused by war, persecution, ethnic cleansing, environmental disasters, flights from poverty and the search for better life opportunities in richer parts of the world, and because, in modern times, globalization and communication infrastructure has opened up the world market to a highly educated and highly mobile social class. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM, 2017, p. 13), in 2015 there were an estimated 244 million (or 3.3 % of the world’s population) international migrants. More than 65 million are refugees, the majority are so-called internally displaced people, i.e., refugees in their native country. More than 25 million are refugees who have crossed international borders, although the majority have sought shelter in neighboring countries.

There are a number of international conventions regulating and protecting the rights of migrants. The right to asylum is a cornerstone of the UN Refugee Convention of 1951 (Geneva Convention) and its 1967 Protocol. Additional documents have been adopted to protect labor migrants and trafficking victims.

Education is a basic human right. Internationally, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child grants all children, irrespective of their migration status, the right to education. Refugee, asylum-seeking, and undocumented children alike not only have to be admitted to schools. The education also has to be of high quality, aiming at developing “each child’s personality, talents and abilities to the fullest” (Article 29). As Morland and Birman (2016, p. 366) posit in the case of U.S. legislation, “public schools must ensure that ELL [English language learners] can participate meaningfully and equally in educational programs.” Thus, refugee and asylum-seeking students have a right to meaningful and equal education aimed at fully developing the personality, talents, and abilities of every child (Matthews, 2008).

The focus of this article is the numerous intersections of these two broad phenomena, migration and education, within the realm of theory, empirical contributions, policy, and practice. Different countries have taken different stances and approaches to organizing and delivering education to these students. In some countries, services are organized into separate models, during shorter or longer periods of times, partially or completely. In others, inclusion is an imperative, and all children are directly immersed in mainstream classes. In yet others, there is a well-developed set of national policies and guidelines defining a baseline for locally implemented programs. Some countries have, due to a high level of decentralization, shifted the entire responsibility to municipalities and regions. The role of the first language, multilingualism, content- and language-integrated learning, support staff and other facilitating measures, social support inside and outside of schools, the achievement gap between refugee and non-refugee students, the role of the local community, teachers’ and principals’ professional development, patterns of communications with parents, discrimination and bullying, cooperation between language and subject area teachers, cooperation with stakeholders outside of schools, are just some of the topics this growing body of research embraces.

The method of delivering education is inevitably imbedded in the broader national historical, political, economic, and ideological contexts, which are pervaded by deeply ingrained notions of “what is best for them,” whether that is assimilation, integration, acculturation, multiculturalism or something else. These political models are also often taken as theoretical frameworks in research, probing the impact of culture and relationships regarding the school success of new arrivals (Berry, 2001, 2005; Portes & Zhou, 1993). Translanguaging (see the article “Translanguaging”; also García, Johnson, & Seltzer, 2017; Lewis, Jones, & Baker, 2012a, 2012b; Li Wei, 2011; Nikula & Moore, 2016), social capital (Bunar, 2015; Ferfolja & Vickers, 2010), and resilience (Masten, 2014; Ni Raghallaigh & Gilligan, 2010) are some other theoretical concepts often deployed in research.

Although refugee and asylum-seeking children in schools have been a feature of educational systems in many countries for decades, research on the topic has only gained prominence since the beginning of the 2000s. In contrast to research endeavors from the 1970s and 1980s, which mostly focused on language acquisition and immigrants’ adaptation to a new country (Cummins, 1979; Ogbu & Herbert, 1998; Portes & Zhou, 1993; Thomas & Collier, 1997), recent research has been more diversified, covering several salient topics to a greater extent. Organizational models, the role of language support staff, discrimination, socioemotional support, and strong relations with parents and ethnic communities are some of the additional areas illuminated. Particularly noteworthy is the growing interest of transnational organizations in the educational conditions of refugee and asylum-seeking children. Thus, reports with descriptions, analyses, and recommendations to policymakers have been produced by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (Dryden-Peterson, 2011), the European Commission (Budginaite, Siarova, Sternadel, Mackonyte, & Spurga, 2016), the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD, 2015), the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE, 2017), and Education International (representing teacher unions across the world, see Bunar, Vogel, Stock, Grigt, & López Cuesta, 2018). In other words, refugee and asylum-seeking children have become more visible in research.

Two limitations deserve to be mentioned. First, this article is based on international research, although international in this context often means publications in English from Europe, North America, Australia, New Zealand, Israel, and, recently, Turkey. Research published in English from Asia, Africa, and Latin America is harder to find and access.

Second, given the intensified knowledge production and the transdisciplinary nature of this field, it is not possible to provide all aspects with (appropriate) space. Dealing with traumatic pre- and transmigration experiences, experiences of racism, discrimination and bullying, language teaching methods, teacher education, and psychological adjustment are some of the extremely important subareas that cannot be addressed in this article.

The article starts with “Definitions at the Intersection between Migration and Educational Legislation,” a brief explanation about its main concepts: refugee and asylum-seeking children and newly arrived students. The major part of the paper consists of three distinct perspectives, which are widely discussed in the literature: a) “Inclusion and Exclusion through Organizational Models,” b) “Classroom-Based Interventions and Pedagogical Practices,” and c) relations between “Refugee and Asylum-Seeking Parents and Schools.”

Definitions at the Intersection Between Migration and Educational Legislation

The refugee concept has, broadly speaking, a dual meaning, emanating from migration legislation (Stewart, 2011). First, it is used as a legal category for persons who have applied for and been granted asylum in a host country or who have been resettled from the first country of arrival, according to the Geneva Convention. The term encompasses individuals with a well-grounded fear of persecution based on their political opinion, ethnicity, religion or any other similar circumstance. Refugee status can also be bestowed, which is something that is regulated by national migration legislation and is based on humanitarian reasons, such as war, sexual orientation, and environmental disasters. Refugees can also be resettled from temporary shelters in their country of origin or other places administered by the UNHCR to a destination country, according to specific quotas that each country decides upon. The second meaning of the concept of refugee is often used as a generic term for all persons who found themselves forced to leave their place of origin and/or a country due to, for example, persecution or economic poverty.

An asylum-seeker is also a legal category designating individuals who have lodged an application for asylum in a host country and their request is under consideration by the country’s authorities. In other words, a person can be labeled both an asylum-seeker (legal category) and a refugee (generic term). When used together, as they are in this article, it indicates that those concerned are children who are either asylum-seekers (legal term) and refugees (generic term) or refugees (recently arrived with temporary or permanent residence status). An asylum-seeking child is obviously bestowed that status until the authorities have come to a final decision about their asylum application. Children who despite a negative outcome stay in the country are labeled undocumented. However, they also have right to education. How long a child is defined and treated as a refugee in the education system is another, more complicated matter, reflecting both policies and customs in a particular country. It is also linked to a range of definitions emanating from education legislation.

Upon entering the educational system, a refugee and asylum-seeking child may be labeled with one or more of a variety of new concepts: newly arrived, recently arrived, newcomer, migrant, immigrant, and even minority student. Status as newly arrived is of crucial importance for educational opportunities since it could be a precursor to receiving additional support, for example, in English as a second language. Nevertheless, as noted by Uptin, Wright, and Harwood (2013, see also Candappa, 2000), there could be another side of the coin since prolonged labeling could lead to stigmatization and anticipation of a child’s educational needs and challenges as solely stemming from the status as newly arrived and a language learner. In Sweden, for example, a child is defined as newly arrived for up to four years after the admission to a Swedish school (Bunar, 2017). In Norway, it is six years (Hilt, 2017). There is virtually no research analyzing what these time-frames mean for the educational opportunities of these children. Furthermore, it is unclear on what principles the authorities in the respective countries decided to draw the line at four or six years, or no line at all. As with so many other measures with regard to these children, it seems to be utterly arbitrary.

In this article, the concept of newly arrived students is used to address the position of refugee and asylum-seeking children in the education system. Even other migrant groups (children of labor migrants or those who arrived for the reason of family reunion) are often referred to as newly arrived students in the literature. Obviously, there are many differences in life circumstances, depending on the reason for the migration, but non-refugee migrant students often share the same challenges at schools as their refugee peers (Rutter, 2006).

Inclusion and Exclusion Through Organizational Models

Upon arrival, the right to education is manifested through various organizational solutions. Even if considerable differences can be found between countries, the majority of organizational models, together with conflicting views on their strengths and weaknesses, could be categorized into three major strands. In between these three major organizational models, there is a range of mix-models, which are more or less scientifically informed in their design and more or less successful in their implementation and outcomes.

Three Major Models

Separate-Site Model (Short, 2002)

Newly arrived students are placed and provided with all their education in their own schools for shorter or longer periods of time. International schools in New York (Bartlett, Mendenhall, & Ghaffar-Kucher, 2017; Mendenhall, Bartlett, & Ghaffar-Kucher, 2017) and some local examples from Sweden are obvious examples (Bunar, 2012). Major arguments deployed by advocates for this model are that supporting services facilitating language acquisition and stress-free adaptation can be gathered together in one place. Possibilities for forging peer-relationships with other children sharing the same language and in the same situation, and even the anticipated absence of discrimination and racism, are other purported arguments. In contrast, critics have noted that refugee-only schools are segregating and excluding. They deprive newly arrived students access to social relations with native speakers, and there is a great deal of research proving that socially segregating schools fuel the achievement gap between immigrant and non-immigrant background students (Brunello & De Paola, 2017; Rumberger & Palardy, 2005; Sykes & Kuyper, 2013).

Direct Immersion

Direct Immersion in mainstream classes can be found in a majority of countries, especially for younger (up to 10 years of age) children. Supporting services are provided, either in the classroom, through the presence of a multilingual teacher or a two-teacher system, or outside of the classroom, through either shorter pull-out classes or through extracurricular activities. In some countries, for example, Italy (Grigt, 2017) and the U.K. (Pinson & Arnot, 2007), this is the only possible model. Other examples from the literature indicate that the question of whether to apply direct immersion is left to the discretion of local school authorities and/or principals (Hilt, 2017; Nilsson-Folke & Bunar, 2016). Advocates for this model posit that inclusion in the mainstream is a prerequisite for successful education. Opportunities to speak a second language with native speakers and gain social relations that will introduce newly arrived students to the school culture, which provides information and socioemotional support, are some other strong arguments (Suárez-Orosco, Pimentel, & Martin, 2009). One of the main counter-arguments is that the schools where refugee and asylum-seeking children are often enrolled are highly segregated, with no or few native speakers. In the words of Bartlett, Mendenhall, and Ghaffar-Kucher (2017, p. 118):

There is evidence that international high schools are particularly effective at meeting the needs of newcomer refugee students. While we acknowledge the debates regarding the integration or segregation of refugee students, it is important to acknowledge that many refugee students in urban sites attend highly segregated schools regardless. Thus, in urban settings where concentrations of refugee students make it possible, international schools provide a compelling model that merits serious consideration.

Similarly, Suárez-Orozco et al. (2010, p. 603) argue that

Many immigrant youth also find themselves in racially and ethnically segregated schools, a factor that has been closely linked with reduced access to educational resources and negative school outcomes (Orfield & Lee, 2006). Immigrant students, particularly those of Latino origin, face an added burden of attending linguistically isolated schools that place them at particular academic risk.

Other arguments include the fact that children are not provided with adequate, if any, support in mainstream classes, that no extra resources have been allocated to schools to offer support (Taylor, 2008), that the teachers lack an understanding of students’ life-situation and how to integrate content and language learning, and that children are being exposed to discrimination, bullying, and racism (Candappa, 2000; Portes & Rumbaut, 2001; Zembylas, 2011). The overall critique is that children may be physically included in a common space, but socially, and with respect to learning opportunities, they are completely excluded.

The Separate Class

The Separate Class model seems to be one of the most applied in the majority of countries, as has been reported in the literature. These classes are also labeled introductory, pull-out, preparatory, multicultural, welcoming, international, etc. This model is based on the notion that newly arrived students should be provided a place in an ordinary school, but, for a certain initial period, they should get education primarily in classes exclusively composed of other newly arrived students. In reality, the time period may vary between a couple of weeks and several years. The argument is that the students will have access to social space for interactions with other non-refugee students during breaks, lunches, and leisure-time activities. Furthermore, the refugee students may be included in some activities with an appropriate mainstream class in topics perceived as “easier” for the purpose of participation, such as sports, music, arts, and crafts. At the same time, supporting multilingual services and experienced teachers in second-language acquisition could be congregated in separate classes. Children could support each other in identity development, and, since everyone is newly arrived, it is supposed that no child will be marginalized due to insufficient language skills. As Skowronski (2013) noted in a Swedish study on students in separate and mainstream classes, the children’s perspective was that in separate classes they laughed together if someone used “wrong” Swedish. In contrast, in the mainstream classroom, the risk is that other students will laugh at their mistake. By deploying this model, as argued by advocates, the perils of segregation and social exclusion, which are prominent in separate-site and direct immersion models, are diminished.

Critics have argued that students tend to get stuck in separate classes much longer than their needs require, that these classes are stigmatizing, that the level of education is low, and that newly arrived students fail to gain access to social networks with other non-refugee children (Svensson & Eastmond, 2013). Another issue is the process of transition from separate to mainstream classes, which has proved to be notoriously poorly arranged. In particular, teachers in mainstream classes were poorly equipped to recognize students’ educational needs, strengths, and challenges. Refugee students were simply perceived as someone else’s students while they were in separate classes, and they were expected to be fully prepared once they transferred to mainstream classes.

Inclusion and Space

One of the core tenets in the research and discussions about all three major models is the importance of regular interactions and a possibility of forging positive relations with non-refugee students, which is presented as a precursor to social justice, equal, and high-quality education. This has been invoked in all three models, but, as we have seen, it has been invoked from completely different and conflicting perspectives. In addition, the advocates of all three models have incorporated the concept of inclusion. The significance of inclusion for the school success of newly arrived students is unequivocal. Block, Cross, Riggs, and Gibbs (2014, p. 1349) showcase in their evaluation of the School Support Program in Australia (which aims at supporting schools in their work with newly arrived students) that “fostering an ethos and environment of inclusion and celebrating cultural diversity was a central element recognised as successful in engendering a significant shift in a number of participating schools.” Another study from Australia, by Uptin, Wright, and Harwood (2013), argues that newly arrived refugee students are being exposed to discrimination and racism because they are positioned within the dominant school culture through a deficient discourse and seen as a homogenous group. Consequently, the authors call for a more inclusive, holistic, and welcoming approach to newly arrived refugee students and recognition of their abilities beyond sports, music, or rap (p. 135). Hilt (2017), in her study on Norway’s reception system, demonstrated how separate classes disfavor the most disadvantaged migrant students (refugees from Iraq and the children of labor migrants from Poland). Her research has effectively undermined the notion of integration through separation:

In educational policy it is argued that the exceptions from the ordinary principles are only temporary and that introductory classes will increase minority language students’ ability to be included in the longer run. For the most marginalised students, however, one can question whether these policy prospects are realistic. (p. 599)

Positive relationships are important to create and uphold, not only with other students but also with adults in contexts inside and outside of schools. In their seminal paper on the importance of relationships for school success and socioemotional well-being for newcomer immigrant students, Suárez-Orozco, Pimentel, and Martin (2009, see even Suárez-Orozco et al., 2010) posit that supportive relationships are important to “bridge the gap between home and school cultures, provide feelings of safety and opportunities for success in the school setting, to attenuate the effects of school violence and enhance feelings of belonging in the school setting.” (p. 741)

Two analytical points could be highlighted in relation to the discussion of inclusion, exclusion and spaces. The first one is that inclusion is not just about physically sharing a space with non-refugee students (Riggs & Due, 2010). The space in itself cannot grant inclusion and equal treatment. Inclusion is essentially, as asserted by Watkins in the article “Inclusive Education and European Educational Policy” with reference to UNESCO and the International Bureau of Education (2017), “concerned with identifying and removing barriers, and it is about the presence, participation, and achievement of all students with a particular emphasis on those groups of learners who may be at risk of marginalization, exclusion, or underachievement.” Targeted support in the form of multilingual teachers, mentors, and content and language integration is one way of overcoming the barriers. Another way is to address the negative aspects of school culture generating hostile attitudes towards newly arrived students in form of stigmatization, discrimination, racism, and bullying. However, another way is to take a holistic approach, meaning recognition of the complexities of newly arrived students’ identities, challenges and strengths and, consequently, building a sustainable education policy and practice embracing the entire school and all teachers. Pinson, Arnot, and Candappa (2010) call it the ethos of inclusion. Due and Riggs (2009, p. 55) conclude, after conducting research in two primary schools in South Australia with New Arrival Programs (NAPs):

We argue that the education provided to refugee and newly arrived migrant students in NAPs needs to move beyond treating English language acquisition as a requirement to “fit in,” and we call for schools with high populations of refugee and migrant students to consider how spatial relations in their schools may be negatively impacting these student populations.

The second analytical point is that the policy of refugee-only schools, although there is evidence that some of these schools achieve good results, is based on a false premise (Feinberg, 2000). It has been purported that newly arrived students’ educational and social needs are insufficiently recognized and taken care of in mainstream schools, they have been exposed to racism, and, consequently, they need to be sheltered in their own schools. Furthermore, as the argument goes, since refugee students often end up in segregated and poorly performing public schools, there is no loss with regard to inclusion. There is nothing to be included into. Thus, once again, instead of directing the critical gaze towards segregation and the way mainstream schools function, and making all possible efforts to change it, the students are simply being “evacuated” to places where they can be left alone with other refugee students. Schools prepare their students to be functional citizens in their societies. Which society are refugee-only schools preparing their students for? The only plausible answer is a segregated society.

To conclude, inclusion is the only workable policy and practice that grants newly arrived students access to meaningful and equal education and a positive future outlook. Inclusion can work only if there is a common space that facilitates dense interactions between students with different backgrounds, if there is a support for newly arrived students’ special needs, and these needs evolve over time (Makarova & Birman, 2016), and if refugee students are perceived as students that all schools ought to accommodate (Bunar, 2017). It is a matter of legislation and professional ethics.

Classroom-Based Interventions and Pedagogical Practices

Organizational models and spaces are important, as they provide basic social and pedagogical conditions for learning settings. Regardless, classroom activities, teachers’ skills, how and what they teach, what support is provided, and how children’s previous knowledge, experiences and first language(s) are being harnessed as vehicles for learning are of the outmost importance to school outcomes. They are also of the utmost importance with regard to the children’s positioning in relation to the cultural mainstream in society and their future labor market prospects. McBrien, Dooley, and Birman (2017, p. 105) argue that

Research suggests that refugee students continue to experience challenges in countries of resettlement (McBrien, 2005), and students with limited or interrupted education (SLIFE) are particularly at risk (Dooley, 2009). However, schools are a critical setting for youth where they are socialized into the new culture and society, and they provide an opportunity to intervene with necessary supports.

Two common themes can be identified in international research. These are a) the prevalence of a deficient discourse, which portrays refugee children as passive victims of circumstances (Ni Raghallaigh & Gilligan, 2010), traumatized and from the outset poorly equipped to excel in schools. This includes a lack of understanding among school staff and other stakeholders of the children’s educational needs. And b) the role of first language as well as the absence of appropriate and sufficient support. Both will be addressed in this section.

Learning about Strengths and Challenges in a Structured Way

Discourses on deficits concerning language, culture, poor and/or interrupted previous formal schooling, and their concomitant practices have been one of the most profoundly damaging factors for educational opportunities for newly arrived students, especially for refugees and asylum-seekers (Shapiro & MacDonald, 2017). Block et al. (2014, p. 1337) put it the following way:

In addition—while recognition of trauma and the need for support is critical—there appears to be a tendency to adopt a deficit model that treats people from refugee backgrounds as victims rather than recognising their potential and building on their strengths and resilience.

Upon arrival, solely based on their lack of proficiency in the majority language, children tend to be perceived and treated as an educational challenge and as a problem. Teachers recurrently lament, as presented in a number of research reports, that they lack adequate knowledge, resources and support to tackle this “educational challenge” (Taylor, 2008). Professional development and the creation of learning communities (Harris & Muijs, 2005; Leithwood & Louis, 2000; Mulford & Silins, 2003; Opfer & Pedder, 2011; Timperley, 2011) are thus seen as necessary prerequisites, but it appears that educational authorities have been slow in providing those tools. Teachers have been left alone with the task of organizing, filling in pedagogical content, and implementing education for refugees and asylum-seekers (Sidhu & Taylor, 2007). Unpredictable migration policy, which frequently threatens children and their families with deportation, and negative public discourses on migration and refugees exacerbate the task even further (Dolan & Sherlock, 2010). Obviously, teachers themselves need support if they are to be able to provide proper support to newly arrived students.

What can be done? Researchers have recommended that schools instigate meticulous assessments (screening or mapping) of children’s previous school and life experiences and adopt plans for how to use the assessments’ outcomes in educational strategies and policies (Hoot, 2011). One interesting example is found in Sweden, a country that for many years has been one of the major destinations for asylum-seekers and refugees in Europe (Bunar, 2017). When a newly arrived child, irrespective of the reason for the migration, has been enrolled in a school (and enrolment ought to be completed within two months of arrival in the country at the latest), a mandatory assessment of previous experiences is initiated. There are three steps in this process. The first is a basic mapping of the conditions of the previous schooling and the child’s other relevant social circumstances, i.e., which language(s) the child speak(s), how many years he/she has attended school, which academic subjects were taught, and the child’s own opinion on previous and future schooling, hopes, and ambitions. The second step is an assessment of numeracy and literacy in order to decide what to build the subsequent education on and what would be the most appropriate way of providing general support to the child. Based on the outcomes of these two initial steps, a principal decides into which grade and which organizational form the child will be placed. The third step is commenced after approximately six months; its aim is to assess the child’s attained knowledge in various academic subjects. All the information is collected in a pedagogical portfolio and is expected to follow the child throughout his/her schooling.

In light of the previous criticisms of schools, this practice could be described as “promising,” although, due to the policy’s recent enactment (in 2016), there is still very little evidence about its outcomes.

The initial assessment is also important to elicit newly arrived children’s strengths and not just the challenges they face. A great deal of empirical evidence proves refugee children possess a high level of resilience, ambitions, and a strong will to succeed in schools (Hek, 2005; Jahanmahan & Bunar, 2018; Stewart, 2011). In the process, the students’ identity as skillful learners with valuable knowledge can be further strengthened. Additionally, through the assessment, the deficient discourse can be offset, since teachers are expected to obtain information and acknowledge their students’ previous experiences. More research and evaluations are needed in order to refine and possibly improve this promising practice.

First Language and Language Support Teachers

Newly arrived students have one asset that, to a high degree, has been neglected, degraded, and even misrecognized in their continuous education. It is their first (sometimes labeled heritage, native, or mother-tongue) language (Yazici, Ilter, & Glover, 2010). At first glance, this does not seem odd. The lack of proficiency in the second (majority) language is presented as a key problem and a key solution. Consequently, all efforts are being directed at the acquisition of the second language, including learning, talking, and thinking in the second language. Even inclusion, which is often presented as the most suitable organizational model, is based on the premise that newly arrived children will quickly learn the new language through daily interactions with their native-born peers. In a strange twist, the first language is perceived as a burden and an obstacle, something that, if encouraged and frequently used, will slow down the acquisition of the second language. This notion has never been proved in the literature. However, it continues to exert an enormous impact on how language policies are conceived and shaped in school settings.

Educators need to find a way to harness the first language as an effective vehicle for learning. Effective learning that leads to school success cannot be confined to learning a new language. Newly arrived students must be granted access to and provided with a fair chance to excel in all academic subjects. One of the methods for achieving this is through language support teachers.

Language support teachers (LSTs), also labeled multilingual classroom assistants (whose roles will be analyzed in a forthcoming paper by Bunar and Davila) and cultural mediators (Grigt, 2017), constitute the most important pedagogical intervention for newly arrived students (Warren, 2017). Their role is to act as a bridge between the academic content presented in the second language and the children’s first language. Their role is also to, in conjunction with the second-language teachers, support subject area teachers in their efforts to achieve content and language integrated learning (Nikula & Moore, 2016) and adjust instruction to newly arrived students’ needs. LSTs are rarely recruited among ordinary bilingual teachers. Since they are not expected to teach an academic subject area, there is no requirement for formal teacher education or a background as a teacher, which means they are more commonly recruited from ethnic communities. Nevertheless, in order to enable them to perform in accordance with expectations, they need to be supported and have close cooperation with subject area teachers (Bunar, 2017).

Theoretically, the nature of LSTs’ work has been depicted as an example of “Translanguaging.” According to Vogel and Garcia (2017, p. 1)

Translanguaging is a theoretical lens that offers a different view of bilingualism and multilingualism. The theory posits that rather than possessing two or more autonomous language systems, as has been traditionally thought, bilinguals, multilinguals, and indeed, all users of language, select and deploy particular features from a unitary linguistic repertoire to make meaning and to negotiate particular communicative contexts. Translanguaging also represents an approach to language pedagogy that affirms and leverages students’ diverse and dynamic language practices in teaching and learning.

LSTs’ work also exemplifies what Li Wei (2011) has called a translanguaging space, which is a space where recognition of students’ diverse identities and languages occurs through dense interactions. Translanguaging spaces are vital for providing much-needed socioemotional support. Translanguaging ultimately represents a practice for elevating social justice in education. Two additional aspects deserve mention. First, all newly arrived students must be treated as individuals with specific challenges, needs, and strengths. Deploying collective solutions will increase their marginalization and undermine the transformative potential of translanguaging as an empowering social space and pedagogical practice (to be analyzed in a forthcoming paper by Bunar and Davila). Second, subject area teachers must actively participate in the education of newly arrived students by adjusting the learning settings of their classrooms and embracing the core tenets of translanguaging spaces and pedagogies.

To conclude, if they are to be successful and meet the educational challenges of all newly arrived students, and especially of refugee and asylum-seeking students, classroom-based interventions ought to acknowledge the students’ previous knowledge and life experiences and subsequently build responses on the obtained information. Furthermore, pedagogical responses must be structured and cognizant of the transformative capacity imbued in the very notion of multilingualism. Translanguaging is a promising theoretical direction that is able to connect sociological and pedagogical notions of what support provided to newly arrived students, at the minimum, must contain.

Refugee and Asylum-Seeking Parents and Schools

A large part of the literature on asylum-seeking and refugee students’ education touches upon questions regarding the importance of cultivating positive relations between schools and parents (Chrispeels, 2015; Detlaff & Fong, 2016; McBrien, 2005; Rah, Choi, & Nguyen, 2009; Stewart, 2011). Policy documents and the evaluation of various intervention programs alike usually contain the recommendations that schools need to find more effective ways to reach out to newly arrived parents (OECD, 2015). Despite this broad agreement, it seems that this is one of the most challenging (and often criticized) areas for schools and teachers to address. How to work together, or even communicate, with parents when they do not speak the language? How to work together with parents who have limited knowledge of the school system, and parents who are less educated, culturally different, potentially war-traumatized, and sometimes even demand the physical separation of children in certain school contexts based on gender, or have special food requirements ? How to determine what parents really think about and expect from education, when they either do not show up to school–parent gatherings and individual meetings or, when they do show up, express limitless joy and happiness for having their children in schools, or are just silent? Do teachers have any responsibility to help introduce parents to society? How can teachers work together with other social services and the local community in order to bridge the obvious gap between schools and parents?

These are some of the questions teachers pose based on their perceptions and experiences, as recounted in empirical contributions from researchers across the globe (Devine, 2011; Hamilton & Moore, 2004; Isil-Ercan, 2012; Koyama & Bakuza, 2017; Matthiesen, 2015; Rutter, 2006; Stewart, 2011; Szente, Hoot, & Taylor, 2006). One of the most pervasive topics in the literature is the nature of refugee parents’ agency and the possibility for them to negotiate their position in relation to the deep organizational and cultural structures of schools.

Bunar (2015, see also Osman & Månsson, 2015) concludes, in his qualitative study on experiences by 26 refugee parents’ meetings with Swedish schools, that parents’ agency was removed or endowed by teachers as it ostensibly suited their interests and fitted their perceptions of different ethnic groups. The interviewed parents lamented teachers’ lack of readiness to recognize their dedication to act as good parents, despite the inadequate language proficiency and socioeconomic marginalization. Poor communication, even belittling of the parents in interactions, was recurrently reported. In a study on the experiences of 25 Burmese refugee families in the United States, Isik-Ercan (2012) showcases how parents’ limited knowledge of the school system, as well as meager educational background, conditioned their opportunities to advocate for their children’s academic opportunities in their direct interactions with teachers. Even more importantly, the author demonstrates an absence of visons and ideas among the school staff regarding how to involve the Burmese parents and harness the children’s out-of-school experiences. Finally, Isik-Ercan (2012) argues for broader involvement by the community and schools to support families because “this will contribute to an easier transition for the refugee children and their families to become productive community members and will allow the greater community to benefit from rich multicultural experiences” (p. 3037). Rah, Choi, and Nbuyen (2009, see also Doucet, 2011), in their study on Hmong refugee parents and children in the United States, warn of the dangers of the underlying language of deficit and discourses about helping and caring in well-intended projects and engaged teachers’ actions.

Nevertheless, parents are far from being passive victims of teachers’ unequal treatment. The more they learned about the system, often through ethnic bonds (Ager & Strang, 2008), the more they gained the self-confidence and self-reliance needed to negotiate their position and make their voices heard. In a study on Somali diaspora mothers’ acts of positioning in the practice of home–school partnerships in Danish public schools, and drawing on positioning theory, Matthiesen (2015) clearly describes and provides a meticulous analysis of these processes. In the overall societal discourse, the Somali mothers are positioned as neither willing nor capable of engaging responsibly in their children’s education. According to Matthiesen (2015, p. 20), in order to navigate these constraints and negative prejudices, the parents initially displayed a positive non-critical attitude towards school, thereby showing that they are willing to participate in their children’s schooling. Thereafter, they tried to actively engage as equal partners, showing their capability to participate. The engagement required their persistent opposition and resistance to dominant discourses and practices. However, the parents’ criticism was perceived as a lack of responsibility and support, which effectively once again assigned them a position of complacency. As Matthiesen (2015) concludes,

This struggle to be recognized as an equitable partner, however, shuts down their opportunity to position themselves as advocates for their children in the face of racism, marginalization and unfairness. Instead, they seem to slide into, or perhaps are drawn into, a position of complacency, i.e., of non-critical supportive assistant who does as the expert says, as this position is not compatible with a position of opposition and resistance. The position of equitable dialogue partner thus does not seem to be available to them. (p. 20)

Similarly, Koyama and Bakuza (2017) report in their study on how U.S. refugee parents initially were denied participation in school practices (what the authors call place-taking), often by references to their inadequate English proficiency but also to cultural differences. As the authors put it, “Refugee parents still learning English were positioned, and treated, as unknowledgeable and unworthy of being involved in the schools” (p. 323). Subsequently, the processes of identity-staking (parents’ trying to figure out their position in the educational system and the openness of some teachers to engage with them) and space-making (parents being actively involved through mediation by external stakeholders) occurred. Thus, it was first through an externally funded project of organized workshops for teachers and parents that collaboration could emerge. Even Rah (2013) reports positive outcomes of the FAST (Families and Schools Together) program in the United States, which was launched to promote relationships among teachers, Hmong refugee parents and other community organizations. The program included the recruitment and training of staff to work with parents and children in order to, among other things, “mobilize parent group advocacy for common concerns in the families’ school and in the community” (Rah, 2013, p. 68).

Dolan and Sherlock (2010, see also Devine, 2011) show, in their empirical contribution based on Ireland, how current policies and practices have effectively excluded refugee and asylum-seeking parents from opportunities to forge informal social networks in the broader society. However, childcare services constituted rare sites where social networks could be developed and social capital acquired. Based on culturally responsive practices, the activities promoted educational opportunities for children and language acquisition among both children and parents, besides providing them with valuable knowledge and information about the society. The flexibility and positive responses of the staff, the support they received and parents’ dedication to ending the isolation and exclusion are some of the positive precursors reported in this study.

To conclude, apparently schools have no structures, ideas, visions, or practices regarding how to engage refugee parents in their children’s schooling. There is no basic understanding of why that cooperation could be useful. Therefore, it should not come as a surprise that the initial treatment of parents is further isolation and exclusion or, as Koyama and Bakuza (2017) label it, place-taking. It is evident from much research that parents are willing to engage in schools and negotiate their position as equal partners with teachers and be strong advocates for the children’s educational rights. This is particularly true once parents begin to realize that their children are not receiving meaningful, high-quality and equal education and/or are exposed to negative treatment by teachers and peers. However, it seems that any kind of decisive impact is impossible unless the parents find an ally to mediate their legitimate demands, either through an out-of-school community organization or inside the school through a dedicated principal or teacher.


Refugee and asylum-seeking students, or for that matter other migrant students with poor socioeconomic status in a host country, will never have equal educational opportunity unless and until the following conditions apply:

  • their educational needs are approached individually, and a one-size-fits-all strategy is surpassed;

  • their previous experiences are illuminated, understood and recognized;

  • their first language is acknowledged and valued;

  • they have access to all subject areas and not just the second language;

  • they are taught by highly skilled professionals who are actively involved in learning communities;

  • they are allowed to share space on the same terms as other non-migrant students;

  • they are scaffolded by language support teachers and in their socioemotional development;

  • an ethos of inclusion, a whole school approach and zero-tolerance of discrimination and bullying pervade the school culture;

  • and parents are provided platforms for active involvement and a tangible opportunity to act as advocates for their children’s educational rights.

What is interesting is that all these critical aspects, with small rhetorical adjustments, could be applied to non-migrant students as well. The point is, therefore, that newly arrived refugee and asylum-seeking children first and foremost must be bestowed the status of students with certain special needs and certain advantages. Schools need structures and visions for how to transform these fundamental precursors into daily practices. Needs and advantages are changing and evolving. Thus, schools need flexibility and the continuous professional development of their staff to be able to deliver the high-quality education that these children deserve and to which they have a right.

All other stances, such as blaming the victim for cultural differences, a lack of language proficiency, and complacency, merely mirror the professional and moral poverty of education. This can and must be addressed.


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