Chapter 4. Address the unique needs of refugee students

Refugee children face a wide array of unique challenges when they arrive in their new country. They need to learn the language of their host country, overcome interrupted or limited schooling, and adjust to a new education system. They also need to be able to communicate with others, feel a sense of belonging and develop a strong personal identity. Refugee children need to feel safe, and must be able to cope with loss, separation and/or trauma. Schools and education systems can address these multiple needs by adopting a holistic model for refugee integration. This chapter examines a set of principles that can guide the design and implementation of policies and practices to ensure that the particular needs of refugee students are addressed. Examples include policies that respond to the learning, social and well-being needs of refugees.


Refugees are often considered to be in the same category as immigrants, resulting in policies for immigrants also being used for refugees. Immigrants and refugees indeed share certain motivations and characteristics such as dealing with the disruption of migrating to a new country and adjusting to a different culture and lifestyle. Both immigrant and refugee youth can be confronted with an identity crisis as they try to meet the cultural demands of their parents and of their peers (McBrien, 2005[1]). Furthermore, students with an immigrant or refugee background experience considerable challenges in education systems in host countries.

However, refugee students are particularly vulnerable due to their forced displacement, which is not characteristic of immigrant students. For this reason, refugee students require comprehensive policies that respond to their targeted needs. Schools and education systems play a key role in addressing refugee students’ learning, social and well-being needs. Ensuring their integration in the education system can in turn affect the future labour market and social integration potential of refugee students. In many countries, refugees may take 5 to 10 years to be employed and 15 to 20 years to reach comparable employment rates to the native-born and labour immigrants (OECD/EU, 2018[2]; OECD, 2017[3]). Poor labour market integration can translate into lower well-being for refugees; however, their successful integration can help promote social inclusion, reduce tensions with native populations and create more equal societies (OECD, 2019[4]).

Policies in many countries do not sufficiently distinguish between refugee and immigrant students, and often do not take a comprehensive approach to refugee integration. Policies are more likely to focus on access to education or mental health rather than incorporating a combination of learning, social and emotional needs of refugee students. What is more, official statistics often do not capture the vulnerability of refugee children and youth. Refugee students have likely missed several years of schooling, been forced to move many times and might have experienced hardship and trauma on their journeys. Therefore the needs of refugee students are of a different nature and degree to those of students with an immigrant background, which explains the need for more targeted and comprehensive policies.

This chapter will examine a set of principles that can guide the design and implementation of policies and practices to ensure that the particular needs of refugee students are addressed. Examples include policies that respond to the learning, social and well-being needs of refugees.

What we know about refugee children

The term ‘refugee’ refers to people who have successfully applied for asylum and have been granted refugee protection. The 1951 Geneva Convention and its 1967 Protocol defines a refugee as a person

“who owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it”.

Figure 4.1 reveals that OECD countries hosted around 2.5 million refugees in 1990 and 2000, around 2 million in 2010 and about 6.4 million 2017. This signifies a threefold increase in seven years. In 2017, about half of refugees were located in Turkey, 1 million of whom were school-age (UNHCR, 2018[5]). Besides Turkey, other countries that have been greatly affected (in absolute numbers) by refugee flows are Germany (970 302), France (334 143), Sweden (240 899) and Italy (167 260) (UNHCR, 2018[6]).

Figure 4.1. Number of refugees in OECD countries
Figure 4.1. Number of refugees in OECD countries

Source: (UNHCR, n.d.[7]) (accessed 7 January 2019).


Data on refugee children is scarce, which limits the opportunity to inform policy development and offer targeted support services. Even if refugees access education, their educational achievements and needs remain invisible, as they are no longer captured in their home country’s Education Management Information Systems (EMIS) and not yet included in their host country’s EMIS (OECD, 2018[8]).

Although governments are responsible for collecting education-related data through EMIS, capacity constraints prevent the accurate and complete collection of sex, age and other disaggregated data on refugees. Capacity constraints are due to a lack of information on residence status, high turnover of individuals (making it difficult to properly track numbers) and confidentiality (European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, 2017[9]). A significant methodological challenge is ensuring sample sizes reflect the most marginalised groups, such as unaccompanied minors or refugees with disabilities, for which there is hardly any information available (OECD, 2018[8]).

Across the European Union and the OECD, only data on the number of children who apply for asylum are collected in a co-ordinated manner (UNHCR; UNICEF, 2017[10]). On average across the OECD, around 30% of applicants in 2017 were younger than 18 years old, with a higher proportion (above 45%) in Austria, Germany, Hungary and Poland. In Austria and Hungary, around 40% of applicants were younger than 14 years old (Figure 4.2). Such a high proportion of refugee children and adolescents further challenges policy-making to respond appropriately to these vulnerable groups.

Figure 4.2. Distribution by age of (non-European Union) first-time asylum applicants in selected OECD countries, 2017 (%)
Figure 4.2. Distribution by age of (non-European Union) first-time asylum applicants in selected OECD countries, 2017 (%)

Note: Countries are ranked in descending order of the share of first-time asylum applicants that were younger than 14. The OECD average is the average of OECD EU countries shown in the figure

Source: Adapted from: (Eurostat, n.d.[11]), (accessed on 07 December 2018).


In 2017, nearly half (48 %) of first instance asylum decisions in the OECD resulted in positive outcomes, that is granting applicants refugee or subsidiary protection status, or an authorisation to stay for humanitarian reasons (Figure 4.3). For first instance decisions, some 26 % of all positive decisions in the OECD countries in 2017 resulted in grants of refugee status. This figure differs considerably by country of destination. For example, over 70% of first instance decisions resulted in grants of refugee status in Ireland and Lithuania, whereas in countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Spain and the Slovak Republic, fewer than 10% of decisions did (Eurostat, 2018[12]). Data that disaggregates decisions on refugee status by age, however, are not available.

Figure 4.3. Distribution of first instance decisions on (non-European Union) asylum applications, 2017
Figure 4.3. Distribution of first instance decisions on (non-European Union) asylum applications, 2017

Note: Countries are ranked in descending order of the share of individuals who obtained refugee status out of all first instance decisions. The OECD average is the average of OECD EU countries shown in the figure.

Source: Adapted from: (Eurostat, n.d.[13]), (accessed on 07 December 2018).


Access to education and enrolment rates are often taken as indicators of refugee integration. Nevertheless, many refugee children are not enrolled in school. Globally, 91 per cent of children attend primary school compared to only 61% of refugee children. As refugee children become older, the challenges increase: only 23 per cent of refugee adolescents are enrolled in secondary school, whereas 84 per cent of all children are (UNHCR, 2017[14]). While many OECD countries are making efforts to enroll newly arrived children in education, challenges still persist especially for children from pre-primary and upper secondary ages, who often fall out of national compulsory education systems (UNICEF, 2018[15]).

Challenges of refugee children

Refugee children face more obstacles than other children with an immigrant background such as adjusting to a new language and culture, overcoming disrupted or minimal prior education, disruption to family networks, insecure housing, poverty, negative stereotypes and discrimination (Bloch and al., 2015[16]; Sirin and Rogers-Sirin, 2015[17]; European Commission, 2013[18]; Crul, 2016[19]). Refugees can be affected by several layers of disadvantage that is linked to their forced displacement and low socio-economic status and harmed by frequent negative attitudes held by the host population towards refugees.

Additional challenges related to the nature of their forced migration include mental health issues, weak prior links with the host country (OECD, 2016[20]) and documentation of education (e.g. credentials and diplomas). Without systematic assessments of refugee students’ skills, it is difficult to place them in the appropriate programme or level of instruction (OECD, 2019[4]). Furthermore, access to education is a challenge since refugee children are five times more likely to be out of school than non-refugee children (UNHCR, 2016[21]).

At the school level, education systems are not well prepared to receive asylum seekers and refugees. The school curricula often do not provide basic language skills and social competences that refugees need. Additionally, the social context in which the education system is responsible for schooling refugees is not always supportive of welcoming these newcomers (Essomba, 2017[22]).

Refugee students have often been treated as a homogenous group, which has prevented detailed examinations of pre-migration and post-migration factors (McBrien, 2005[1]). These factors are relevant for understanding the particular needs of refugee students and developing appropriate educational support (Rutter, 2006[23]). Refugees arriving in different OECD countries often have diverse national, cultural, linguistic, ethnic and racial backgrounds and circumstances, including their educational experiences in countries of asylum (Sidhu and Taylor, 2009[24]; Matthews, 2008[25]). Even individuals from different regions within the same host country may have diverse educational needs.

Holistic model for the educational integration of refugees

It is important to consider a holistic model for refugee educational integration that recognises the complexity of refugee children’s needs (i.e. their learning, social and emotional needs) (Arnot and Pinson, 2005[26]; Sidhu and Taylor, 2009[24]).

The holistic model (Figure 4.4) depicts the relationships between needs, factors, policies and educational integration. The educational integration of refugee children can only take place if all (or at least most) of their learning, social and emotional needs are addressed. Refugee children need to learn the host country language, develop their mother tongue, overcome interruptions in schooling or limited education, and adjust to a new education system. They also need to be able to communicate with others, feel a sense of belonging and develop a strong personal identity. Furthermore, refugee children need to feel safe, and be able to cope with loss, separation and/or trauma (Cerna, 2019[27]). Different individual, interpersonal and institutional (school-level) factors can shape the prevalence of needs of refugee children. Factors include all individual, interpersonal and school-level characteristics that influence the needs of refugee children. Among individual factors are language proficiency, mother tongue proficiency, and physical and mental health. Interpersonal factors include connections with peers as well as family and social support of refugee children. School-level factors include the learning environment, teacher-student interactions, school engagement, assessment at school-level, extra-curricular activities and parental involvement in the school community (Cerna, 2019[27]). A variety of targeted policies and practices shape these factors.

Figure 4.4. Holistic model for the educational integration of refugee children
Figure 4.4. Holistic model for the educational integration of refugee children

Source: (Cerna, 2019[27]) "Refugee education: Integration models and practices in OECD countries", OECD Education Working Papers, No. 203, OECD Publishing, Paris,

While the three main pillars of needs and the factors within the holistic model are similar to a multidimensional model for immigrant students (OECD, 2018[28]), each pillar in this model can carry a different weight. For example, catering to learning needs might be the main priority for immigrant students, whereas for refugee children, catering to the emotional needs might be at the core of the model, followed by social and learning needs. The level of importance assigned to each pillar varies depending on the personal and educational background of the refugee child in question.

Existing research shows that schools identified as offering a holistic model were able to respond to the psychosocial and emotional needs of their students through life skills programmes, welfare and pastoral support, admission support, extensive induction processes and provision of lunchtime and after-school activities (Arnot and Pinson, 2005[29]). A holistic approach also works in partnership with other relevant agencies to address multiple complex needs. These include social work, health organisations, community organisations and other support services (McBride, 2018[30]).

From evidence to action: Lessons from the field including examples of policies and practices to support refugee children in education

Evidence suggests that refugee children have different learning, social and emotional needs and are especially vulnerable due to their forced displacement. Addressing their needs can be accomplished by adopting a tailored holistic model for refugee integration in education. However, considerable data gaps and limited evidence makes it challenging to assess the extent of these children’s vulnerability and to evaluate whether approaches towards refugee integration are successful. This section highlights some of the policies and practices used by countries and other stakeholders, which can support refugee children in education (more are presented in Cerna, 2019[27]). Policy makers should also consider partnerships with relevant agencies (such as social work, labour market agencies, health organisations, community organisations) to address the multiple complex needs.

Responding to learning needs

Responding to the learning needs of refugee students, especially access to education is an important policy concern across OECD countries. This can include providing refugee children with academic support from teachers and other professionals, offering language support, assessing skills and language, and providing a positive learning environment (Szente and Hoot, 2011[31]).

Provide access to refugees to all levels of education and allow for flexible pathways

Access to education at all educational levels, especially pre-primary and post-compulsory education for refugee students is important. However, access to education is only the first step; good quality education and flexible pathways to education are key.

For example, in Turkey, Syrian children can attend early childhood education in public schools, but shortages of places and resources have led many nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) and international agencies to provide services. In June 2017, UNICEF-led initiatives enrolled 12 800 Syrians aged 3 to 5 in school. Some NGOs (e.g. Mother Child Education Foundation, Support to Life, Mavi Kalem Social Assistance and Solidarity, Yuva Foundation) provide teacher education, education materials, home visits, psychosocial and mental health support, and learning and recreational activities (UNESCO, 2018[32]).

In Luxembourg, changes introduced in August 2017 aim to strengthen the integration of newly arrived foreign students into the compulsory schooling system of Luxembourg. The extension of the multilingual education programme to early childhood education and the introduction of care service vouchers help mitigate inequalities and provide an equal baseline for all children (OECD, 2018[33]).

In Austria, in order to reduce the number of youth without a school leaving certificate, a 2016 amendment to the Austrian Law on Education and Training raised the minimum age for the achievement of the compulsory school leaving certificate to 18 years (OECD, 2018[33]). In Sweden amendments were made in 2017 to ensure that those aged between 18 and 25 are able to extend their temporary residence permit for the duration of their upper secondary school studies. Young adults arriving after the age of eighteen can also attend general adult education or Swedish for Immigrants (SFI), i.e. classes for adults to learn basic Swedish (Crul, 2016[19]).

Introduce early assessment and develop individualised development and learning plans

As every refugee student has different experiences, knowledge and skills, schools should implement early assessments of language, skills and well-being needs. This would allow stakeholders to prepare an individualised plan for learning and development, foster social interactions and respond to refugee students’ well-being and mental health needs. The individualised learning and development plan should be regularly updated and be the responsibility of the teachers, school leaders, parents and the student.

In Sweden, early initial assessment is essential in providing productive language support to immigrant students (Siarova and Essomba, 2014[34]). Within two months of starting school, all new arrivals are assessed on their academic knowledge and language skills. Additionally, the academic assessments are offered in the students’ mother tongues in order to best assess previous knowledge without language barriers (Berglund, 2017[35]). Based on the student’s age, language skills and academic results, the principal and/or head-teacher determine the best educational trajectory (Bunar, 2017[36]). As of August 2018, it is mandatory that newly arrived students in Sweden from Grade 7 have an individual study plan. The mapping of a student’s previous knowledge and experience is also mandatory (Skolverket (National Agency for Education), 2018[37]).

The Finnish model of integrating newly arrived students into mainstream education provides that within the first year, an individual curriculum is designed for each student tailored to his/her needs and based on their previous school history, age and other factors affecting their school work (e.g. being an Unaccompanied Minor (UM), coming from a war situation). The teacher, student and family determine the student’s individual curriculum collectively (Dervin, Simpson and Matikainen, 2017[38]). In the Netherlands, schools are additionally encouraged to provide parents with regular updates on the learning progress of the child to ensure continuity and avoid class repetition (Tudjman et al., 2016[39]).

Promote language support specifically targeted to refugee students and encourage the development of mother tongues

Language can be a considerable barrier for refugee students. Tailored language classes should not take place in isolation, but should be designed to accommodate the learning and language needs as well as cultural norms of refugee students. Instruction in the language of the host country could be combined with encouragement to develop mother tongues to facilitate cooperation and communication with classmates.

For example, the Sprach-Kitas programme in Germany, launched by the Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth, provides early childhood and education programmes with language-focused support. The ministry plans to invest nearly EUR 400 million in 2017-2020 to expand the programme and staff (Park, Katsiaficas and McHugh, 2018[40]).

Outside of Europe, the Canadian government provides continuous support in language of instruction. Courses combine established second-language learning standards with specialised and certified teachers. A public body monitors curricular standards. Some provinces, including Alberta, Nova Scotia and Ontario have similar requirements (Huddleston et al., 2015[41]).

Offer specific teacher training and professional development to support the needs of refugee students

Well-trained teachers, school leaders and other professionals are key in supporting refugee students. Teacher training and professional development should raise awareness and understanding of refugee issues, the impact of the refugee experience on learning and behaviour, the school and the teacher’s role in promoting recovery from trauma, and strategies for addressing barriers to learning as a result of the refugee experience and disrupted schooling. Furthermore, it is important to provide new staff members with information and professional learning on refugee issues (Foundation House, 2016[42]).

In Sweden, the National Agency for Education published Build Swedish (Bygga svenska) as a support measure for teachers to assess the language abilities of new arrivals. Build Swedish is based on the model of language development involving increased 1) participation in linguistic activities, 2) degree of independence and 3) degree of variety and security in language use (Söderlund, 2018[43]). The assessment aid is based on a socio-cultural view of language and language development, which emphasises social interaction and supporting roles in the learning process (Ingves, 2017[44]). These support materials are freely available on the National Agency for Education’s website (

In Australia, schools in Sydney, Wagga Wagga, and Southern New South Wales have benefitted from Refugee Action Support (RAS), a programme that combines tutoring for new arrivals and professional development for student teachers. With a focus on late literacy and numeracy learning, RAS empowers pre-service teachers to assist students with a refugee background with homework as well as generally support their studies in secondary school (Ferfolja and Naidoo, 2010[45]).

Refugee students might suffer more frequently from mental health issues than other students. In most cases, teachers lack trauma and mental health training. The Guidelines on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in Emergency Settings recommend that teachers provide psychosocial support by creating a safe and supportive environment through their interactions and specific, structured psychosocial activities (IASC, 2007[46]). Teachers can maintain relationships with students and their families, learn their background, observe student behaviour for signs of distress and seek help from specialised personnel, such as trauma-trained school psychologists (Sullivan and Simonson, 2016[47]). Teachers, therefore, need continuous professional development in areas such as constructive classroom management or the use of referral mechanisms.

Responding to social needs

Besides addressing learning needs of refugees, a number of countries also have different policies and practices to address the social needs of refugee students. These can include providing refugee children with opportunities to engage in social activities and community building, engage in identity formation and involve whole schools and communities (Szente and Hoot, 2011[31]).

Provide opportunities for identity construction

To help refugee children develop strong personal identities, providing opportunities for identity construction are crucial. In the classroom, introducing notions of identity construction can be useful for understanding the concerns and the experiences of refugees. Moreover, including student voices in the curriculum could encourage refugee students to contribute their experiences and participate in classroom discussions (Mosselson, 2006[48]).

Different programmes exist at the school and classroom levels to facilitate identity formation of refugee students. One example is the Kaleidoscope Cultures and Identity Programme, a six-session group programme for young refugees aged 14–24 years old currently enrolled in a secondary school in Australia. The programme seeks to: 1) explore the impact of living in a new culture, 2) break down social isolation, alienation and dislocation, 3) build trust, bonding and an understanding of others, 4) promote self-esteem and identity, and 5) integrate past experiences and build a vision of the future (Foundation House, 2016[42]).

At the classroom level, the Kaleidoscope programme has been adapted for grades 5-10. The 10-lesson unit for the mainstream classroom is designed to increase all students’ understanding of their own cultural background, and the diversity of cultural backgrounds in their classroom. It aims to break down social isolation, alienation and dislocation. Activities explore identity issues, promote an understanding of emotions and their influence on health, and assist in developing trust and belonging through inclusive teaching approaches (Foundation House, 2016[42]).

Create opportunities for social interactions between refugee and other students

Facilitating opportunities for refugee students to form friendships with students from their own backgrounds and other students, as well as creating a welcoming and safe community in schools and beyond are important to their successful integration. Ensuring refugee students have the opportunity to participate in extra-curricular activities is one strategy.

To promote friendship-building, a high school programme in New Brunswick, Canada, called “Lunch with a Bunch” allows students, both new arrivals and natives, to eat lunch outside the school once a week. The programme takes place outside of school walls so students can feel more at ease, allowing them to form friendships that will promote feelings of belongingness (OECD, 2018[49]).

Adopt whole-school and whole-community approaches to welcome and include refugee students and their families

A positive school climate and the adoption of a whole-school approach to integrating refugee students (that involves parents and communities) are crucial elements to ensure interventions and programmes benefit refugee students. In addition, schools are not the only entities responsible for refugee students, so taking a whole-community approach is key for the successful integration of these students. Coordination between the education system and other sectors including health, social, housing, labour market and welfare is also necessary.

In Australia, the Department of Education in New South Wales published guidelines for schools on how to implement a whole-school response to welcome and integrate refugee students. Strategies include educational, emotional well-being and social support, as well as strategies to: enrol refugee students as quickly as possible, provide orientation to them, provide co-ordinated learning support by all school staff, monitor and assess refugee students, engage parents and families, and engage with the wider community and government agencies (New South Wales Government, 2016[50]).

Another example stems from the United Kingdom where Citizens UK, the national community organising charity, and the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT), promote Refugee Welcome Schools, an accreditation scheme to recognise schools that have made a commitment to welcome refugees in their institution and community. The schools educate students and staff about the importance of refugee protection over the course of a year, and participate in campaigns to improve the lives of refugees in the UK (Brimacomde, 2017[51]). While this is not an official accreditation, the initiative has been led by teachers who become “refugee welcome champions,” and engage in interschool dialogue, leadership activities, and community outreach to exchange and share practices on how to effectively integrate refugees into their school communities.

Responding to emotional needs

Several countries also implement different policies and practices to address the emotional needs of refugee students (Szente and Hoot, 2011[31]).

Support the well-being needs of refugees including mental health

Supporting the well-being needs of refugees, including mental health, should be a top priority. Since many (though not all) refugee students have specific physical and mental health needs, an assessment of well-being needs is important. Support, if deemed necessary, should be provided early on with progress monitored regularly. Otherwise, interventions to support learning needs risk being unproductive.

One example is the government-financed NGO Pharos programme in the Netherlands that aims to support the social-emotional development of newly arrived students in secondary schools ( The three-component programme highlights the difficulties refugee children face, strengthens peer support systems for refugee children by offering opportunities to share their histories and experiences with other children, fosters teacher support for refugee children and strengthens the coping ability and resilience of refugee children (Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, 2012[52]).

Another example is the “Playing with Rainbows” group, established in 2004 by a coalition of civil society organisations in Toronto, Canada, that aims to develop resources designed to promote mental health and facilitate the healing process for refugee children, youth and caregivers/parents that have experienced migration-related trauma. The coalition also educates service and care providers, as well as educators about the impact of trauma on interpersonal relationships, mental and physical health, behaviour, academic success, employment and all aspects of one’s life (Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, 2012[52]).


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