How can we best ensure quality education for refugees and better equip teachers to cater to their educational needs? This was one of the key issues debated at the 1st  Global Refugee Forum, held from 17-18 December in Geneva, Switzerland.

During this event, where she moderated a panel on “Teachers shoulder the burden: Improving support in crisis contexts”, we had the opportunity to interview Mary Mendenhall, Associate Professor of Practice in the International and Transcultural Studies Department at Teachers College, Columbia University, USA. 


Teachers, key element to ensure education in crisis situations.

EI: The refugee situation is a challenge for the refugees themselves, but also for the host countries, local teachers and local communities. What role do you see for education communities, especially teachers, educators and their unions, in building inclusive societies?

MM: We cannot talk about quality education anymore without talking about the vital role of teachers. Teachers are not only the ones who teach the curriculum, they are the ones that respond to their learners' needs in terms of psychosocial support and counselling services. Whether teachers are able to do that or they are able to find resources within the community to help those young people get the help that they need is extremely important. And teachers are the ones who are incredibly innovative in stark situations where there are very few teaching and learning resources. They show up and they find ways to teach, no matter what.
On inclusive societies, inclusive communities, again, teachers can build social cohesion or harm it. They need support to be able to play that role as factors of social cohesion as effectively as possible. They are the ones that these young people are interacting with, the ones that the parents and families are interacting with. And the way that teachers handle those situations, those conversations, the values that they impart in those transactions, the way they teach their classes, the way they promote what is happening at school, can actually be a critical link in thinking about social cohesion.

Teachers need to learn how to check their own biases, how to help students with different backgrounds in their classrooms have constructive and meaningful conversations about difference and also similarity, especially because after school, those children take all that back to their families and their larger communities.
I also think the teachers' unions, as the voice of the teachers, play an integral piece in advocating for the needs of teachers with the national governments, making sure they get the resources that they need. They have a crucial role to perform, in particular in the way they support teachers be agents for social cohesion and the advocacy they are engaging in around teacher professional development.

No proper implementation of the Global Compact on Refugees without qualified teachers 

EI: How can about the Global Compact on Refugees – much mentioned at the forum –  be best used to ensure quality education for all, including refugees?

MM: I think it is a great moment to figure out how to operationalise the Global Compact. It represents an important document, but what do we do with it? Words on a document are inspiring, but if we do not put it into action, then we continue to kind of shatter the dreams of refugees who are displaced in different contexts, displaced because of armed conflict or natural disasters.

For me, the most important tool for actually operationalising the Global Compact is teachers. So how can we better support teachers to do an already, under the best of circumstances, incredibly difficult job? And then thinking about teachers who are refugees themselves, who are internally displaced, or also teachers with refugees and other displaced learners in their classrooms. What are the additional resources, not only financial – that is critical – but technical resources that they need to do their jobs better?

The only way we can implement the Global Compact and pretend to even give lip service to the notion of quality education is through better support to the teachers who are working in the most dire circumstances.


About the interviewee:

Mary Mendenhall is Associate Professor of Practice in the International and Transcultural Studies Department at Teachers College, Columbia University. She is the Programme Director and teaches courses in the International and Comparative Education Programme. Mendenhall earned her doctorate in International Educational Development with a specialisation in International Humanitarian Issues in 2008.

Her research interests include education in emergencies, refugee education and urban refugees. She is also interested in the quality, relevance and sustainability of educational support provided by international organizations for displaced children and youth in conflict-affected and post-conflict countries in Sub-Saharan Africa.

On 18 January 2020, more than 400 black and minority ethnic (BME) teachers from across the UK gathered in Birmingham for the NASUWT’s annual BME Teachers’ Consultation Conference to discuss the challenges they face and to participate in professional development workshops.

Over half (54%) of those attending the Conference said they had experienced verbal or nonverbal actions which they believe are demeaning to their racial heritage or identity in the last 12 months.

Nearly three in five (59%) said they have encountered everyday attempts to exclude or deny the validity of their identity, thoughts, feelings or experiences.
Teachers at the conference described how they had typically been described as “oversensitive” “paranoid” or “aggressive” when challenging unacceptable language or behaviour at work.

A real-time electronic poll of attendees at the Conference also found that: 

  • Over a third (37%) think racism has become worse in their workplace in the last year;
  • Nearly half (46)% of BME teachers were not confident about reporting racial discrimination, racial bullying or racial harassment to their employer because of lack of support;
  • BME teachers believe that having a zero tolerance policy on racism in schools and colleges, together with anti-racism inspection and stronger government regulation were the most important priorities for ensuring that all schools/colleges take effective action to tackle racist attitudes and behaviours at work.

Ms Chris Keates, General Secretary (Acting) of the NASUWT, said: 

“BME teachers continue to be subjected to unacceptable racist remarks, negative comments and derogatory behaviours because of their racial origin. It is concerning that racism in schools and colleges is becoming more covert; taking the form of microinsults and microinvalidations, which are often dismissed or downplayed by senior managers. The experiences shared by BME teachers today demonstrate that discrimination and unfair treatment of BME teachers and pupils is unfortunately still rife, impacting on educational outcomes and teachers’ careers. 

All of the NASUWT’s own research shows the BME teachers face greater barriers and discrimination in gaining promotion and pay progression than the generality of teachers and that overt and covert instances of racism are a daily reality for too many BME teachers. The NASUWT will continue to support members in challenging these injustices, but much more action is needed by Government to affect the systemic change which is needed to ensure that no pupil or teacher is held back because of their ethnicity or faith. Through the NASUWT’s ongoing Act for Racial Justice campaign, we will continue to fight all forms of racial discrimination and promote the interests of all BME teachers and pupils.”


Education international has seized the opportunity of the first ever Global Refugee Forum to reaffirm the crucial role education can play in the context of forced displacement, and to urge governments, UN agencies and all stakeholders to ensure displaced teachers and students’ rights in and through education.

The Global Refugee Forum, held from 17-18 December in Geneva, Switzerland, was the first of its kind and comes at the end of a chaotic decade marked by conflict and natural disasters that have contributed to the rise in the number of refugees to over 25 million people worldwide. Education was among the six main themes discussed during the Forum and including arrangements for burden and responsibility-sharing; jobs and livelihoods; energy and infrastructure; solutions; and protection capacity.

Following-up on the implementation of the Global Compact on Refugees, the Global Refugee Forum represented an opportunity to translate the principle of international responsibility-sharing into concrete action. The Forum brought the international community together to announce new measures to:

  • Support host countries;
  • Enhance refugee self-reliance;
  • Expand access to third-country solutions; and
  • Support conditions in countries of origin for return in safety and dignity.

The Forum received pledges and contributions calling on States, refugees, development actors, the private sector, UN entities, civil society organisations, academics and faith leaders, among others, to play a part.

“EI pledges to mobilise its 400 member organisations, with a collective membership of 32.5 million educators across all levels of education, to make schools and all education institutions truly inclusive and welcoming to refugees,” EI’s Dennis Sinyolo stated, addressing the Forum.

He went on saying that EI “will continue to provide capacity building for union leaders and educators, provide tools for refugees and migrants and assess progress towards implementation of the Global Compact in education”.

Education International, he underlined, is calling on Governments, the UN and partners to:

  • Ensure the accreditation and recognition of refugee teachers’ qualifications;
  • Ensure the training and professional development of refugee and local teachers;
  • Guarantee the inclusion of refugee children and youth in the formal education systems of host countries within the first three months following their arrival. Please, do not offer an alternative inferior track to refugees.
  • Develop, finance and implement comprehensive policies to guarantee refugee teachers’ right to teach and children’s right to learn.

On 16 December, during a pre-forum Spotlight Session on “Teachers shoulder the burden: Improving support in crisis contexts”, co-organised by EI, the Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies (INEE) and the Columbia University, Sinyolo emphasised the challenges that particularly affect refugee teachers:

  • Lack of recognition of their qualifications, skills and competences;
  • Precarious employment;
  • Absence of adequate training and professional development opportunities (this last one facing local teachers teaching refugee children and youth, as well).

Sinyolo deplored that “there is a lot of brain waste and loss of talent as refugee teachers end up doing nothing or something else in order to make ends meet. It is therefore important for host governments to accredit and recognise the qualifications of refugee teachers.” He also underlined the paramount importance for host country governments of ensuring decent salaries and working conditions for refugee teachers.

He insisted that the new UNESCO Convention on the Recognition of Higher Education Qualifications, adopted in November this year, is an important instrument than can facilitate the validation, accreditation and recognition of refugee teachers’ qualifications.

“In-service training and upgrading programmes of good quality can help refugee and displaced teachers to improve their skills and competences,” Sinyolo went on noting, mentioning the example of EI and Oxfam Novib’s Quality Educators for All programme (Quality-Ed) in Mali and Northern Uganda.

He also reminded that education unions engage in social dialogue with governments and undertake advocacy activities promoting the rights of all teachers, including refugees. Most recently, EI and affiliated unions in eight countries in Europe and two countries in Africa have been conducting capacity building programmes for refugee and local teachers.

The EI European Region, the European Trade Union Committee for Education (ETUCE) and the European Federation of Education Employers (EFEE) just concluded a two-year joint project entitled “European Sectoral Social Partners in Education promoting effective integration of migrants and refugees in education”.

More broadly, the session emphasised the crucial role played by teachers in such contexts: INEE Director Dean Brooke stressed that “even in crisis contexts, teachers organise, bring children together and teach. They make a difference and protect those children. Let’s raise their profile and the profile of headmasters who keep schools opened in difficult circumstances.”

The refugee Convention of 1951 was born out of the profound feeling of shame following the Second World War due to the failure to respond to and receive those fleeing the Holocaust. That action of inaction condemned many to become its victims. Lest we forget, that Convention and the 1967 Protocol that expanded it, sprouted from and was nourished by that bloody soil. 

The attitude of far too many nations was that it was a “German problem” and neither their business nor their responsibility. It is in that context that we should appreciate that rarely, if ever, have any international instruments represented such a monumental change in attitudes that changed the meaning of “civilisation”.
The waves of refugees that followed the War were generally received with open arms, whether they were fleeing Hungary, Vietnam, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Afghanistan, South Africa or Chile.  

The Convention considers a refugee to be someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion. They are to benefit from freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining as well as education and social protection. Asylum is not dependent on having legally entered the country. Although they do not meet the standards of the Convention for refugee status, there are growing numbers of people leaving their countries because of armed conflict, other forms of violence and attacks, extreme poverty or climate change. They were left no choice.

Fleeing the suppression of their revolution in 1956, more than 200,000 Hungarians escaped, by foot, to Austria in two days. They got out just before the barbed wire was put in place to imprison them.  

Those refugees were immediately placed and absorbed in Europe, North America or elsewhere. They were received with warmth and even joy. Such a reception helped to ease the pain and cushion being so suddenly uprooted. And, they and their descendants continue to make invaluable contributions to their adopted countries.

When the iron curtain fell in 1989 and 1990, pieces of that barbed wire wrapped in ribbons with the colours of the Hungarian flag were distributed. They represented that change and became a symbol of freedom. 

Now, the barbed wire has returned to Hungary, not to keep people in, but to keep people out. 

After the latest election of President Victor Orbán, parliament adopted legislation that criminalized providing aid to undocumented immigrants and asylum-seekers. He argued that rejecting refugees is defending “Christian culture”, telling the German newspaper “Bild”, “We don’t see these people as Muslim refugees. We see them as Muslim invaders”. 

I am citing Hungary because, in 1956, nobody asked the fleeing Hungarians for either their passports or their baptismal certificates. But now, “it is not our problem” has come back into fashion. 

Responding to refugees in the spirit of the Convention also affects the work and mission of teachers and educators. However, they are obliged to be as concerned or more about the acceptance of refugees by many local communities as they are helping refugees adapt to their new homelands.  

Our European Region, the European Trade Union Committee for Education (ETUCE), and their employer counterparts, the European Federation of Education Employers (EFEE) recently carried out a study on refugees with on-site visits to Belgium (Flanders), Serbia, and Spain and materials from other countries. 

Their intention was to look at the education challenges for refugee students, but they discovered that they could not ignore the broader context of public hostility.

It came up everywhere other than Serbia. The report, “Promoting Effective Integration of Migrants and Refugees in Education” and the video documentary, “Education without Borders” are of interest wherever you live and work. It is no different from the electoral/political exploitation of fear and hostility in the United States or in many other countries. 

On 17 and 18 December, EI is participating in the First UN Global Refugee Forum. It is organised by the office of the UN High Commissioner on Refugees. It will be conducted in the spirit of the international instruments and in conformity with its contents, in other words, around all the positive things that need to be done. But, the attitudes of receiving countries are also bound to come up. 

Already last year, on the broader issue of migration, the Director General of the International Organisation on Migration (IOM)  António Vitorino, described the common migrant/refugee “reception” challenge and the attitudes of receiving populations by saying that we have the choice, “to answer migrants’ hopes with our acceptance; to answer their ambition with opportunities. To welcome rather than repudiate their arrival.”  

At the forum, I will make the pledge of Education International on measures for teachers and students, for children and youth, and for monitoring and evaluation.
Education International Call to Action

Host governments should act urgently to: 

  • Implement the UN Global Compact on Refugees and the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework.
  • Develop policy, legislation, financing and other measures to fully follow-through on both the Compact and the Framework.
  • Use the Global Framework for Refugee Education developed to help carry out the education parts of the Compact by the Global Refugee Forum Education Co-sponsorship Alliance (EI is an active partner). That means, among other things, guaranteeing quality and equitable education for refugee children and youth within three months of their arrival and ensuring the effective involvement of refugee teachers to further integration, including through accreditation, access to training, and decent and comparable wages and conditions and social protections. 
  • Develop and implement measures not just for refugees, but also with them. Both equity and inclusion are central. Their adaptation to and integration in their new homelands will be accelerated and their contributions will be enhanced if they are accorded full respect for their humanity, capabilities, talents, and skills.
  • Do everything within their powers to create a welcoming and enabling environment for refugees and fight bigotry, discrimination, and exclusion as called for in the Compact.

The development of the Compact by the United Nations was an impressive demonstration that the United Nations is capable of doing high-calibre work and negotiate strong and principled agreements, but it is far from being implemented. Education International calls on the UN to:

  • Do everything possible to generate and devote the necessary resources for effective, determined, and sustained action to implement the Compact and the Framework. 
  • Seriously monitor progress and failures, evaluate, and report. 
  • Do whatever is possible to build understanding that refugees are not just a “problem”, but also a way to transform tragedy into hope and trauma into energy. This “problem” is also an opportunity to enrich society, culturally, socially and economically.

Education International calls on citizens of all nations to:

  • Consider the facts about refugees and asylum rather than uncritically accept propaganda against them. 
  • Accept refugees as neighbours and members of their communities, and colleagues. 
  • Welcome and open up their hearts to refugees in the best traditions of the reception of refugees in the post-War decades.

We are not only taking this approach because that is what is expected of us at the forum, but also because we want to keep our focus on the real challenges. There is too much fear of and hostility to refugees in many countries.  

We refuse to be distracted and diverted by fabricated confusion and real hatred from normal human responses and instincts or from the mission of education. To be paralysed by adversity would be surrender to the same cruel, ruthless and obscene practices and collective irresponsibility that made the Convention necessary in the first place.

We continue to proudly count ourselves among those who refuse to allow darkness to snuff out the flame of tolerance, decency and hope.

David Edwards is the General Secretary of Education International, the global federation of education unions representing 32 million education workers in 170 countries and territories.

How can education social partners contribute to the inclusion of newcomers in Europe? The closing conference of the joint EI-ETUCE/EFEE project on social dialogue around education and migration presented the research and case studies gathered in the project. Key takeaways from the project were presented in a public hearing at the European Parliament, together with the premiere of the project’s documentary Education Without Borders.

The two-day conference (14-15 October 2019) was the conclusion of EI-ETUCE and EFEE’s joint project on promoting effective integration of migrants and refugees in education through social dialogue.

“This project doesn't just point out problems. It looks for solutions.” That is how Professor Nihad Bunar, the project’s lead researcher from the University of Stockholm, described his motivation to get involved. Indeed, the research which Professor Bunar produced over the last two years offers concrete case studies from Belgium, Serbia and Spain, shedding a light on the situation of migrants in these countries as well as the work that teachers and education trade unions are doing to foster inclusion.

Successful approaches are child-focused and supportive, integrating the children in regular classes as soon as possible while they receive additional support. In this context the first language of the migrant children is key. It should be used to underpin their learning and not seen as a barrier to the acquisition of the language of the host country. Likewise, it is important for teachers to have decent pay and working conditions, along with the tools, professional autonomy and opportunities for professional development that they need to guarantee all learners the required support. Successful inclusion is also directed towards families and requires engagement not just by schools but also by the community outside the educational sector.

Social dialogue can and must continue to play an important role in effective inclusion. For example, education social partners can ensure that policy discussions take note of the working conditions and professional needs of the teachers, trainers and school leaders who cater for migrants and refugees. These professionals are a fundamental part of any inclusion strategy, and they need excellent working conditions and professional development opportunities to be able to address the particular challenges of newly arrived learners.

EI-ETUCE and EFEE members discussed Joint Guidelines for the effective inclusion of migrants and refugees in education. This kicks off discussions with a broader set of social actors and European policymakers about a possible Quality Framework for the Effective Integration of Migrants and Refugees. Both outcomes will be proposed for adoption at the upcoming European Sectoral Social Dialogue in Education Plenary on 2 December 2019.

On the second day, the public hearing at the European Parliament 'Migration and education: Humanity and rights or fences and hostility?' was hosted by MEP Pierfrancesco Majorino and gave an opportunity to premiere the new documentary Education Without Borders, which tracks the debates and case studies throughout the project. The film was warmly received by the audience and those who were actively involved in the project over the last years. It sheds a personal light on the richness and opportunities that newly arrived children bring with them when arriving in Europe, and shows a variety of approaches that dedicated education professionals are taking to support them in their integration.

The public hearing gathered representatives of EI-ETUCE, EFEE and civil society organisations: SOLIDAR, PICUM, COFACE, the Red Cross, Eurochild. One of the main conclusions was that network building all over Europe is needed to ensure the integration of migrants into education, starting from a child-focused and rights-based approach to inclusion.

As EI-ETUCE President Christine Blower stressed, “all children have the right to education, no matter their migration status. If more refugees arrive in Europe, we need a bigger table not higher walls.” This successful joint project shows that education social partners are committed to this vision and have a lot to offer in its implementation.

Read the full report Promoting Effective Integration of Refugees and Migrants in Education.

Watch the documentary Education Without Borders.

More information on EI-ETUCE's website.