How the different policies and school systems affect the inclusion of Syrian refugee children in Sweden, Germany, Greece, Lebanon and Turkey

Maurice Crul, Frans Lelie, Özge Biner, Nihad Bunar, Elif Keskiner, Ifigenia Kokkali, Jens Schneider, and Maha Shuayb

Comparative Migration Studies, Volume 7 (2019), Article 10


This article compares how Syrian refugee children are included, or not included, in the educational systems in two Northern European countries (Sweden and Germany), one South European country (Greece) and two neighboring countries of Syria (Turkey and Lebanon). These five countries have very different institutional arrangements that influence the educational opportunities of refugee children, ranging from a completely parallel school system in the refugee camps in Turkey, parallel afternoon classes in Lebanon and Greece and parallel classes in Germany to full inclusion in regular school classes in Sweden as soon as possible.

The analysis is based on extensive literature reviews conducted in each country in the national language. The authors compare the following institutional arrangements with a major bearing on the education of refugee children: (1) entrance into compulsory education; (2) welcome, submersion, preparation, international or introduction classes; (3) second language instruction; (4) academic tracking; and (5) education after compulsory schooling. The authors highlight the limitations of these comparisons, which rely on secondary data sources and cannot control for the variation in background characteristics of the Syrian refugee population in each country. Another factor that influences the inclusion of Syrian refugees in national educational systems is the number of refugees that are hosted in some countries. In particular, the large numbers of refugees in Lebanon and Turkey places greater pressure on existing school facilities.

Key findings:

  • Entrance into compulsory education: In the European countries, there are slight differences in the start and end age for compulsory education, which are nevertheless consequential because they can block the entry of refugee children into post compulsory education (e.g. Greece), or into the apprenticeship system (e.g. Germany). In European countries almost all refugee children in the compulsory school age were included in education after three months. However, children did not always receive quality education, because many school authorities struggled to improvise on short notice. In Turkey and Lebanon, which are also legally bound to provide education to refugee children, access to education is impeded by a myriad of factors and many refugee children do not attend school (a third of refugee children in Turkey and more than half of school-aged children in Lebanon do not attend school). Among those who do attend school in Turkey, many attend temporary education centers where they follow a Syrian curriculum.
  • Welcome, submersion, preparation, international or introduction classes: When refugee children enter school they usually do not yet speak the national language (with the exception of Lebanon). All five countries have instituted some kind of welcome classes, but these function very differently. Segregation is a significant problem with adverse consequences for refugee children. In Turkey, for example, the separation of refugee children in temporary centers with a curriculum taught in Arabic resulted in the children not learning Turkish, which made it almost impossible for them to transfer to regular classes. In Greece and Lebanon most refugee children were attending separate afternoon classes, often with a lower quality of education. In contrast, refugee children in Sweden are placed in temporary classes for the shortest period of time to limit segregation.
  • Second language instruction: High quality and continuing second language instruction offered at all school levels—by properly trained teachers and using specifically developed teaching materials—is lacking in most countries. In Turkey, teachers have only begun recently to be trained to teach Turkish as a second language and there is no pedagogy in place to value the first language. On the other end of the spectrum, Sweden comes close to actualizing a language pedagogy that validates students’ first language (associated with better overall educational outcomes) and providing skilled second language teachers.
  • Academic tracking: In Germany, a stratified school system and early selection makes it difficult for refugee children arriving around the start of secondary school to pursue an academic track which prepares students for higher education. Consequently, many refugee children are tracked into vocational education. In Sweden, late selection and less selective tracking system gives more students the opportunity to progress to post-secondary or higher education. In Turkey, Lebanon and Greece, although the selection is late (age 15), most children still do not continue to upper secondary or post-secondary education. In Lebanon, for example, only 6 percent of refugee children attend post compulsory education, which is attributed to the use of parallel afternoon classes, foreign language instruction for certain subjects, and the early end of compulsory education.
  • Education after compulsory schooling: There are extreme variations in the arrangements for post compulsory education across the five countries. Financial arrangements and the official requirements to enter post compulsory education restrict access in Lebanon, Turkey and Greece. The Swedish system is most accommodating, due to its advanced second chance system. Recently, Germany has increased effort to channel students into apprenticeship tracks, motivated by the booming German economy.

The authors conclude that including refugee children as soon as possible in regular classes seems to provide the best chances for successful educational outcomes, whereas educating refugee children in a segregated parallel school system for extended periods often results in early school drop-outs or not attending school at all. They note that institutional arrangements are ill prepared for immigrant children, and many countries still handle inflows of migrant children in ad hoc ways. The authors call for policy makers and institutions to address inflows of forced and voluntary migrants in a long-term and structural matter, suggesting that countries that fail to make these investments will pay a much higher price in terms of higher school drop-out rates, higher unemployment rates and broader consequences of poor educational outcomes.