By Clara Mecacci
This article analyzes a pilot study from the winter of 2020-21 that ELNOR cofounders conducted to learn more about refugee camps, accessible technology within camps, and refugee adults’ educational needs. Before launching its first lessons in February 2020, ELNOR recognized that it was essential to have an initial understanding of educational and technological access within refugee camps. The sample size of interviewees was sixteen former refugee camp volunteers who had worked across various geographical areas, many of whom had volunteered in multiple camps over the last decade. We hope that insights here can inform future research on the important issues of education quality and access for adult refugees.
The interviewees’ work spanned over four different countries, though most had worked in Greece. The geographical areas covered are Greece, France, Palestine, and Iraq.
Map of refugee camps and NGOs where interviewees have worked; Greek locations labeled below from West-East, with French and Iraqi locations labeled in the top-right corner.
- What do camp residents want to learn?
Almost all of the people interviewed affirmed that there was a desire to learn English in the camps where they worked. A need for English education was particularly evident in the interviews with people who volunteered in Greece. Learning English is considered beneficial regardless of which country one is destined for asylum, as English is a common medium for communication across international contexts. The main reasons for learning English are forward-thinking, to apply to schools or jobs after receiving asylum. However, knowing English serves also an immediate use, to communicate without an interpreter locally, online, and within one’s diverse camp setting. Interviewee 9 also underlined that many people wanted to learn German, with the intent to eventually move there. Moreover, two interviewees (9 and 5) recognized a willingness to learn coding and IT skills among refugees in Greek camps. In general, accessible education satisfies residents’ desires for a sense of productivity and achievement (interviewees 3 and 9).
- What educational opportunities are available or missing?
Despite their availability and desire to learn, refugee camp residents lack access to many forms of education. More than one interviewee noted a dearth in educational opportunities in refugee camps. Governments, such as in Greece, are not keen on large-scale educational programs, supposedly to discourage arrivals (interviewee 5). However, some children are allowed to attend some Greek schools (interviewee 7). In France, only informal educational activities were offered in camp, mainly for kids. There was also an effort to enroll them in French formal education, but there was a generally unwelcoming environment (interviewee 6). In camps in Greece, there is often limited physical space to hold classes, while some cultural centres were available for residents to gather and learn (interviewee 12).
- What types of technology do most people in refugee camps have?
Technological access in the studied refugee camps was very limited across the board. Interviewees highlighted poor connectivity in camps. Some interviewees confirmed that their residents had limited access to a supply of laptops. For example in the case of the refugee camp in Katsikas, only four computers were available for a resident population of just over a thousand people (interviewee 2). Crucially, when asked about accessible technology, the majority of interviewees commented that some or all refugees had access to personal or family mobile phones, with several mentioning some form of internet connection in various camps. Linière camp seemed uniquely well-equipped technologically, providing broad internet access and a set of smart tablets on location (interviewee 6).
- Discussion/ Conclusions/ Thoughts:
Interviewees additionally commented on the difficulty of working as NGO staff within camps, especially in Greece. These comments support an aforementioned government effort to dissuade further arrivals. In general, governments do not aim to establish a welcoming environment within refugee camps but a sufficient environment to meet basic needs. Even at this, they still struggle. This means that, despite refugees’ willingness to learn new language and tech skills, by and large they may not. There is limited access to hardware, internet, and educational programming. Interviewees also affirmed that access to education during residents’ time in camps is useful not only for immediate needs and lifelong career building, but also for their mental health, offering a sense of purpose and focus.
ELNOR seeks to underline that the right to education is a basic human right recognized by the Refugee Convention of 1951, with quality education also being one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Refugees and asylum seekers face great challenges and obstacles to this right, even over half a decade into the so-called European “refugee crisis”. Literature on refugee education often focuses on how people can be integrated in a national education system (UNHCR, 2019; UNHCR, 2021; Mendenhall, Russell, and Buckner, 2017). There is a lack of research on education access within camps while residents await decisions on their asylum and resettlement. Further research should be done into how refugees can access language and technical education during these bureaucratic waiting periods and their long-term liminal stays. Further research should also be done to understand how to incentivize governments’ support for independent education programs.