German school system is failing refugees - report

Young refugees often land in disadvantaged schools that lack qualified teachers in deprived areas. A new study claims that for integration to succeed, educators will have to rethink their approach.

Children and juveniles who have been forced to flee their homes with family or on their own do not have it easy. They have been torn from their familiar surroundings and know poverty, war and fear all too well. Many have not attended school for months or even years, and they have no idea what a structured routine feels like. Since 2015, German schools have taken in some 130,000 such students, providing them with a variety of educational opportunities; classes that are designed to prepare them for regular schooling, intensive language courses and one-on-one mentoring.

Nevertheless, teachers and fellow students are having a hard time integrating refugees, according to a new study published by the Expert Council of German Foundations on Integration and Migration. "We cannot be certain that students in our school system won't get lost along the way," said Ulf Matysiak, director of the "Teach First" program.

Read more: How do Syrian refugees view the German school system?

Teach First supports schools in deprived neighborhoods by deploying college graduates from various disciplines for a two-year period. These so-called "fellows" are tasked with mentoring refugee students in particular, with the aim of preparing them to enter the German school system. Fellows from 56 schools in Baden-Württemberg, Berlin, Hamburg, Hesse and North Rhine-Westphalia were anonymously polled about their experiences.

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Too little time and too little competence

Based on the fellows' observations, the study found that the distribution of refugees represented a major impediment to academic success. Most refugees, the study found, landed in schools located in deprived areas.

"Teachers already tend to be overburdened dealing with local students in these so-called segregated schools," said the report's author, Simon Morris-Lange. The deputy director of the Expert Council of German Foundations for Integration and Migrationit added that is not impossible for new students to get an education at such schools but that teachers there often do not have the time and energy to deal with the individual needs of refugee students.

That problem often begins when refugees have completed their two-year preparation and enter the actual school system. "Fellows from Teach First observe that teachers in the preparatory courses tend to work closely and exchange information with one another," said Morris-Lange. "Moreover, their approach tends to be more adaptive than in the everyday school system. That means they structure classes to fit the special needs of their students."

Read more:German schools face the challenge of integration 

Many students are traumatized and require a fixed contact person

Many students, however, require special assistance even after their two-year preparation, with things like advanced language courses. "Such offers are rather scant in the normal school system," said Teach First Director Matysiak.

One of the biggest problems is a lack of time. "Time for one-on-one talks, parent-teacher conferences and discussing longterm perspectives — the things that are most important — just isn't there," according to Matysiak. He adds that most teachers simply aren't qualified to deal with students who come from different cultures, grew up in a different religious context and who often struggle with trauma as a result of their experiences. "Every teacher, even math teachers, should have at least basic knowledge of teaching German as a second language," said Morris-Lange. "That is no longer something that only specialized teachers have to contend with."

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'Schools need team spirit'

The recommendations put forth by Morris-Lange are directed specifically at the educational authorities that create the structural framework for schools in their municipalities and states. He emphasizes that the most important aspect is the distribution of refugees.

"Right now, the determining factor for school placement tends to be proximity to a person's place of residence," he said. "And most refugees do not live in middle-class neighborhoods." He adds that the current distribution system poses the threat of ghettoizing already deprived schools. "Data about school districts could allow administrators to distribute students more equitably in order to avoid further segregation."

Read more: German local authorities need help getting jobs for refugees

The report concludes that teachers themselves will need to be better trained to deal with diversity in their schools. That will require more money and more teaching personnel for schools in disadvantaged neighborhoods.

Ultimately, the schools themselves will have to find solutions. Without them, even the best-laid plans will be doomed to failure.

"It starts with understanding that diversity needs to be the point of departure for the organization of the school day," said Morris-Lange, emphasizing that change is impossible if principals and teachers do not act as a team. "Nonetheless, it will take a long time to prepare our schools for the challenges of adequately serving the immigrant society that we have become." 

World Refugee Day: Iconic images of the refugee crisis

The goal: Survival

A journey combined with misery as well as dangers for the body and the soul: In their escape from war and suffering, hundreds of thousands of people, mostly from Syria, traveled to Greece from Turkey in 2015 and 2016. There are still around 10,000 people stranded on the islands of Lesbos, Chios and Samos. More than 6,000 new arrivals were recorded this year from January to May.

World Refugee Day: Iconic images of the refugee crisis

On foot to Europe

In 2015 and 2016, more than a million people tried to reach Western Europe from Greece or Turkey over the Balkan route - through Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary. The stream of refugees stopped only when the route was officially closed and many countries sealed their borders. Today, most refugees opt for the dangerous Mediterranean route from Libya to Europe.

World Refugee Day: Iconic images of the refugee crisis

Global dismay

This picture shook the world. The body of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi from Syria washed up on a beach in Turkey in September 2015. The photograph was widely circulated in social networks and became a symbol of the refugee crisis. Europe could not look away anymore.

World Refugee Day: Iconic images of the refugee crisis

Chaos and despair

Last-minute rush: Thousands of refugees tried to get into overcrowded buses and trains in Croatia after it became known that the route through Europe would not remain open for long. In October 2015, Hungary closed its borders and installed container camps, where refugees would be kept for the duration of their asylum process.

World Refugee Day: Iconic images of the refugee crisis

Unscrupulous reporting

A Hungarian journalist caused uproar in September 2015 after she tripped a Syrian man who was trying to run from the police at Roszke, near the Hungarian border with Serbia. At the peak of the crisis, the tone against refugees became coarser. In Germany, attacks on refugee homes increased.

World Refugee Day: Iconic images of the refugee crisis

No open borders

The official closure of the Balkan route in March 2016 led to tumultuous scenes at border crossings. Thousands of refugees were stranded and there were reports of brutal violence. Many tried to circumvent border crossings, like these refugees at the Greek-Macedonian border shortly after borders were closed.

World Refugee Day: Iconic images of the refugee crisis

Symbol of horror

A child covered in blood and dust: the photograph of five-year-old Omran shocked the public when it was released in 2016. It became an allegory of the horror of the Syrian civil war and the suffering of the Syrian people. One year later, new pictures of the boy circulated on the internet, showing him much happier. Assad supporters say the picture last year was planted for propaganda purposes.

World Refugee Day: Iconic images of the refugee crisis

The unknown new home

A Syrian man carries his daughter in the rain at the Greek-Macedonian border in Idomeni. He hopes for security for his family in Europe. According to the Dublin regulation, asylum can be applied only in the country where the refugee first entered Europe. Many who travel further on are sent back. Above all, Greece and Italy carry the largest burden.

World Refugee Day: Iconic images of the refugee crisis

Hope for support

Germany remains the top destination, although the refugee and asylum policy in Germany has become more restrictive following the massive influx. No country in Europe has taken in as many refugees as Germany, which took in 1.2 million since the influx began in 2015. Chancellor Angela Merkel was an icon for many of the newcomers.

World Refugee Day: Iconic images of the refugee crisis

Emergency situation in the camps

In France's north, authorities clean up the infamous "jungle" in Calais. The camp caught fire during the evacuation in October 2016. Around 6,500 residents were distributed among other shelters in France. Half a year later, aid organizations reported many minor refugees living as homeless people around Calais.

World Refugee Day: Iconic images of the refugee crisis

Drowning in the Mediterranean

NGO and government rescue ships are constantly on the lookout for migrant boats in distress. Despite extreme danger during their voyage, many refugees, fleeing poverty or conflict in the home countries, expect to find a better future in Europe. The overcrowded boats and rubber dinghies often capsize. In 2017 alone, 1,800 people died in the crossing. In 2016, 5,000 people lost their lives.

World Refugee Day: Iconic images of the refugee crisis

No justice in Libya

Hundreds of thousands of refugees from Sub Saharan Africa and the Middle East wait in Libyan detention camps to cross the Mediterranean. Human smugglers and traffickers control the business. The conditions in the camps are reportedly catastrophic, human rights organizations say. Eyewitnesses report of slavery and forced prostitution. Still, the inmates never give up the dream of coming to Europe.

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