Adult education is not only about employment - the skills and knowledge we acquire through learning have multiple benefits. Particularly now, in light of the refugee crisis, adult education plays a crucial role. EPALE writer Edyta Kadula looks at how Europe is using education to enhance social inclusion.
Europe is facing an “unprecedented” migrant crisis, the OECD (The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) has warned. Every day, from early morning to late night, hundreds of thousands of refugees and immigrants continue to make their way across the Mediterranean to Europe. Pushed by war, terror, and poverty, asylum seekers are taking dangerous journeys in search of safety, and with hopes of a better life.
The UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR) has estimated that in 2015 nearly 600,000 refugees and migrants, many of them Syrian, Afghan, Eritrean, Nigerian and Iraqi, have taken their chances to reach Europe.
The growing number of refugees coming to Europe sparks an urgent discussion over what response is necessary to mitigate the crisis. The large influx of people to Europe's shores brings the challenge of integrating multitudes of people into a new environment. Each new wave of refugees has been subject to the same concern – how can we support inclusion for refugees and what role does adult education play?
Giving refugees a voice
“Adult education provides a substantial contribution to personal development, social inclusion, active citizenship and many more,” stressed EUCIS-LL (the European Platform on Lifelong Learning).
“An emerging challenge will be the integration of the many new refugees who will remain in European host countries,” said Angel Gurria, OECD Secretary-General.
Yet, processing and supporting such a large-scale inflow may be “costly,” the OECD suggests.
Despite the large-scale costs, organisations across Europe are working to face the challenge head on. The European Association for the Education of Adults (EAEA) is very active in this field. With 137 member organisations in 44 countries, it provides a voice, particularly for groups currently under-represented. And with the refugee crisis showing no signs of slowing, EAEA has stressed that adult education plays an important role for both the refugees, and the host countries.
"Adult education can be key in welcoming and integrating people."
“Adult education provides an opportunity to promote the values of tolerance and solidarity,” said Tania Berman, a policy officer at EAEA. “It is about bringing people together from different cultures, so they meet, interact, share opinions, and discuss their differences, and thus they can realise they have the same objectives, and they often tackle similar challenges,” explains Berman.
EAEA believes that adult education is one of the most effective tools to foster tolerance and counter stereotypes, and it should not only be looked at through the lens of growth and jobs.
“Education is much needed, particularly when messages and acts of racism and xenophobia are increasing all over Europe,” says Berman. “People often don’t know much about incoming migrants and refugees, and learning can be a solution to religious and cultural hatred,” said Berman.
Discrimination on the grounds of ethnic origin is regarded as the most widespread form of discrimination in the EU. According to the Eurobarometer 2015, over half of Europeans (64%) believe that discrimination and anti-immigration attitudes continue to be present throughout the continent.
“Even though Europe has become a multicultural community, and social norms of tolerance are commonly shared, negative emotions towards particular groups often remain extant,” said Dr Andreas Zick, an expert in conflict and migration at Bielefeld University.
Tolerance is a democratic skill
“There must be no place for xenophobia and discrimination. Europe must show solidarity with these vulnerable people,” said Thorbjørn Jagland, Council of Europe Secretary-General.
Trine Bendix Knudsen from the Danish Adult Education Association also pointed out that there are various ways in which non-formal adult education can contribute substantially to a more tolerant society. Knudsen explained that tolerance is not only an attitude, but also a democratic skill that “can be learned and trained”.
“One way is simply to disseminate knowledge about the importance of tolerance and about democracy, as well as about the backgrounds of other people – their religion, their food, their way of living and – in the case of the refugees – the reasons why they flee,” Knudsen said.
“Non-formal adult education brings together people from different backgrounds and thus increases understanding and cultivates tolerance,” she added.
"Learning can be a solution to religious and cultural hatred."
Yet, understanding the refugee situation may be complex. Many of us know little about the society from which refugees and migrants come from, their status as refugees, and what it means to welcome new inhabitants. Being unfamiliar with immigrants’ cultures, and they with ours, has in some cases stirred up tensions between communities.
John Field, a professor of Lifelong Learning at the University of Stirling, has been looking at the importance of adult education in the face of the inflow of refugees. Professor Field emphasised that adult learning takes many forms and can play a role at a number of levels in helping refugees settle and integrate into their new country.
“Language education is the basic point that supports the process of integration,” says Professor Field, “It is an essential aspect of refugee and migrant’s help,” he added.
Professor Field pointed out that the existence of a strong adult education system leads to a greater tolerance of diversity.
“The participants in adult education generally tend to become more tolerant and more open-minded,” he said.
“Adult education can introduce the migrant/refugee community to the host population. Courses and informal educational activities that deal with the move towards a more diverse society can reduce tensions between communities, and also eliminate inefficiencies in the labour market” he added.
Yet, the current migrant crisis highlights the need for careful thought about how to manage discussion and debate to enable a wide audience to dig deep into the issue with compassion and understanding.
“The teachers must be experienced and highly skilled,” said Professor Field, “and then adult education can be key in welcoming and integrating people.”
There are a number of initiatives designed to ensure continuity of solidarity and tolerance through adult education. Many organisations and agencies work closely with interest groups on lifelong learning to fight inequalities and discrimination.
Participation in education for all
One of the best examples is the Danish Adult Education Association (DAEA) which undertakes a series of projects for, with, and about refugees. DAEA’s goal is to promote intercultural dialogue, foster tolerance and ensure the integration of immigrant communities in their host societies.
“We want to open up networks to non-Danish citizens. Not just by inviting refugees in to be learners but also to contribute as instructors, teachers etc.” explained Knudsen.
“As adult educators, we also want to inform Danish people about the refugee situation – who are the refugees, where do they come from and why do they come – in order to encourage and enhance tolerance within the Danish population,” said Knudsen.
DAEA aims to develop the initiative of ‘non-formal adult education for refugees’ further. Their goal is to inspire more organisations on both the regional and local level.
“We hope to be able to communicate more about this initiative in order to demonstrate that tolerance and a good welcome of refugees is the responsibility of every citizen in the country,” says Knudsen.
Serbian adult educator Nikola Koruga believes that it is a task for adult education to help creating supportive environments for inclusion of refugees in host countries. Koruga emphasises that integration programmes should be a priority.
“Organising public actions help the wider population to understand the needs of refugees, integrate with them and become more tolerant,” said Koruga.
“In the future, Serbia and we as citizens should find way to motivate a number of refugees to stay in our country,” she added.
And after all, anyone can contribute, even without leaving your desk. By using social media and technology we can not only draw attention to the problem, but also express our solidarity with refugees.
Adult education’s projects in Europe
Amnesty International has launched a ‘fight discrimination’ campaign to ensure that all individuals are treated equally. Through this campaign, it seeks to combat the prejudices underlying human rights abuses.
Denmark: The Danish Adult Education Association runs a campaign for both refugees and the local community to raise awareness about adult education. It provides a variety of activities, with, for, and about refugees, in order to draw attention to the debate on active citizenship and solidarity.
Sweden: The Swedish Folk High Schools together with local communities have started a project called Include More. This initiative aims to develop strategies for the inclusion of refugees.
Poland: Many nongovernmental organisations take action to support and assist refugees. One of them is Grupa Zagranica, a civil society platform which is engaged in development cooperation, democracy support, humanitarian aid and global education. The group runs integration programmes to promote the values of solidarity and tolerance.
UK: NIACE (National Institute of Adult Continuing Education) has been undertaking a series of projects to support refugees and migrants in developing and adapting their skills for the UK labour market.
Austria: The city of Vienna and Viennese adult education centres (Volkshochschulen) have introduced welcome workshops for refugees. They provide information modules for refugees on different topics such as health, accommodation, education and many more.
Edyta Kadula is a freelance journalist and qualified language teacher, currently living in Wales. She is interested in education, travel, and global issues. As a young person, but with a mass of experiences and open mind towards everything new, Edyta strives to make best use of her existing skills and international experience.