Cities need to pull their weight in using education to help migrants and refugees feel included

coverToday the GEM Report released its 40th policy paper ahead of the UNHCR Global Refugee Forum next month to mark the one-year anniversary of the Global Compact on Refugees. The paper highlights the increasingly important role of cities using education as a lever for the inclusion of people on the move. It calls for international and non-governmental organisations to recognise cities as partners and for governments to clarify and support cities’ role in education.

People on the move tend to concentrate in urban areas, whether arriving from rural areas or across borders. Many living in cities are foreign born, for instance, – from 46% in Toronto to 62% in Brussels, 83% in Dubai and 39% in Sydney. Those forcibly displaced also often end up in cities: around 60% of the world’s refugees live in urban areas.

Currently, many migrants in poorer countries end up in slums with limited access to a free education. In richer countries they are often segregated into schools in disadvantaged neighbourhoods. In France, for example, immigrants in 2007 were more likely to be in classes where 15% of their peers were also immigrants. In Germany’s Hessen state, about 41% of children who did not speak German at home went to day-care centres where at least half the other children did not speak German either. In Turkey, housing market analysis indicated that natives moved out of neighbourhoods where Syrian refugees had settled.

Yet, the new paper, Defending the right to the city for all’, shows that many cities, particularly in low- and middle-income countries, have no mandate and little financial support to tackle the issue. A review of Amman, Beirut, Tangier and Tunis, all with significant migrant or refugee population flows, showed they did not have any authority for delivering education services. A further review of 23 cities faced with migrant and displaced communities found that only 5 had a dedicated budget to support their efforts.

refugees welcome
Image: Newtown Grafitti

Building on a background document prepared by the GEM Report team for the International Conference on Learning Cities in Medellin, the policy paper shows how cities that do have clear roles can make a huge difference in improving education access. Some are entirely or partly responsible for early childhood or primary education as in France, Italy and Germany, for instance, and have the power to open access to people on the move. A few years ago, Turin in Italy used this to decide not to apply a law requiring a residence permit to access education, spearheading a change in national policy, the paper cites. The city of Zurich in Switzerland for its part provides an average of CHF 40,000 per year to schools with more than 40% of students with an immigrant background to help with language and reading skills.

Many cities help improve language skills, whether through online services as in Germany, or in language courses as in Italy with attached babysitting services so that migrant women can attend. Sao Paolo offers 600 places in municipal schools to learn Portuguese as a second language.

Links between schools and migrants are also prioritised. In Frankfurt, Germany, immigrant mothers and fathers attend their children’s classes in kindergarten and primary school twice a week; Linkoping in Sweden trains tutors with knowledge of Somali or Arabic to act as ‘link people’ for parents.

Cities also help fight discrimination with awareness campaigns, or by fostering exchanges between inhabitants. Valongo in Portugal created a Human Library project, called ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’, whereby people can be ‘borrowed’ as though they are a book to answer questions on a variety of topics. Oslo in Norway set up a community festival to encourage intercultural exchange, and Seoul in Korea had an annual Migrant World Film Festival for more than a decade.


The paper has recommendations for the four main actors:

City governments must plan education in an inclusive and sustainable way, consulting with migrants and refugees in the planning phase, and ensuring that they can benefit from existing policy tools that promote inclusion in education.

National governments need to clarify cities’ role and promote networks between cities so they can learn from each other’s experiences and share scarce resources.

International organisations need to recognise cities as partners. They can also help develop cities’ technical and managerial skills…for instance by funding investments in professional education

Non-governmental organisations need to help ensure that the voices of migrants are heard when education services are designed and delivered in cities, and lobby for stronger coordination between local authorities and other national departments.


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