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“Global Refugee Forum: time for immediate and sustainable action”, by David Edwards.

The refugee Convention of 1951 was born out of the profound feeling of shame following the Second World War due to the failure to respond to and receive those fleeing the Holocaust. That action of inaction condemned many to become its victims. Lest we forget, that Convention and the 1967 Protocol that expanded it, sprouted from and was nourished by that bloody soil.

The attitude of far too many nations was that it was a “German problem” and neither their business nor their responsibility. It is in that context that we should appreciate that rarely, if ever, have any international instruments represented such a monumental change in attitudes that changed the meaning of “civilisation”.

The waves of refugees that followed the War were generally received with open arms, whether they were fleeing Hungary, Vietnam, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Afghanistan, South Africa or Chile.  

The Convention considers a refugee to be someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion. They are to benefit from freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining as well as education and social protection. Asylum is not dependent on having legally entered the country. Although they do not meet the standards of the Convention for refugee status, there are growing numbers of people leaving their countries because of armed conflict, other forms of violence and attacks, extreme poverty or climate change. They were left no choice.

Fleeing the suppression of their revolution in 1956, more than 200,000 Hungarians escaped, by foot, to Austria in two days. They got out just before the barbed wire was put in place to imprison them.  

Those refugees were immediately placed and absorbed in Europe, North America or elsewhere. They were received with warmth and even joy. Such a reception helped to ease the pain and cushion being so suddenly uprooted. And, they and their descendants continue to make invaluable contributions to their adopted countries.

When the iron curtain fell in 1989 and 1990, pieces of that barbed wire wrapped in ribbons with the colours of the Hungarian flag were distributed. They represented that change and became a symbol of freedom.

Now, the barbed wire has returned to Hungary, not to keep people in, but to keep people out.

After the latest election of President Victor Orbán, parliament adopted legislation that criminalized providing aid to undocumented immigrants and asylum-seekers. He argued that rejecting refugees is defending “Christian culture”, telling the German newspaper “Bild”, “We don’t see these people as Muslim refugees. We see them as Muslim invaders”.

I am citing Hungary because, in 1956, nobody asked the fleeing Hungarians for either their passports or their baptismal certificates. But now, “it is not our problem” has come back into fashion.  

Responding to refugees in the spirit of the Convention also affects the work and mission of teachers and educators. However, they are obliged to be as concerned or more about the acceptance of refugees by many local communities as they are helping refugees adapt to their new homelands.  

Our European Region, the European Trade Union Committee for Education (ETUCE), and their employer counterparts, the European Federation of Education Employers (EFEE) recently carried out a study on refugees with on-site visits to Belgium (Flanders), Serbia, and Spain and materials from other countries.

Their intention was to look at the education challenges for refugee students, but they discovered that they could not ignore the broader context of public hostility. It came up everywhere other than Serbia. The report, “Promoting Effective Integration of Migrants and Refugees in Education” and the video documentary, “Education without Borders” are of interest wherever you live and work. It is no different from the electoral/political exploitation of fear and hostility in the United States or in many other countries.

On 17 and 18 December, EI is participating in the First UN Global Refugee Forum. It is organised by the office of the UN High Commissioner on Refugees. It will be conducted in the spirit of the international instruments and in conformity with its contents, in other words, around all the positive things that need to be done. But, the attitudes of receiving countries are also bound to come up.

Already last year, on the broader issue of migration, the Director General of the International Organisation on Migration (IOM)  António Vitorino, described thecommon migrant/refugee “reception” challenge and the attitudes of receiving populations by saying that we have the choice, “to answer migrants’ hopes with our acceptance; to answer their ambition with opportunities. To welcome rather than repudiate their arrival.”  

At the forum, I will make the pledge of Education International on measures for teachers and students, for children and youth, and for monitoring and evaluation.

Education International Call to Action

Host governments should act urgently to:

  • Implement the UN Global Compact on Refugees and the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework.
  • Develop policy, legislation, financing and other measures to fully follow-through on both the Compact and the Framework.
  • Use the Global Framework for Refugee Education developed to help carry out the education parts of the Compact by the Global Refugee Forum Education Co-sponsorship Alliance (EI is an active partner). That means, among other things, guaranteeing quality and equitable education for refugee children and youth within three months of their arrival and ensuring the effective involvement of refugee teachers to further integration, including through accreditation, access to training, and decent and comparable wages and conditions and social protections.
  • Develop and implement measures not just for refugees, but also with them. Both equity and inclusion are central. Their adaptation to and integration in their new homelands will be accelerated and their contributions will be enhanced if they are accorded full respect for their humanity, capabilities, talents, and skills.
  • Do everything within their powers to create a welcoming and enabling environment for refugees and fight bigotry, discrimination, and exclusion as called for in the Compact.

The development of the Compact by the United Nations was an impressive demonstration that the United Nations is capable of doing high-calibre work and negotiate strong and principled agreements, but it is far from being implemented. Education International calls on the UN to:

  • Do everything possible to generate and devote the necessary resources for effective, determined, and sustained action to implement the Compact and the Framework.
  • Seriously monitor progress and failures, evaluate, and report.
  • Do whatever is possible to build understanding that refugees are not just a “problem”, but also a way to transform tragedy into hope and trauma into energy. This “problem” is also an opportunity to enrich society, culturally, socially and economically.

Education International calls on citizens of all nations to:

  • Consider the facts about refugees and asylum rather than uncritically accept propaganda against them.
  • Accept refugees as neighbours and members of their communities, and colleagues.
  • Welcome and open up their hearts to refugees in the best traditions of the reception of refugees in the post-War decades.

We are not only taking this approach because that is what is expected of us at the forum, but also because we want to keep our focus on the real challenges. There is too much fear of and hostility to refugees in many countries.  

We refuse to be distracted and diverted by fabricated confusion and real hatred from normal human responses and instincts or from the mission of education. To be paralysed by adversity would be surrender to the same cruel, ruthless and obscene practices and collective irresponsibility that made the Convention necessary in the first place.

We continue to proudly count ourselves among those who refuse to allow darkness to snuff out the flame of tolerance, decency and hope.


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David Edwards

David Edwards is the General Secretary of Education International.

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