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Teaching about refugees, migrants and conflict on Europe’s borderlands

What is this about?
In recent months the number of those seeking to cross the Mediterranean Sea from Northern Africa, the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa has increased. Many of these people are refugees from warfare and conflict in the region, are trying to escape poverty or may be economic migrants seeking employment or education in Europe. Overwhelmingly, though, these people are fleeing conflict. As they are moving from one country to another, in this article the people are referred to as migrants, though the term is being contested in respect of this particular context.

Many have travelled far to reach coastal ports in Syria, Turkey, Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. Once there they pay vast sums to people traffickers who put them on boats that are often un-seaworthy and without trained crews, then head towards the nearest European lands - Greek islands, Italian islands or Spain. Sometimes the people are then put into smaller boats and cast adrift, sometimes the crew take off in powerful smaller craft and leave the overcrowded migrants to their fate. Some of these boats have crashed onto rocks, been overcome by huge seas or turned over with the weight of people on board. The loss of life is huge, especially as it seems that sometimes those who have paid for passage are locked in the hold below and cannot escape if the ship begins to sink.

The European nations struggle to agree how to solve the issue - its causes, the sheer number of people who are crossing the seas and need rescue, how to stop this movement by sea and resolve what to do with those who are saved. For Europe, is it a matter of search and rescue once a boat is in trouble? Should the navies of Europe patrol the coast of Africa and Syria and Turkey to help or discourage travel? Is this the responsibility of those European nations closest to the Mediterranean or all of Europe? How much more should we interfere in other nations to stop or alleviate the movement of people like this? Many of the migrants say they want to stay in Italy and Greece; many more want to head north to countries like Germany, France and UK where they may get better employment prospects. Italy and Greece are not the wealthiest nations in Europe and they are struggling with the impact of these people. Some locals in Italy and Greece are now becoming more hostile to those rescued on their shores. The people of some Greek islands are asking how they might be compensated for their rescue efforts-Greece itself is struggling with its own economy so how can it provide help for the migrants? Should the richer north European EU partners provide more help? The UK government has said it will concentrate on taking refugees and migrants from UN camps in Lebanon and Jordan, not from the Greek islands or European mainland. Is this fair, just and equal? Some people may be deported back to their home lands or indeed their point of departure as their status to enter Europe may be contested. It’s a complex and emotional situation that politicians debate endlessly and aid agencies and NGO’s try to manage.

Issues of identity emerge. This notion of identity is not just political but also ethnic, cultural and economic. The concept of diversity in a European context is complex and linked to issues of migration both into Europe and between European and EU nations. Questions about the motivation of the migrants is raised-are these people really refugees fleeing war or economic migrants? Can they be trusted to become part of European or national communities? How long will they be here for and what are their needs?

Teaching about this issue is also a challenge - is it a matter of teaching about migration? Are we clear on the status and needs of these people? Is it a matter of teaching about refugees, aid and help? Is it a matter of teaching about the consequences of warfare and conflict? Is it a matter of teaching about the responsibility of richer nations for poorer nations? At a time when issues of migration and war also occupy the political dialogue in the UK, teachers have to consider carefully how to manage discussion and debate in the classroom to enable pupils to dig deep into the issue with compassion and understanding. There may not be clear answers; these are grey areas, not black and white, but this is all the more reason to ensure quality in understanding, investigation, learning and action. Lastly, teachers may feel that there is a need to pursue a moral imperative; reflecting compassion and building a moral and ethical understanding of the issue. Whilst this is laudable it is important that pupils are not simply rooted in a charity mentality, rather they secure their learning in respect of a social justice framework.

What citizenship themes are there?
There are a range of citizenship themes, many of which link directly to the Global Learning Programme, especially in relation to:

  • Migration and the movement of people
  • Conflict and refugees
  • Social justice
  • Human rights aspects
  • Dependence and inter-dependence of people
  • Economic, political, social and environmental upheaval
  • Poverty and wealth as pull and push factors
  • Equality, ethical and moral stances
  • National and global conventions and rights of protection
  • Identity and diversity
  • There are questions about the impact of migration on the host nations - including the UK - and how the interconnections function between the UK, Europe and the rest of the world and also questions of law, both national and international. These might include:

  • What are the moral and ethical responsibilities of nations and governments?
  • What the legal obligations states in Europe have, especially to the borderlands?
  • Some European states are building or considering fences along their borders to control the movement of people-is this right? Is this legal within the EU rules?
  • How does this help Europe as a whole or EU nations cope with the movement of peoples?
  • What does this mean for the principle of free movement across Schengen borders?
  • Is the migration crisis prompting European nations to question free movement and open borders?
  • How is the new migration affecting concerns about terrorism, extremism and radicalisation?
  • How is the issue dividing or polarising nations and leaders in Europe?
  • Where are the links to the KS3 and 4 PoS?
    The links to the current KS3 PoS include the skills to think critically, debate and explore political and social questions. Pupils will develop skills of research, interrogate evidence and evaluate viewpoints as well as take informed actions. There are more explicit opportunities in KS4, where there is reference to human rights and international law, the United Nations and Europe, identity and the use of public money. Teachers of course should teach beyond the confines of the National Curriculum PoS and look for opportunities to conjoin with other subjects. It is also essential to consider the action aspects of the theme - to take into account what active citizenship can result from the learning.

    What should be considered in lesson planning?
    Firstly, prior knowledge about the issue of both teacher and pupils may be weak. It is important that the teacher becomes familiar with the breadth of the issue, its complexity and the contested nature of the causes and actions/solutions. Pupils may have very stereotypical views. “These people should be told to stay in Africa.” “These people just want a better life.” “They capsize the boats so they will be rescued.” “If they have the money to buy the passage then they are not poor.” ‘We are letting in people we don’t know who may be terrorists from Syria or ISIS/Daesh or extremists.’ ‘Where are they from-do they have passports?’ Teachers should expect a range of views that may include such commentary and should be prepared to challenge these views constructively by exploring and questioning them and ensure pupils can research rigorously.

    There may be pupils in the class who come from a migrant family or community or who have travelled themselves from war or oppression. They will be especially vulnerable to these issues. How can they contribute to the work? Will they feel exposed by it? How can they feel comfortable about the discussions both in and outside the lesson? How can their testimony be invited, or that from family or community members? Is it right to do this when the emotional impact of such a journey may be so raw?

    In lesson planning the teacher should ensure that pupils research for facts and opinions about the causes involved; the push and pull factors. The source links below will help. Teachers can look at asking the big questions the issue promotes - some examples are in the paragraphs above. Teachers should also consider using media information and pictures to contrast opinions. If possible sources from outside UK should be used. There needs to be a debate or discussion element built around the key matters of response and responsibility - issues that will be relevant, have real traction with pupils and may be emotional. Teachers will need to have the right pedagogical approaches to managing such debate. Such approaches as P4C, Community of Enquiry or OSDE Methodology would help. Teachers need to consider actions as a result of findings and debate - what do pupils want to do with what they have discovered:

  • Do they want to present to other pupils in assembly?
  • Do they want to campaign about the matter in the local community or set up a stall outside the local supermarket to publicise the issue?
  • Perhaps pupils might construct a page on the school website about this.
  • Do they want to meet with community and political leaders locally to discuss the issue?
  • Do they know how the issue directly affects school members or community members?
  • Finally, and most importantly, teachers must consider how to teach controversial, topical and sensitive matters like this. They need to be cognisant of the school population and community. They need to read carefully guidance and advice on approaching such issues and ensure that their pupils are prepared for the theme. There is more on this in the links below and a very good framework for designing activities on the GLP website

    Advice and guidance on teaching approaches

  • Teaching Controversial Issues [Oxfam guidance]
  • Teaching about controversial issues: guidance for schools [Citizenship Foundation]
  • Global Footprints - Philiosophy for Children
  • Links to resources for lessons

  • British Red Cross teaching resources
  • UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency
  • Refugee Week website
  • Global Dimension teaching resources
  • Global learning and citizenship (GLP)
  • Links to background and research

  • 'Mediterranean capsized migrant boat captain faces charges' BBC News, 21 April 2015
  • 'Migrant crisis: Who are Africa's people smugglers?' BBC News, 23 April 2015
  • 'Can Europe stop migrants dying in the Mediterranean?' BBC News, 25 February 2015
  • 'The Enquiry: Could Europe Stop Migrants Dying In The Mediterranean?' BBC World Service, 1 March 2015 (MP3 download available)
  • Some top class activities, advice and guidance are available, mostly for free. There will be an additional focus during Refugee Week, 15 - 21 June.

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