Education For All – or Only For Some?

COVID-19 and Discrimination Against “Refugee Children” in the German Education System

While all children have been affected by political regulations in education resulting from COVID-19, the pandemic did not affect all children equally. This article examines the effects of COVID-19 on the educational situation of “refugee children” and discusses new gateways for discrimination against children in school and migration society arising from the political reactions to the pandemic.


The ways in which the rights of marginalized and racialized groups in so-called Western countries are currently being addressed have proven particularly ambivalent. On the one hand, manifestations of structural racism are denounced and discussed in the context of the murder of George Floyd among the wider public. On the other hand, nationalist understandings of solidarity are being inscribed into the political responses to COVID-19 promoting structural discrimination against numerous social groups.

This becomes particularly evident with regard to the situation of “refugee minors”. The policies during the pandemic, current border closures as well as nation-state notions of solidarity especially threaten the children’s rights to education and open new gateways for discrimination against “refugee children” in school and society. In this blog post, I discuss this with a focus on Germany. By using the term “refugee children”*, I refer to all those children and adolescents who for various reasons were forced to flee their country of origin with or without their families.


Preexisting educational challenges

As of 2019, Germany registered almost 1.8 million beneficiaries of protection, asylum seekers, and persons whose removal has been suspended (German: Duldung). Around 500,000 persons were children and adolescents under the age of 18. Although all children in Germany have a right to education in compliance with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, “refugee children” faced numerous barriers in the education system even before the COVID-19 pandemic. In most of the 16 federal states in Germany, children in reception centres are temporarily excluded from compulsory schooling due to long waiting periods (from three to six months), also because their obligation to attend school is often linked to their assignment to a municipality. Further, specific age limits often prevent access to education for “refugee youth” who have reached the age of 16.

At the same time, “refugee children” often experience segregated schooling once they are allowed to attend school. In many federal states, newly arrived children are initially enrolled in separate classes that are designed to prepare the students for regular classes for one or two years, and sometimes longer. Consequently, the children do not have any contact with students from regular classes for at least part of their school trajectory. In addition, preparatory classes are more often found in secondary schools that offer lower school qualifications than in schools that prepare students for advanced academic studies. In a highly stratified education system such as the German one, which is characterized by limited upward mobility, this entails disadvantages for later educational pathways. In addition, the unequal arrangements provided by the federal states with regard to the compulsory education of newly arrived children do not provide equal opportunities for all.

As several studies have shown, the historically entrenched nexus of nationhood and education still provides a powerful framework for processes of exclusion in schools. Stereotype and often racist societal perceptions of migration-related difference and belonging penetrate into the school, its institutional framework as well as the attitudes and actions of teachers and can lead to different forms of (institutional) discrimination against students with a perceived migration or refugee background. The monolingual habitus in German schools as well as racist elements in curricula and teaching materials (further) disempower some students while awarding privileges to others.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, border demarcations are intensifying, which lead to further exclusions of “refugee children” both in and outside of school. This becomes particularly evident with regard to three developments: (1.) the strengthening of nationalist notions of solidarity, (2.) the closing of national borders and the resulting suspension of humanitarian admission programs and family reunifications and (3.) the rise of racist discourses during the pandemic.


1. Within the context of the strengthening of nationalist notions of solidarity in times of COVID-19 the needs of children who are not considered as part of the “national community” are often ignored.

Covid-19 has reemphasized nation-state thinking and the importance of and privileges that come with citizenship. In times of the pandemic, a nation state notion of solidarity with non-citizens such as “refugees” is often second to an understanding of solidarity among members of one’s “own national community”. This becomes evident not only in the form of additional health risks and poorer hygiene conditions in reception centers and shared accommodations for asylum seekers, but also in the fact that families seeking protection were partially excluded from monetary family support programs implemented in Germany in times of the pandemic. Under the current regulations, families whose deportation had been temporarily suspended or who are still awaiting their asylum decision do not receive the child benefit bonus passed by the federal government in June. Further, families whose asylum decision is still pending and who are disproportionately dependent on social transfers experience additional financial burdens due to school closures (e.g., by having to pay for their children’s lunch or the printing of school materials), which are hardly compensated by the state.

The needs of “refugee children” were also partly ignored when developing special education measures in reaction to school closures due to COVID-19. While a large proportion of children enrolled in school cannot access online education, this is particularly the case for “refugee students”: In many shared accommodations children have no free internet, no separate rooms and support to cope with their schoolwork. In addition, it primarily depends on the commitment of the individual teacher that different language prerequisites of students and their families are considered, e.g. when communicating information about schooling during Covid-19.

The example of the Berlin “summer school” shows that students from the above-mentioned preparatory classes are rarely considered as part of the “general student body” and are therefore often simply forgotten in times of crisis. In the summer school, children are supposed to make up for learning deficits caused by school closures. According to an interview with a Berlin-based refugee NGO, the Senate Department for Education, Youth and Family, which initiated the summer school, first had to be reminded of the “refugee students” from the so-called welcome classes before they were considered as participants of the education program.

So far there is no research that allows to draw conclusions from this example to a broader phenomenon. However, more and more pedagogues express their concerns that many children from the preparatory classes will be taught in the segregated classes much longer than planned due to the developments described above.


2. The reemergence of borders weakens global cooperation in favour of “refugee children”.

The rise of “medical nationalism” in the wake of COVID-19 has led to a widespread closure of borders, weakening global governance and cooperation in favour of “refugee children”. This is inter alia reflected in the temporary suspension of the resettlement and humanitarian admission programs. A lack of international solidarity is also evident in cases of those children living in camps on the Greek islands of Chios, Samos, and Lesbos. They are often denied the right to education, among other rights, while waiting for the decision to be moved to the Greek mainland or to be relocated to another EU Member State.

While only a small number of the children and adolescents currently living in the camps have been relocated to Germany and other EU Member States, observers of the situation on the ground are concerned about the intensified selection processes based on the criteria of “vulnerability” when deciding about children’s resettlement. Consequently, certain groups are given preference over others, while complex intersections of social identities and “vulnerabilities” are ignored and existing inequalities exacerbated. For example, many children in the camps currently fear coming of age and therewith losing not only their status as (unaccompanied) “minor refugees” and as “particularly vulnerable”, but also their right of access to the formal education system in Germany or other host countries.

In a desolate situation like this, “refugees” are often forced to educate themselves, as the example of the14-year-old Elahah, who currently teaches English to about 50 children in Moria, or the self-governed school “Wave of Hope for the Future” in Moria shows. However, also in this case, teaching has been temporarily suspended due to COVID-19.

At the same time in Germany, the temporary closure of visa offices has brought family reunification almost to a standstill. In addition, young asylum seekers whose deportation was temporarily suspended (Duldung) and who could receive a residence permit if they find vocational training in Germany face greater difficulties to do so currently. In consequence, “refugee children and adolescents” who fear deportation or whose families are currently unable to follow them to Germany are exposed to additional psychological stress, which impairs their ability to focus on their education.


3. In the context of COVID-19 racist discourses against “refugees” and “immigrants” are intensifying, which may lead to further exclusions of “refugee children” in schools.

In light of COVID-19 anti-immigrant sentiments and political discourses are intensifying. In the search for “scapegoats”, minorities and other vulnerable groups become targets of hate speech, racist attacks, and different forms of exclusion in countries all over Europe. The crisis may further sharpen the image of the “other” not only in social and political life but also in educational institutions. For instance, interviewed special needs teachers in Germany—who could not visit schools in recent months to observe and assess the special needs of students and recommend the type of secondary schooling—had to write their reports often solely on the basis of the class teachers’ perceptions. This might negatively impact the educational careers of immigrant students in particular as (implicit) prejudices shared among teachers toward them can impact the reports and, thus, reinforce a “sorting by origin” of students in the school system.

Thus, the experience of the pandemic may cause further difficulties in terms of the children’s schooling and open new gateways for discrimination in schools. Prejudices and discriminatory practices may hamper “refugee students’” learning and affect their sense of belonging as well as their chances of settling successfully. As “immigrant students” often perceive themselves according to how they are perceived or labelled, their performance in school might be negatively influenced by “being at risk of confirming, as self-characteristic, a negative stereotype about one’s group” (stereotype threat). Furthermore, these students are often less motivated and more likely to turn away from school.


Civil society organizations show solidarity with “refugee children and families”

In times of COVID-19, Welfare and Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) become a central source of solidarity for “refugee families”. The Berlin-based educational project “Cabuwazi Beyond Borders”, for example, which is offering circus courses for children in refugee shelters, reacted rapidly to the new situation. In addition to producing online training videos in which acrobatics and juggling courses are taught digitally, the initiative prepared backpacks with circus materials, written instructions, and exercises, which were distributed in refugee shelters. In order to stay in contact with the children, letterboxes were set up in the shelters allowing the children to ask questions and give feedback on the training materials.

However, COVID-19 also poses numerous challenges for CSOs. As they had to move their activities to digital spaces, the initiatives lack participation fees, donations, or revenues for events, workshops, and seminars to finance the expenses incurred. After loud protests, social services like those providing education, counseling, and assistance for refugees were placed under the provisions of the social security package set up in late March. Yet, many education initiatives fear severe financial problems, including insolvency, because they are either not recognized as part of the social service sector, are financed by private actors, or do not meet the various requirements of the social security package for further financial support from the state.


Preventing discrimination in education in the aftermath of COVID-19

In times of COVID-19, it has become apparent that equal educational opportunities in Germany, as in other European countries, are only a pipe dream. The preexisting educational challenges and injustices faced by “refugee children” were exacerbated by the political reactions to the pandemic. Thus, the widespread call among national and international civil society organizations to leave no one behind during the coronavirus crisis also implies an obligation to maintain and secure an inclusive educational setting for all children.

Government policies should ensure that children seeking protection in Germany and the EU grow up in an environment that is safe and free of fear to ensure successful educational trajectories. Besides providing direct financial and other institutional assistance to families independently of their residential status, governments should take more responsibility in protecting children and their families from racial discrimination. Authorities need to be especially vigilant in monitoring and combating different forms of “othering”. This also should apply to schools when developing pedagogical approaches and materials that establish a critical lens through which the global content is taught in an effort to emphasize universalism over nationalism and chauvinism.

Solidarity for children in education should go beyond national borders. The fact that COVID-19 is a global phenomenon should function as an incentive to help us rethink educational politics and practices and to restructure EU asylum and inclusion policies to consider the special needs and rights of “refugee children”, not only during the COVID-19 pandemic but also after.


This blog post was also published in German and is part of the series Consequences of COVID-19 for Forced Migration and Refugees on the FluchtforschungsBlog. It is partly based on the previously published IPC-Mercator Policy Brief on “Long-Term Exclusionary Effects of COVID-19 for Refugee Children in the German and Turkish Education Systems: A Comparative Perspective” (co-authored with Maissam Nimer).


* To emphasize the social constructional character of the category “refugee”, I put the term in quotation marks.


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