Menu Close
Young people seen looking over a balcony at a sunset.
Integrating child, youth and young adult refugees into learning systems and supporting their educational achievement is a provincial responsibility, but a national concern. (Devin Avery/Unsplash)

Canadian governments urgently need to collaborate to support refugee students

Unprecedented global destabilization continues to force communities to migrate and seek sanctuary.

The seemingly endless count of displaced people worldwide — which has now reached over 110 million — is increasing yearly. Yet fewer than one per cent are resettled.

Unlike immigrants, refugees are involuntarily homeless and stateless and as such mourn their past as they rebuild their future. Considering the persistent refugee crisis, concerns regarding equity, diversity and inclusion have increased. The resettlement of asylum seekers is a major element affecting international integration at all levels.

In Canada, although integrating refugees into education and supporting their educational achievement is a provincial responsibility, its significance is of national concern. Governmental co-operation and organization are needed to accompany refugees through Canadian systems: from arrival, through education paths and into employment.

The backs of people with luggage at a border checkpoint.
Asylum seekers try to beat the deadline to cross the border at Roxham Road from Champlain, N.Y., into Québec, in March 2023, before the irregular border crossing was closed. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

High-quality education needed

Most refugees relocate to neighbouring countries in the Global South. However, permanent relocation in the Global North is not a panacea. Refugees face challenges including a sense of exclusion due to a mismatch between policies that admit refugees to a country and people’s lived experiences accessing apparent supports after they land.

Forced migration and education are fraught with difficulties. Less than 25 per cent of refugees start high school and only one per cent enter post-secondary education.

As a basic human right, comprehensive and equitable education for refugees places the onus on host societal systems to guarantee the responsible development of this vulnerable group. Quality education must offer displaced learners preparedness and resilience for life in their resettlement communities, and the ability to cultivate social capital.

Many resettled refugee youths are disadvantaged, having to deal with anxiety and emotional stressors. These include intersectional barriers such as financial distress, mental health concerns, language difficulties, culture clashes and trouble navigating institutions’ bureaucratic processes.

Moreover, refugees often do not understand how host societal systems function and what to expect from the dominant way of life. Subsequently, these obstacles limit refugee integration, revealing disparity and inequity in opportunities between minority and majority groups.

Children seen running with a soccer ball.
Children take part in a classroom activity in Toronto in summer 2016 in a program geared to helping Syrian refugee youths acclimatize to Canadian life and get ready for school. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

Ill-prepared to support academic needs

Between 2015 and 2019, Canada accepted over 74,000 Syrian refugees in a humanitarian gesture. But a federal report found that all provinces were ill-prepared to support the academic needs of refugees, and that refugees are subsumed into systems that have insufficiently considered their learning experiences, requirements or aspirations.

Unequal opportunity structures limit life chances and marginalize refugees. Limited education is linked with limited opportunities for community, political and social contribution. In theory, education systems strive for equity, but in practice part of the population is omitted. Education is essential for forced migrants, many of whom struggle with intergenerational issues, which are more pronounced among poorly educated newcomers.

Canada remains a global leader in refugee resettlement with measures in place to welcome this most vulnerable group. Therefore, the government should pay more attention to on-the-ground narratives as revealed in a recent study I did with colleagues carried out in Montréal.

The backs of people seen at an airport.
A family of Syrian migrants arrive at Toronto’s Pearson Airport in 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

Interviews with young adult refugees

Interviews with 29 Syrian young adult refugees, and 12 adult education practitioners raise awareness of refugee challenges.

Young adult refugees in this study, aged 18-24, were ineligible for traditional high school having missed years of schooling due to war in their homeland. Obligated to attend adult education centres to complete high school, these students voiced the need for more support and guidance in navigating the foreignness of Canadian systems.

In the same study, educators of adult refugees expressed their sense of abandonment, noting policymakers’ lack of knowledge concerning refugees: “If the government is going to allow refugees to come to school, it must have support mechanisms for them…”

Belonging and integration through schooling is also a concern for youth who are over the age of compulsory education (for example, in Québec, age 16). They require supports to find accessible programs that meet their needs.

The evidence-based data reveal how pressingly refugee’s educational needs and surrounding supports should be an issue of great priority to the federal government.

Integration failures mean social problems

Governments’ inabilities to integrate refugees result in economic and social problems if co-ordinated efforts are not made.

Supporting unemployed refugee youth weighs financially on society, overloads the health system including increased mental health worries, and puts pressure on refugee families.

For young adult refugees — and other marginalized youth — when access to higher education or fulfilling employment is blocked without a high school diploma, they are vulnerable to social exclusion. This grave reality may manifest in anti-social activities such as gangs and crime. It also exacerbates xenophobia.

The greatest risk is the possible social catastrophe where refugees drop out of school, with only low-waged and low-skilled employment options, becoming delinquents, or worse, engaging in violent extremism.

Such consequences of burden and risk are worrisome to a nation that has promised refuge to asylum-seekers.

Implications of inaction are severe

Social and economic structures reflect a system ignorant of the racial, ethnic and linguistic subjugation of refugees as a marginalized group. The significance is that the Canadian government, and stakeholders, must ensure the scholarly success of refugees for the betterment of a common societal good at a local, national and global level. The implications of ineffective action are severe.

As outlined in the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, nations like Canada must foster opportunities for refugee learners to build their futures, contribute to peaceful coexistence and civil society and support the socio-economic development of the resettlement country.

A woman in a suit seen speaking with people in a room with cots.
Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow tours Revivaltime Tabernacle Church, where African and Black refugees and asylum seekers have received emergency shelter, in North York, Ont., in July 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Tijana Martin

Government collaboration needed

Collaboration among ministries of immigration, education and employment is indispensable. A tri-ministerial committee could focus on how to engage, encourage and direct each young adult refugee as one file — not as separate ministerial cases.

Dedicated programs are essential to support displaced learners with trauma and gaps in their education. An alliance supporting and guiding this would provide multi-layered assistance to refugees.

Given the overwhelming challenges to refugee integration, to combat inequality, forced migrants must be allowed to benefit from state services and find a place of belonging and a good quality of life in their place of sanctuary.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 185,300 academics and researchers from 4,982 institutions.

Register now