The world’s attention has been fixed on Europe as thousands of refugees stream into the continent each day, many of them desperate, tired and weak from their dangerous journeys. In the short term, this influx could be seen as a burden for Europe, but in the long term, they could present an important economic opportunity.
Aging populations present a significant risk to many of Europe’s economies. In 2010, the average age of Europe was 39.8. In 2020 it will be 42.2, and by 2050 the ratio of those aged 65 and over to those aged 15 to 64 will be nearly 50% in the EU-27. This ratio is a serious economic threat to European productivity.
With proper engagement, Europe's surging refugee population could become a valuable resource to those countries with the foresight to invest in them now. Education is crucial in this process. Luckily, there are programs across the world making an impact on vulnerable refugee and migrant populations that can serve as an example for Europe’s next steps.
The We Love Reading (WLR) Program launched in Jordan in 2006, promoting an appreciation for learning by establishing community libraries and training local women to lead read aloud sessions for young children. Since then it has trained 700 women, created 300 libraries, directly impacted 10,000 children (60% girls), and spread to communities across the world. In 2014, WLR launched a pilot program in the Za’atari Refugee Camp for Syrian refugees in northern Jordan. An impact evaluation conducted by Yale University showed increased test scores, and perhaps most importantly, an eager desire to return to school and continue learning among children who participated. “In the beginning, I used to ask the children over and over to come listen to my stories. But now, they come to my home and beg to be read to,” storyteller and 20-year-old Hiyam said.
Data provided by the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), estimated that the average stay in a refugee community is 18 years. This estimate motivated university faculty to fill a growing need for tertiary education in refugee communities. In 2009, the Jesuit Commons Higher Education at the Margins (JC: HEM) program was founded. It offers a fully accredited online 45 credit Diploma in Liberal Studies and a portfolio of Community Service Learning tracks (CSLT) delivered locally. Free at the point of delivery, JC:HEM is taught by online volunteer faculty from around the world and supported by site-based staff. Despite bombings that have reduced their classrooms to rubble, students in JC: HEM’s center in Aleppo, Syria continue their pursuit of knowledge. These knowledge-thirsty students are brave and committed, and nations should be clamoring for their contributions.
Further demonstrating the positive impacts refugees can make, the Unity for Tertiary Refugee Students (UTRS) project was founded in 2004 by a group of young refugees and asylum seekers who had made their way to South Africa, but still encountered serious difficulties in trying to achieve higher levels of learning. The program works towards making tertiary education open and accessible for refugees and asylum-seeking students by lobbying on their behalf, identifying or creating funding opportunities for them, and promoting their rights and well-being in South Africa. Additionally, each intervention involves ongoing psycho-social support, mentoring, and guidance. This comprehensive approach has been crucial in helping 1,300 refugees transition into the workforce per year, and can inform future efforts in Africa as well as Europe to facilitate similar labor-force transitions.
Of course, integrating the hundreds of thousands of new refugees into Europe will depend on a multitude of complicated factors. There are many differences between these European contexts and those listed here. Nevertheless, the impacts of organizations like We Love Reading, JC: HEM, and UTRS demonstrate that the transformation for refugees from aid-seeker to valuable contributor is possible. The flood of refugees is certainly daunting, but with enough political will, a new crop of labor can bloom. Education interventions can help the current crisis become a turning point, not just for Europe and it’s aging workforce, but for a more interconnected world as well.
Duncan McCullough is a Communications Associate at the Center for Education Innovations, proud Masters graduate of George Mason University, and former White House Staffer.
Photo Credit: We Love Reading