Why this topic matters
With millions fleeing Ukraine and the government’s latest controversial Rwandan refugee agreement, the topic of refugees has once again become a dominant theme in the headlines. For many, the arrival of Ukrainian refugees will be the first tangible impact of the Russian invasion in the UK. It is important that teachers are ready to answer students' questions constructively and to use this as an opportunity to teach about refugees in general.
There has been generally favourable coverage of Ukrainian refugees so far. This however is in stark contrast to those fleeing Syria, Afghanistan and African countries. It is these refugees often crossing the English Channel in boats that the government plans on sending thousands of miles away to Rwanda for ‘processing’ and resettlement. This situation should be used therefore as an opportunity to develop students' empathy towards all refugees. Students should be able to consider how race, religion, gender and nationality may lead to whether refugees are welcomed or spurned. Likewise it is equally important for students to understand why people flee in the first place, how they are at risk and how we can help. Developing the skills to understand these complex issues is highly relevant for the present and, with a high likelihood of climate refugees, for the future too.
Connections to the curriculum
- English: read stories and first-hand accounts by refugees.
- Science and Mathematics: draw attention to refugee scientists and mathematicians who have contributed to the topics you are teaching.
- History: teach about other moments in human history where people have had to leave their homes and seek refuge in other places.
- Geography: discuss the human and geographical causes of migration and the circumstances behind people’s need to leave their homes.
- RE: make connections between religious stories such as the Christian nativity story and how we are taught to treat refugees. Apply the teachings of the Golden Rule to the refugee crisis.
How to approach it
Learning: outline the context of migration
Firstly, it's important to clear up for students what a refugee actually is. Both the Theirworld and Actionaid resources below have great introductions that go through how to properly define different kinds of refugees and migrants. This is a good chance to bust some myths e.g. that all refugees flee to the western world. Actually, most stay in a country that neighbours their own such as Turkey, or Poland. From here, students should be introduced to the different causes of refugee crises. Familiarity with the Ukraine conflict and why Ukrainians are being displaced will serve students well. Use this familiarity to draw parallels between other refugees and the different kinds of conflict, persecution or crisis they may be escaping from. Next, help students understand what the process of displacement is actually like. Border crossings, refugee camps, asylum applications and resettlement are all arduous and dehumanising processes. Students should be aware of the difficulties and barriers refugees grapple with to reach safety. Finally, using this initial understanding, introduce students to the possibility of future refugees such as those displaced by climate change. Ask: how could we improve how we welcome future refugees? What international solutions would make seeking asylum easier?
Balance: compare the effects of discrimination
It is essential that students can think critically around this issue. As noted above, there has been a very different reaction in the UK towards Ukrainian refugees compared to Syrians or Afghanis. Have students compare the difference in newspaper headlines between coverage of Ukrainian refugees and the hostile headlines associated with others crossing the English channel. This should serve as an introduction for thinking about how different kinds of people are welcomed more than others and what this says about the prejudices of different countries. For example, the Economist Foundation’s resource on Ukrainian refugees notes how black students fleeing Ukraine have been refused transport and struggled to get across borders. This offers an opportunity for students to understand different identities from religion to sexuality and how different forms of discrimination impact people. Use the positive reception of white, European Ukrainians as a point of comparison to show how all refugees, regardless of ethnicity or identity should be treated. Teaching students how to be critical about different news sources and different kinds of discrimination is a valuable and transferable life skill.
Compassion: ask, what if this was us?
For most, refugees are something experienced abstractly through pictures and statistics. They are often spoken about as ‘others’ who are caught up in distant crises that those in the west are safe from. The othering of refugees exacerbates their mistreatment and it’s crucial teachers counteract this by building empathy. Help student’s empathise with refugee’s experiences by imagining themselves in a similar position. Ask them: how would you feel missing school and travelling to a strange new country? Stories, both fictional and biographical, are an engaging and inspiring way to give students access to the challenges and difficult decisions that refugees and asylum seekers face. You could, for example, watch our resource Fatima’s Drawings to see a young Syrian refugee talk about her experiences. Importantly, students shouldn’t see refugees as passive, vulnerable people. They are often strong, capable and driven. Amnesty’s resource ‘Seeking Safety’ (see below) offers a great activity where students can learn that Einstein and Jackie Chan were once refugees too. Understanding refugees as people just like us caught in unfortunate circumstances reinforces the need to treat them compassionately.
Action: show straightforward solutions
It’s always useful to frame a serious topic such as this around positive solutions and, with the refugee crisis in particular, there are simple, reassuring things to say here. With the appropriate support and resources it is clear that refugees can flourish in their new host countries. Obviously there are challenges of integration and mental health, but these can be tackled if there are communities and governments willing to put in the necessary work. The solutions to these problems are about encouraging the appropriate levels of action and empathy that we would all hope for if we had to flee our home countries. This topic offers the opportunity to introduce students to the dream of a compassionate world where we treat others as we would like to be treated. There are two kinds of positive thinking to encourage here. Firstly, you can focus on what we can do for all refugees here and now. This could include fundraising for charities who support refugees, such as Choose Love, donating clothing or camping equipment which they no longer need, writing to MPs and raising awareness of the issues faced by refugees and asylum seekers. Secondly, look at longer term solutions. Encourage students to imagine a world without war, persecution or climate refugees. What would that look like and how do we get there?