Migrant Support and Refugee Education

UCSIA programmed two public sessions on September 21st and 22nd 2017, co-organised with the Centre of Migration and Intercultural Studies, CeMIS of the University of Antwerp, in framework of the SCRIBANI workshop as a reflection on the past conference on integration practices in Europe and as an introduction to the topic of the next conference on citizenship education, organised by the ‘Forum Universitaire pour la Coopération Internationale au Développement’, FUCID, Unamur. Both sessions were attended by the members of the SCRIBANI network and about 60 researchers and practitioners from the fields of diversity policy and management, migrant support and education.

What support mechanisms are being devised on international, regional and local levels to alleviate the plight of populations under environmental stress, people on the move to a better future and migrant youngsters faced with educational barriers in host societies? What may migration contribute to host societies and what can we learn from the resilience of migrants?

Researchers from CeMIS, Milena Belloni, Stiene Ravn, Rilke Mahieu; Unamur, Sabine Henry and the University of Antwerp, Edith Piqueray, shared their insights with practitioners in migrant support and education in Flanders, journalist Brigitte Vermeersch, municipal diversity manager Sylke Blommaert, school director Joris Verlinden and refugee education tutor Hana Verstraeten.

Migration and Environment: a Key Issue with Some Empirical Evidence

Sabine Henry, in her presentation ‘Migration and Environment: a Key Issue with Some Empirical Evidence’ started from the question: How to define environmental migration? Under pressure of environmental factors populations migrate, either in anticipation of slowly deteriorating conditions as in Tuvalu, an island in the Pacific which is expected to disappear in 2050, or under immediate crisis conditions as after the typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines in 2013. In the first scenario the projected time schedule allows to prepare for migration and retain some control over the process, as such containing the level of vulnerability, which is not the case in the second scenario, that leads to refugee-like situations. Do people return after disaster? In the case of hurricane Katrina only half of the population returned to New Orleans.

The diversity in population movements makes it difficult to define patterns. This is acknowledged in the definition of the International Organisation for Migration, IOM (2007): “environmental migrants are persons or groups of persons, who, for compelling reasons of sudden or progressive changes in the environment that adversely affect their lives or living conditions, are obliged to leave their habitual homes, or chose to do so, either temporarily or permanently, and who move either within their country or abroad”.

How many environmental migrants are there? There is a scarcity of data and the numbers are often controversial but estimations indicate 50 million displaced people today and predict a rise to 250 million by 2050, encompassing 162 million people fleeing sea-level rise, 50 million at risk of droughts and 135 million faced with desertification.

What is interesting to study is, while some people move away, others stay. What are the pull and push factors? When and how do people decide to leave their habitat? Sabine Henry collaborates in the development of a conceptual framework for the UN, the Foresight project, taking into account personal and household characteristics such as age, gender, wealth, ethnicity and religion, as well as intervening obstacles and facilitating factors, such as the political and legal framework, the cost of moving, the existence of social networks and diasporic links, recruitment agencies and technological means. She supervises doctoral research on the difference in attitude between city dwellers and rural populations in Burkino Faso and the gap between the actual situation and the human perception of the situation and how this plays out in the decision to migrate. Results show that perceptions often do not match observed situations.

The key issue being the condition under which people leave, rather than migration itself, the IOM suggests to facilitate migration in the early stages of the deterioration process, to mitigate forced displacement at irreversible stages and anticipate the problem by promoting sustainable development.

Who is more likely to leave and what are the effects on those left behind? Migration might even enhance the resilience of the home community through increased global connectivity and diversity of resources (e.g. through remittances). Further research should also take into account the level of tolerance of a society to environmental change and decision making strategies in light of future risk.

Sabine Henry

Sabine Henry

is professor in geography (University of Namur, Belgium). Her research line focuses on the interaction between environment and migration at the household or individual level. Her research builds on expertise in human migration patterns, especially in Africa. In Burkina Faso, she provided one of the rare empirical evidence on the effects of drought on migration. In Ecuador, she focuses on the environmental benefits of international migration for the home country, through the lens of resilience. In the Philippines, she provided an in-depth understanding of the links between migration, vulnerability, land use and water management.

Women through the Mediterranean:
Why Gender Matters in Migration Studies

Milena Belloni

Milena Belloni

has gained her PhD in Sociology and Social Research at the University of Trento, Italy, with the Maria Baganha (IMISCOE) award-winning thesis “Cosmologies of Destinations: roots and routes of Eritrean forced migration towards Europe” (July 2016). Before moving to Antwerp, she has been a Post-doctoral Fellow in Modern Italian Studies at the American Academy in Rome. Her research interests mostly concern the micro-level analysis of refugees’ decision-making, the asylum-migration nexus, migrant smuggling, refugees’ livelihood strategies in urban areas, the ethnology of the Horn of Africa, and ethnographic methods.

Milena Belloni, in her presentation ‘Women through the Mediterranean: Why Gender Matters in Migration Studies’ explained how she investigated the position of women within the migration phenomenon. Women leave for other reasons and encounter other obstacles underway. Their vulnerability is not to be reduced to sexual violence alone. A one-dimensional analysis reduces them to a monolithic category, often lumped together with children in the statistics. This does injustice to their varied individual experiences and an intersectional research approach, sensitive to how various identity components and experiences are closely intertwined, is more appropriate.

Human mobility is a strategy to achieve new prospects for the longer term, but it seems that migration itself risks to become the longer term prospect for many. Limited local integration, little prospect for repatriation and fewer resettlement opportunities keep migrants in limbo, sometimes for over 20 years (two thirds of all refugees or 11.6 million people were in protracted refugee situations at the end of 2016, of which 4 million for 20 years or more).

Less than half of all refugees are women and they mostly end up living in camps, where they form a majority (refugees in urban settings are mostly men). Of the total number of asylum seekers in Europe less than a third are women. Two main Mediterranean routes are discerned: the overseas central route from Libya to Italy, which is physically harsh and thus more male, and the eastern route over land from Syria to Greece which is more women- ‘friendly’, although the EU-Turkey deal retains a majority of women. EU border enforcements block many asylum seekers, especially women. This indicates how asylum and reception policies hold gender biases.

Who are the women who do make it to Europe? Many are from Somali, Nigerian and Eritrean origin and are pioneers in migration instead of followers (as in the framework of family reunification). In the case of Eritrean women the motive for leaving is the obligatory national service imposed on male and female students during their last year of secondary school. They prepare to fall out before. This shows how woman can also be agents in migration and not just victims.

University and Society, Equal Opportunities and Diversity

Edith Piqueray presented a project the Department ‘University and Society, Equal Opportunities and Diversity’ of the University of Antwerp has put into place: ‘IKAN, a Tutoring Project to Support Non Dutch Speaking Newcomers in Flemish Secondary Schools’, as an introduction to the second session of the next day.

It is a tutoring programme for educational support by students of the university community (the Antwerp Association of University and Schools for Higher Education) to help newcomers in secondary education who are from another cultural and linguistic background and need to master the Dutch language while integrating into the Flemish educational system and society at large. The pilot phase, which has been completed at the end of the last academic year, shows promising results so that the initiative will be broadened from this year onwards.

In the pilot phase 33 tutees from 4 schools were coached by 10 tutors. The tutors (one of them testifies of her experience in the following session) saw it as a means to develop their intercultural competences (inspiring self-reflection and critical analysis of their own society) and train their didactic skills. The project will now be extended to 4 more schools.

The target group is double. Students from over the world are received in secondary school in specific support classes called OKAN (which stands for education opportunities for newcomers of different linguistic background), organized on the initiative of the federal authorities to cater to the immediate needs of 12 to 18 year olds by orienting them into the host society (with a focus on language learning and inculturation). Students in higher education, from a mostly monolithic local cultural background, gain a learning experience in civic engagement by giving personalized support to OKAN students. That is why the project has been labelled IKAN, referring to the OKAN acronym but meaning ‘I can’.

Given the fact that 70% of pupils in the city of Antwerp are from a migration background, an initiative such as this is no luxury and it responds to the task of the university to render service to society and fits into its policy to attract more pupils from the target group to enroll in higher education (the number of OKAN pupils entering higher education is extremely low, since most of them end up in vocational education).

Afterwards, the 3 speakers were asked what they would like to further investigate within the field of migration and support to refugees. Sabine Henry would like to go further in her analysis of the role perceptions and emotions play in the decision to migrate or not, Milena Belloni wants to uncover practices of smugglers in migrant trafficking and Edith Piqueray proposes to chart the effects IKAN has on the subjects the programme is tailored to.


Edith Piqueray

Edith Piqueray

was a research fellow at the Centre for Migration and Intercultural Studies (UAntwerp) where she did research on the integration of non-Dutch speaking 16 to 18 year old newcomers in Flemish secondary education. Currently, she coordinates the IKAN project at the Department ‘University & Society, Equal Opportunities and Diversity’ (UAntwerp). IKAN is a tutoring programme where volunteering university and college students offer educational support to non-Dutch speaking newcomers in secondary schools in and around Antwerp.

A Warm-hearted Reception for Foreign Newcomers at School in Flanders

Brigitte Vermeersch

Brigitte Vermeersch

started her career in education as a teacher of Latin and Greek and history. Five years later, in 1989, she joined the Flemish Radio and Television (VRT) broadcasting institute, where she worked for 15 years as a radio journalist specialized in education and politics. In 2005 she led a transition project, integrating the radio, television and online news teams under one roof and within one online platform. This was followed by another strategic project (DIVA) to digitalise the archives. In 2010 she became communication manager and spokesperson for VRT. Since 2012 she works again as journalist, specialised in matters of education and labour market, for the socio-economical editorial office of the VRT-news  department.

Young refugees deserve special attention. They are likely to stay and may become a source of innovation in our society. Brigitte Vermeersch, journalist at the Flemish radio and television broadcasting company, took on the challenge and documented her experience (through a blog on the news site) as an OKAN-teacher in an Antwerp school. She testifies in her presentation ‘A Warm-hearted Reception for Foreign Newcomers at School in Flanders’.

During one month she accompanied a class of 14 pupils from 8 different nationalities between the age of 12 to 17. The course runs for a year with the explicit aim to learn the Dutch language and become acquainted with Flemish society. The first requirement is to welcome them and make them feel at home, especially given the difficult circumstances they have encountered before arriving in the host country. How to build a relationship and get to know each other when communication is difficult? Visual material, poems and songs help to learn basic concepts and the shared learning experience sustains group formation and engenders feelings of community belonging. Clear school rules and elementary politeness and respect create a basic climate in which trust can thrive. A proper classroom to decorate with drawings, a world map etc. contributes to an atmosphere of familiarity.

The challenge is the diversified approach. How to cultivate individual talent and manage intra-class differentiation? Online platforms where teachers share best practices proved very useful. Teachers need support from their colleagues. The transition to a regular school after the OKAN experience proves to be hard. These teachers are not familiar with the problems of the pupils and tend to focus on language deficiency, thereby passing over other talents. We should invite these teachers for a week in OKAN-schools. The OKAN experience should be prolonged for these pupils to help prepare them for a good life in Flanders.


Practices and Challenges in the Integration of Refugee Students
in Flemish Secondary Education

Stiene Ravn, who contributed a chapter on Refugee Education in Flanders for the Sirius project, a multi-country survey to enhance the education of refugee and asylum-seeking youth in Europe, shared her findings with the audience in her presentation ‘Practices and Challenges in the Integration of Refugee Students in Flemish Secondary education’.

During the school year 2015-’16 the number of foreign language speaking newcomers in secondary education in Flanders had more than doubled from 2059 in September to 4696 by the end of June. How were schools to respond to this influx? The government opted for immediate integration in regular education cushioned by special OKAN classes.

Stiene and her colleagues from CeMIS engaged in field work in two urban schools through participatory observation of the target group upon arrival, during the reception classes and the transition to regular schooling after the support period. They held focus group discussions with the pupils and interviewed stakeholders.

The impact of the sudden influx led to a diversification of the background of pupils (before that time most migrants were of Moroccan origin) and of an increase in illiterate pupils and unaccompanied migrants. The class sizes fluctuated with new arrivals and departures over the year. A need for specific training for teachers was felt. The limited experience with the fairly new instrument of reception education, the impossibility of ability grouping (the newcomers being dispersed over the country) and the vulnerable profile of the pupils, turned social integration within the school into a feat. The interaction between settled and new pupils demanded specific attention. The participation in wider society needed coaching by teaching staff who had to work with socio-cultural and youth organisations. After one year (extendable with another year) the transition to regular classes still needed coaching, especially for the pupils older than 15. The lack of flexibility to devise adapted educational trajectories within the Flemish system (e.g. the obligatory French course presents problems for pupils who are still grappling with Dutch) leads to the famous waterfall effect where a pupil is sent to less demanding programmes and ends up in vocational training with little hope of ever enrolling in mainstream higher education. For pupils older than 18 years there is no follow-up.

Transition seems to be the major obstacle due to structural problems. The compensatory support model prevents structural adjustment of the system itself. Here Belgium could learn from other models practiced in some European countries, such as the comprehensive support model in Denmark and Sweden with continuous teaching support and intercultural learning mainstreamed into education.

Stiene Ravn

Stiene Ravn

is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Migration and Intercultural Studies (UA). Her work focuses on refugee integration. After obtaining her master’s degree in International Politics at the University of Ghent, she started working as a researcher at CeMIS and conducted a qualitative study on the integration of refugees in Flemish secondary education. Currently, she is involved with the evaluation study of the project CURANT (Cohousing and case management for unaccompanied young adult refugees in Antwerp).

How to Support Unaccompanied Young Adult Refugees in Flanders?
Reflections on CURANT

Rilke Mahieu

Rilke Mahieu

is a research fellow at the Centre for Migration and Intercultural Studies (UA). Currently, she coordinates the evaluation study of CURANT (Cohousing and case management for unaccompanied young adult refugees in Antwerp), an innovative European project providing young adult refugees with individualized support, training and psychotherapy while also offering cohabitation with local citizens. Previously, she has worked on issues such as migrant transnationalism, emigration policies, gender and the educational careers of immigrant youth.

Rilke Mahieu, who is the CeMIS partner (CeMIS will lead the evaluation study) in the CURANT cohousing project of the municipality of Antwerp and the public centre for social welfare, developed in cooperation with organisations for youth work, therapeutic support and civic education, presented this innovative approach to support unaccompanied young adult refugees, in her lecture ‘How to Support Unaccompanied Young Adult Refugees in Flanders? Reflections on CURANT’.

The starting point is the vulnerable situation of the target group, who encounter housing problems (discrimination, excessive rent ….), are faced with unclear future prospects and lack supportive networks. The aim is to match them with young volunteers who are willing to act as buddies and are themselves looking for affordable housing and an intercultural experience. The goal would be to reach out to 75 young adult refugees between the age of 18 and 21 and expand this in a later phase to 135. The stakeholders exchange experience in supporting the target group. As such CURANT offers an informal learning space for all partners involved.


Panel debate

A panel debate brought in the views of a director of an Antwerp OKAN school, Joris Verlinden (where Brigitte Vermeersch did her apprenticeship), a diversity coordinator from the municipality of Antwerp, Sylke Blommaert, who is also involved in CURANT, and a tutor in the IKAN-project of the University of Antwerp, Hana Verstraeten.

Sylke coordinates a support team for minors, trying to find schools to receive them, organizing a summer school for 18 year olds, following up on individual trajectories, helping them in study choices, finding vacation jobs and leisure activities, orienting them to various services …It is difficult for them to plan their trajectory when their situation is unclear. These youngsters are forced to become adults too soon. We need to be flexible and innovative in assisting them to strive for realistic aspirations, given their often low level of education and lack of diploma’s. CURANT supports them in building out their networks and helping them out of their isolation.

Joris recognizes that receiving new groups of (often unaccompanied) migrant minors (mainly boys) demands flexibility and the willingness to rethink and adapt the whole organization of the school. How to integrate survivors in our overly structured systems? It is important to allow them space. You cannot impose the same expectations on them with their specific psychological problems. We need to invent new models that fit their situation. This requires stepping out of our (European) reference frame and embracing a broader approach which goes beyond teaching to work together with other actors from the social field. The school forms the bridge between pupil and society.

Hana aspires to become a teacher and was attracted by the IKAN project as a chance to develop her pedagogical skills. Working with pupils from another cultural and linguistic background requires a tailor-made approach. She learnt a lot about Middle Eastern politics through her pupils and encountered a lot of gratefulness.


  • Joris Verlinden, director of an OKAN school
  • Sylke Blommaert, tutor IKAN project
  • Hana Verstraeten, student University of Antwerp and tutor IKAN project


  • Dominiek Lootens, UCSIA