Collapse of Syrian schools leaves refugees playing catch-up in Europe

Many asylum seekers cannot read or write and struggle to get jobs, Austrian government report says

Syrians are arriving in Austria with a lower educational level than in previous years, experts have said. Getty Images
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The collapse of Syria's school system means migrants are arriving in Europe with ever poorer education and many struggle to find jobs, officials in Austria have said.

A “constantly falling” education level compared to refugees in previous years is a “great challenge” to inclusion, Austria’s Integration Minister Susanne Raab said.

Many Afghans and Syrians arrive in Austria with no knowledge of the Latin alphabet and some cannot even read or write in their own language, according to a government report.

Syrians are especially affected, with 78 per cent needing literacy lessons. They also fare particularly poorly in the labour market, with 48 per cent of Syrian women and 32 per cent of men in Austria unemployed.

The lack of education comes from long periods in transit and “especially the collapse of the Syrian school system as a consequence of the civil war”, said the report by an expert council.

It said recent Syrian arrivals “often come from refugee camps with little or no access to education or work”. As a result, Syrian asylum seekers are “bringing little or no basic education with them compared to previous cohorts”.

One in three Syrian schools have been destroyed, damaged or repurposed because of the war, Unicef says, with many classrooms overcrowded. February’s earthquake in Turkey and Syria also had a disruptive effect on schooling.

Despite these problems, 80 per cent of Syrians said they felt at home in Austria, said Tobias Thomas of Statistics Austria. Residents who said they would baulk at living near asylum seekers were in a clear minority.

However, many young people arrive in Austria having had “traumatic, or at least exceptionally stressful experiences” during their journey or in conflict zones back home, the report said.

Syrians and Afghans are Austria’s youngest migrant groups with an average age of 26, meaning many were still of school age during times of conflict at home. Substantial numbers of refugees continue to make their way to Europe.

Out of 29,000 Syrians taking German lessons in Austria last year, more than a third were learning the alphabet and another third were covering the very basics. Only 63 were learning at the most advanced level.

Among men, the number of asylum seekers (of any nationality) needing literacy lessons has risen by 80 per cent since 2019.

“The share of newly arrived refugees in Austria with a very low education level has strongly increased in recent years,” the report said.

High unemployment

The overall jobless rate among Syrians (35.2 per cent) was the highest of any nationality in Austria, the new figures indicated. It was 20.6 per cent among Afghans.

Even those Syrians with better qualifications sometimes found it hard to get a job at their level, experts said, while Afghans had less education on average and typically accepted unskilled jobs.

Ms Raab said more evening and online language courses should be offered to help migrants – especially mothers with childcare duties – to integrate into Austrian society.

“Because of the changed situation, a paradigm shift in integration is essential – immigrants must learn language skills quickly and in parallel to their entry into the labour market,” she said.

Austria’s right-leaning government has made a campaign of cutting asylum numbers with tougher checks, faster deportations and beefing up security with new equipment such as heartbeat detectors.

Ministers have pressured the EU and neighbouring countries to turn away arrivals from countries such as Tunisia and India who are regarded as having little hope of asylum. Syrians and Afghans are unlikely to be filtered out that way, though.

Updated: August 24, 2023, 4:15 PM