There are 50 refugee children in Iceland that are not attending school as they are still waiting to receive school placements, including 20 children who have completed the required preparatory process. Minister of Education and Children Ásmundur Einar Daðason said the process to place refugee children in schools has gone well overall considering the level of strain on the system. He added that Icelandic society must do more to ensure all children of foreign origin have equal access to education and job opportunities as native Icelanders.
Housing impacts schooling for refugees
Most of the refugee children who have yet to be placed in schools in Iceland have been waiting since November of last year. “I think that everyone is doing their best to make it happen as fast as possible, but it’s very clear there’s been a lot of strain on our system,” Ásmundur Daði stated.
The Minister explained the process in an interview on Rás 2 this morning. “Just to go over it briefly, when a family comes here, it’s the Directorate of Labour that sees to these issues and sends a request to schools, the family has to undergo a medical examination which takes some time, then they will be placed in temporary housing before they receive permanent housing […] that process takes a certain amount of time, and there’s been a lot of strain on the municipalities where this temporary housing is. And it’s been a challenge to get families into permanent housing.”
While it would be ideal to place children in school sooner following their arrival, Ásmundur Einar stated that there have been cases where refugee children have moved schools twice within six weeks due to changes from temporary to permanent housing, for example. Such moves are not ideal either, he pointed out.
Huge influx of children of foreign origin requires systemic changes
Ásmundur Einar stated it was not only refugee children causing strain on the educational system, but the dramatic increase of children of foreign origin in general. Between 1996 and 2022, the number of children of foreign origin in the school system increased 23 times over, to make up 11% of students today. The Minister says this proportion will only increase and the government is working on ways to improve the reception of children of foreign origin into the school system.
Asked about the possibility of setting up special schools for refugee children waiting for permanent placements, Ásmundur Einar stated such a move has been considered. “But it would need to be a holistic decision, not just for children from Ukraine and Venezuela or Syria, but for children of foreign origin. Do we want them to go to a special program to start with where they’re just learning Icelandic for a few months, participating maybe in social activities as well, but not have only children from Ukraine doing that, because we want them to go into the general school system and participate in society here.”
Immigrants and their children don’t have the same opportunities
The Minister pointed out that the representation of immigrants within Icelandic institutions is not proportional to their numbers within Icelandic society, which is over 15%. “The challenge is how do we help these children to reach the same level of success as the rest of us in Icelandic society. There should be 15 MPs of foreign origin, there should be 2-3 ministers of foreign origin. These people are not getting the same opportunities as the rest of us.”
Within the school system, children of foreign origin reportedly achieve lower grades than native Icelandic students, are more likely to drop out and less likely to attend higher education. Children of foreign origin also show less participation in sports and recreational activities. “This is a cause for concern in the long term. We need to think as a society, what can we do differently?”
For those who argue that the cost of educating children or teaching them Icelandic is high, the Minister points out that immigrants coming into the system and going straight to the labour market are individuals the country has not had to invest in, in terms of their education.