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Europe’s migrant children: between belonging, happiness and discrimination

Whether represented as future terrorists or rapists, the children of non-EU migrants have been extensively portrayed as a hidden danger waiting to explode. We can and must combat the on-going stigmatisation.

Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh
22 February 2016
 Emmanuelle Tremolet

French students taking exams. Photo: Emmanuelle TremoletFollowing the Paris attacks in November 2015, debates have re-emerged with force about the integration of non-EU migrants and their children across Europe. How can young people born and/or raised in a country such as France or Belgium – where the suicide-bombers and attackers had lived since they were children - commit the atrocities we have witnessed?  

Since the attacks, the media and politicians have characterised migrant children and youth as ‘France’s fifth column’ and as potential recruits for Islamic State. Only three months after a massive outpouring of solidarity for refugees had been prompted by the image of 3 year-old Aylan Kurdi’s lifeless body lying on the Mediterranean shore, since November migrant children and youth have increasingly been represented as a hidden danger waiting to explode. After the widespread reporting of sexual assault against women in Cologne’s public spaces over New Year’s Eve, this shift was reflected graphically in the controversial Charlie Hebdo cartoon entitled “What would little Aylan have grown up to be”, which depicted an adolescent Aylan Kurdi as a sexual predator.

Whether represented as future terrorists or rapists, the children of non-EU migrants have been extensively stigmatised, being singled out as threatening European societies through their failure to integrate and adopt European values.

On 17 November, just 4 days after the Paris attacks, the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) launched a report entitled Helping immigrant students to succeed at school and beyond. Some commentators immediately interpreted this report’s findings as demonstrating that “immigrant children in France and Belgium are ‘most alienated in the world’”. However, is this really the case? And what are the dangers of relying on statistics published so soon after a major atrocity involving individuals with migrant backgrounds?

When I was asked to comment on the OECD’s November report by a national UK newspaper, it was clear to me that it was essential to carefully contextualise the statistics, and avoid the risk of further stigmatising families and communities with migrant backgrounds. Indeed, three points immediately stand out. Firstly, the statistics were collected between 2003 and 2012 and yet they are being relied upon to try to explain children’s current sense of ‘belonging’ and ‘alienation’ in Europe. Secondly, the data collected does not cover all countries in the world, and therefore assertions that these children are the ‘most alienated in the world’ are not supported by the data. And thirdly, and most importantly, reading the November report alongside a broader report published by OECD and the European Commission in July 2015 on Indicators of Immigrant Integration, presents a much more complicated picture relating to the experiences of children and youth born to immigrant parents in OECD countries.

Are France and Belgium really “exceptions”?

The OECD research draws on surveys with 15 year-old children in 2003 and 2012 which asked them to state if they strongly agree, agree, disagree or strongly disagree that they ‘belong at school.’ On the basis of these surveys across all state members of the EU and OECD, the report documents that second generation immigrant children (ie. children who were born in France to migrant parents who had been born outside of France families) had a lower sense of belonging than that expressed by children who either do not have an immigrant background, or first generation children (ie. those who were born outside of France to parents who were also born outside of France). While this has been interpreted as meaning that immigrant children in France are ‘the most alienated’ children in the world, it is important to note that second generation children in Argentina, Denmark and Mexico also expressed a very low sense of belonging to school.

It might seem essential to identify the source of youth disenfranchisement in France and Belgium to try to understand recent tragic events, but these figures must be placed in broader context – the OECD data reveals that the sense of belonging to schools amongst children with migrant backgrounds in Belgium is ultimately relatively similar to Montenegro, China, Luxemburg, Czech Republic, Brazil and Italy. As Belgium, in fact, fares better than all of these countries in this regard, children’s perceptions in France and Belgium should not be presented as a homogenous whole.

Recognising the importance of diversity amongst “immigrant children”

The second major point to bear in mind is that children and youth with migrant backgrounds are, of course, highly heterogeneous.

For example, the OECD report confirms that the child’s country of origin (or that of their parents) is very important in terms of their sense of belonging at school: children born in Iraq (or whose parents were born in Iraq) expressed a higher sense of belonging in Danish schools, than children from Turkey (or with parents from Turkey) in that same country.

Having recognised this, the next step is trying to understand why the children of Iraqi families might have a higher sense of belonging than children whose families originate from Turkey. This information is not revealed in the OECD report, but key questions remain. For instance, did children whose families arrived as refugees from ethnically - and religiously - diverse Iraq feel more welcomed in their school precisely because of their status as refugees who were fleeing the well-documented violence in and military occupation of Iraq? In contrast, might it be the case the children whose families are from Turkey in fact have a Kurdish background, and feel that they do not ‘belong’ precisely because their identity as a Kurdish migrant is overshadowed by the label ‘Turkish’? Not only can a child’s country of origin (or that of their parents) influence their sense of belonging to the school, but the very marker of origin used in the OECD data can itself erase the children’s diverse ethnic backgrounds, whilst simultaneously failing to differentiate between refugee and migrant children and families.  

Another key point is that the sense of belonging depends on whether a child is a first or second generation immigrant. In France, this sense of belonging at school is significantly lower amongst children who were born in France to migrant parents, than that of children who arrived as migrants themselves. In contrast, in Belgium there is a slightly higher sense of belonging amongst children who were born in Belgium to migrant parents, over children who arrived as migrants themselves (although the difference between these groups’ sense of belonging is relatively small).

As such, generation and the place of birth (or age upon arrival in Europe), matter a great deal, and yet the relationship between these is very different in France and in Belgium: in France second generation immigrant children express a stronger sense of alienation from school, while the opposite is seen in Belgium, where second generation children feel a stronger sense of belonging than first generation children. Presenting the experiences of “immigrant children” living in France and Belgium as similar therefore erases important differences between diverse groups of children, including in terms of their countries of origin, whether they arrived as migrants with their parents or were born in the European country themselves.

School systems that alienate all students, not just immigrant children?

When trying to understand the violent behaviour of a handful of people whose families arrived in France and Belgium as migrants, it might seem relevant to argue that their sense of alienation can explain their behaviour. However, the OECD data complicates this assumption, rather than confirming it. One of the most important points in the OECD data is that in France there is a relatively small difference in the sense of belonging at school between non-immigrant and second generation immigrant children. This strongly suggests that, in France, there is a much broader sense of alienation in school settings across the student-body, whether children do or do not have a migrant background.

In Belgium, in contrast, students without a migrant background have a much stronger sense of belonging at school than children who are second generation migrants. The difference is statistically much more relevant in the data pertaining to Belgium, and yet, other countries face a similar scenario: non-immigrant children in Luxembourg, Portugal and Ireland all felt a much stronger sense of belonging than second generation children, with Sweden, Switzerland and Italy positioned between Belgium and France. Children as a whole seem to feel alienated by or from French schools, whether they and their families arrived in France as migrants or not; in other countries across Europe, however, non-immigrant children often do feel a stronger sense of belonging than children whose families arrived as migrants.

Children’s sense of belonging, happiness and discrimination in context

Perhaps the most important point to make is that the November 2015 statistics must be viewed in broader context: to what extent is it helpful to draw conclusions about integration and alienation from children’s sense of ‘belonging at school’? Looking back to the OECD’s earlier July 2015 report is helpful here, since the data again complicate the notion of belonging, or even the assumption that schools are failing to support children as a whole.

What happens when we compare children’s sense of belonging at school with their sense of happiness at school?

In Belgium, first generation immigrant children express a sense of being happy at school that is certainly higher than the sense of happiness in schools in Italy, Germany, Netherlands, Ireland, Sweden, Portugal and Luxembourg. However, while Belgium is just above the average OECD level, the level of happiness at schools in Belgium is actually just below the sense of happiness at school amongst first generation children in Austria, Denmark and France. First generation children in France are therefore happier at school than their counterparts in Belgium, seriously unsettling the overarching assertion that migrant children in France are the most alienated in the world.

This again leads us to questions that we can’t answer from the OECD report: why might children with migrant backgrounds feel that they don’t belong at school, and yet report that they feel happy at those same schools?

One way of contextualising these feelings of being excluded by an institution and yet feeling a sense of happiness at school, is the extent to which these children may feel that they and their families belong to ethnic, racial or nationality groups which are discriminated against as a whole in their country of residence. The July 2015 report provides useful insights into this overarching sense of discrimination. Sadly, the data indicate that across Europe, one in every five young people born in the EU to non-EU parents felt that they belonged to a group that is discriminated against. Importantly, across Europe, these children were more likely to report being discriminated against than children who had arrived in the EU as young immigrants themselves (particularly in the UK, Belgium and Portugal); notably, however, two countries are the exceptions to this trend: France and Sweden.

Overall, the data from the July 2015 report reveals that across the EU there was a decrease in the proportion of migrant children feeling that they were discriminated against between 2008-12. It is essential that schools, and broader social, political – and media - systems continue to combat discrimination against migrants and the children born to migrant families, rather than singling them out as potential sources of unrest and danger. The on-going stigmatisation of migrant children, youth and families is a particular risk in the current situation, and policies must be developed to support children’s and youth’s sense of happiness and belonging within the broader social and political fabric of their country of residence. 

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