20th February 2023 marked a year since the start of the Russia-Ukraine war which has forcibly displaced millions of people from Ukraine. In the first two months following the Russian invasion of Ukraine 4.9 million people fled their country (UNHCR, 2022) – almost double the 2.5 million refugees, mainly from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, who entered Europe in 2015–2016 during the so-called ‘European refugee crisis’ (Eurostat, 2017).

This has, and will continue to have, an impact on education across Europe. In the UK, organisations like City of Sanctuary were quick to respond with advice and guidance to schools and parents about ‘speaking with children about the war in Ukraine.’ They followed up with guidance on ‘how universities can help students, academics and institutions’ affected by the conflict. Similarly, REUK ramped up its education welcome project and provided resources and advice.

Looking at the few early studies and briefings related to Ukraine on the HERE Database reveals an interest in the maintenance of educational continuity for young people fleeing from the conflict (OECD, 2020) and the importance of education about forced migration (McCloskey, 2022). There are undoubtedly more studies to come.

Vocational Education and Training

OECD (2020) produced a policy brief discussing how Vocational Education and Training (VET) systems in host countries can become more inclusive and supportive of displaced Ukrainians. They note how Ukraine has strong VET provision at upper secondary level, and young people have strong interests in occupations which are commonly entered through VET. The policy brief argues that providing VET in host countries can be key in valuing and further building the skills of refugees from Ukraine, to the benefit of the Ukrainians concerned, host country labour markets, and for the rebuilding of Ukraine because, “the duration and intensity of the war is highly uncertain, and therefore so too is the duration of stay in the host country.” The suggestion is that if policy across Europe is based on planning for the longevity of refugees’ residence in host countries, rather than simply crisis response, VET systems can become more inclusive not only to Ukrainians but also other migrants and disadvantaged groups more widely. This is though reliant on addressing a number of barriers relating to, “information about VET, preparation for VET, removing barriers for access – including lack of networks, discrimination, and certainty regarding length of stay.”

“If refugees choose to stay, then their VET skills will be beneficial to the host country. However, Ukraine wants refugees to return, as do many Ukrainian refugees themselves… Therefore, skills that refugees gained through VET are likely to help in the reconstruction of Ukraine.”

Hierarchy of Victims

The reaction across Europe and support offered to refugees fleeing from Ukraine was on the whole extremely positive but McCloskey (2022) highlights the importance of development educators in, “challenging and rebuffing the negative stereotypes, pernicious racism and á la carte humanitarianism that has accompanied some of the media and state responses to the war in Ukraine.” He suggests that some of the Western media coverage has been, “infused with stereotypical and racist framing pointing to a hierarchy of victims based on troubling binaries: global North / global South; white / coloured; deserving / undeserving; and civilised / uncivilised leading to the valuing of Ukrainian victims of war more because they are white and European.” Not dissimilar to Back et al’s (2012) ‘hierarchies of belonging’, McCloskey suggests this leads to a ‘hierarchy of victims’. The article provides numerous examples of how Western journalism has tended towards the, “normalising of tragedy in the Middle East, Africa, South Asia, and Latin America,” through distinctions being made about the situation in Ukraine by comparison. Whilst not providing much in the way of practical advice for altering the discourse, McCloskey calls for educators to draw upon the, “critical thinking and the quest for mutual humanization,” central to Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1996: 56) in critiquing the,

“contrasting responses to the war and its victims by those European states that responded with great generosity and solidarity to refugees from Ukraine but have been less accommodating to civilians fleeing wars in the global South.”

Final Thoughts

It is clear that we need to recognise that education for refugees from Ukraine and about the context which has forced them away from their home(land)s is infused with discursive understandings of who a refugee is as well as what their futures could and should be. It is about creating educational and cultural continuity as well as providing spaces for critical reflection, not only on the situations that lead to forced migration but also readings of them by the various legislators and interpreters involved.

Refugees are people who are forcibly displaced for numerous reasons, find themselves relocating within their own nations and across (multiple) borders, have varying ethnic and cultural heritages and are subject to the whims of time and political decision making in terms of their future prospects. The ‘common’ Western vision of ‘the refugee’, as highlighted by McCloskey (2022), needs to be unpacked through education systems that include realistic pathways for displaced young people, such as the recommendations made by OECD (2020) from wherever they are seeking refuge.

Social theorist, Ulrich Beck introduced the idea of ‘zombie categories’ (Beck & Beck-Gernsheim, 2001) to refer to sociological concepts that are no longer fit for purpose in a ‘radically individualised’ and ‘multidimensional globalised’ world of the 21st Century. His work is controversial and often misinterpreted but if we do not recognise the multidimensional and individualised forms that forced migration takes, and hence undermining the concept of ‘the refugee’, are we at risk of reinforcing stereotypes in our education systems and not adapting them to the varying realities of studenthood experienced by members of our educational establishments – whether they are from Ukraine, Syria, Afghanistan or anywhere else? And in doing so, contributing to the ‘necropolitics’ of refugee students’ everyday lives (Mayblin, 2019).