By Diana Rodríguez Gómez
Access to education for refugees in border areas poses a challenge. Frameworks for action usually address procedures related to admission to school, such as access to safe infrastructure, registration, grade transfers and certifications, and placement exams. Policy makers and education stakeholders minimize how social context and local practices and understandings shape and re-define the paths to access education refugee youth follow.
In the late 1990s the intensification of the Colombian armed conflict, particularly in the border regions of Nariño and Putumayo, triggered a large influx of refugees and asylum seekers into Ecuador. In the second half of the 2000s, violent battles over territorial control among the Colombian state forces, left-wing guerrillas and right-wing paramilitary forces caused the migration of approximately 250,000 Colombians into Ecuador. According to UNHCR, in 2012, 59,090 Colombian refugees lived in Ecuador; and of these, roughly 40% were under 18 years of age. The majority of this population has settled in the northern provinces of Esmeraldas, Imbabura, Pichincha, Carchi, and Sucumbíos, and in the cities of Quito and Guayaquil.
Due to a partial absence of regulations guaranteeing access to education to the refugee population, in 2006 the Ministry of Education crafted Accord 455. The accord declared that refugee children, youth, or applicants for refugee status who could not provide documentation proving their level of education could access the Ecuadorian education system at the level corresponding to their knowledge, skills and age by simply presenting their temporary certificate as asylum seeker conferred by the UNHCR or the national government. Accord 455 was amended in 2008 through Accord 337; schools are now required to grant temporary enrollment to children until they are able to provide proper documentation, even if they don’t have a temporary certificate. This stipulation requires that children be placed in the grade based on their foreign school documents or performance in a placement test. In addition, Accord 337 states that access will not be denied to indigenous children and youth in the border zones even if they do not possess identification documents or their nationality is unknown. Children with special needs, regardless of their migratory status, shall enjoy the same rights. Most importantly, it states that all the procedures described in the accord shall be free of charge and that the Ministry of Education will implement a procedure that promotes, diffuses, and monitors the accord.
Sucumbíos, located in 160 miles of the Colombian and Ecuadorian border, is rich in natural resources, mostly oil. Whilst the province contributes more than 50% to the Ecuadorian national income, the people here live precariously, with poor access to basic facilities like sewage, water and electricity. Information regarding access to education for Colombian refugees in Sucumbíos is scattered. In 2011, AECID and the Jesuit Refugee Services reported the lack of information on the total number of refugee children and youth living in Sucumbíos and attending school. With a small sample of three schools in the region, the report identified a total of 31 Colombian refugee students, almost 10% of the total population of each school. According to the Provincial Education Secretariat, 52% girls and 48% boys between the ages of 5 and 18 are out of the educational system in the province.
Structured and semi-structured interviews, and classroom participant observation in two rural secondary schools in Sucumbíos, in the eastern-most area of Ecuador, proved that access to education, is limited by factors that go beyond the scope of the Accords 455 and 337. The education system in this region fails to absorb the youth for the following reasons: late provision of textbooks and teachers’ guides; poor in-service training and instruction support; hard terms of service for teachers, including low salary; insufficient deployment of teachers; poor access for students living in distant areas; and an irrelevant curriculum.
In year 2012, the new Mathematics, Science, Social Science, and language textbooks from the government arrived to the easternmost town of the province one week after the school year had started. The English textbooks arrived four months later. To get around the problem, teachers decided to bring back to the classroom old textbooks; therefore, in their first five months of the academic year, students studied the same books they had already covered in the previous academic year. When they finally arrived, the new textbooks caused a commotion among teachers. In contrast to the old textbooks, teachers claimed that the new textbooks required a deeper knowledge and understanding of the subject, and research skills teachers didn’t necessarily possess. Even though the Ministry of Education included pedagogical guidelines for teachers in the shipment, the teachers asserted that these were not sufficient. Teachers admitted to having received training on the new curriculum reform and the new subjects (20 hours each subject) in 2011, but they received no training on the use of new textbooks, nor were they provided subsequent monitoring and evaluation of previous trainings.
The Ley orgánica de servicio público (Organic Law of Civil Service) standardizes teachers’ salaries according to their education and experience. However, in contrast to other areas of Ecuador where pennies have economic value, in some areas of Sucumbíos, all prices are set in series of five, which diminishes the value of money in the region. One of the teachers explained how she couldn’t simply buy two pennies worth of cheese, but that she had to buy “five pennies worth, or nothing.” In this context, there aren’t enough incentives to promote the presence of well-trained and motivated teachers in this region.
With regard to the curriculum, students claimed they found some classes “boring,” “monotonous,” and “irrelevant”. These adjectives were also used by youth to justify their disruptive behavior in class. In class, the activities teachers employed most frequently were: read aloud, copy from the book and/or from the board, math problem solve, answer questions, draw, and complete the sentence. Two students who had attended middle school in Colombia complained about the lack of dynamic activities in class and the disconnect between the Colombian and Ecuadorian Social Studies curriculum. They said that teachers didn’t ask them about their previous knowledge or connect the knowledge they brought to the Ecuadorian curriculum. One of the students lamented that the knowledge he possessed was “useless.” Further, in one of the classrooms I visited one teacher mocked the use of words spoken only by Colombian students, such as ‘peinilla’ (comb) and ‘chuspa’ (plastic bag), evidencing the subtle but powerful practices of discrimination migrant population face.
There is a clear absence of legal livelihood opportunities for the youth in the region. Fish farming, stockbreeding, cacao and rice farming are harsh and poorly paid activities in which most students feel reluctant to participate; nevertheless, they miss classes when their parents require their help on their farms during harvest. Instead, they get drawn towards more illegal forms of work as found on the Colombia-Ecuador border. The border region emerges as a low-risk/high-opportunity environment that blends civil war and drug violence. In the Colombian and Ecuadorian Putumayo, apart from coca cropping, gas and drug trafficking form the basis of the illegal economy. Youth participate in coca cropping as raspachines (coca collectors) and in gas and drug trafficking by passing gas and drugs through the border. When children and youth participate in these illegal activities, they usually get a tip. The income from participating in these illegal activities exacerbates the chances of dropping school.
Other factors that exacerbate dropout rates include early marriage, pregnancy and maldad (evil eye), an illness whose symptoms include shaking, rolled-back white eyes, fainting, and an irrational desire to run. As one student explained, “You feel like you’re drunk.” One of the schools in the sample is reportedly cursed – attributed to its location on a disputed territory between Siona and Kishwa indigenous communities — preventing students from staying too long in the campus. It therefore requires a trustworthy shaman who can pray and cleanse the school.
There are, however, also local solutions that promote access to education. Real Combí, with a population of nearly 30 Colombian families, is located in the Ecuadorian border of the Putumayo River, 45 minutes by boat from Puerto El Carmen, the easternmost town in Ecuador. The school, La Frontera, featured one regular classroom, an early childhood classroom, and a soccer field. In front of La Frontera, across the river on the Colombian side of the Putumayo River, there is a middle and high school named Escuela Nueva Granada. The agreement between La Frontera and La Nueva Granada is simple: students attend primary school in Ecuador, and then transfer to Colombia to attend middle and high school. To overcome the complications of transferring grade certificates from one national system to another, teachers make use of the Convenio Andrés Bello (Andrés Bello Covenant.). The Andrés Bello Covenant provides the equivalences between 10 different national education systems, including Colombia and Ecuador. Teachers from both schools plan to meet soon to design a bi-national curriculum to help students enjoy a smooth transition from the Ecuadorian national curriculum to the Colombian national curriculum.
The principles that frame the Accords 455 and 337, demonstrate concern for providing migrant population with admission to the Ecuadorian educational system. But little attention is paid to attendance, progression through an educational system, and the transition from one national educational system to other. The Ecuadorian legal framework conceptualizes access to education as a linear sequence that starts and almost ends when children and youth enter school. The implications of framing access to education magnifying the role of admission versus other components are evident in classrooms where the quality of the education provided limits the potential of learners. Access as a set of conditions for admission, neglects the political, social, economic and cultural conditions of the border between Colombia and Ecuador. To ensure that children and youth will attend school regularly, access can be better conceived as a fluid continuum, where the quality of the education, in addition to the social context of the child, together function to enhance or prevent regular attendance, progression, transition and completion.
Diana Rodríguez Gómez is currently an Ed.D. Student in International Educational Development at Teachers College, with a concentration in Peace and Human Rights Education.
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