Students in Ireland challenging their perception of where the world’s refugees actually go to seek safety

 Pupils (age 9 – 11) were asked to share 20 cards between the continents according to population, wealth and where people go to seek refuge.

The figures in black are the actual numbers, and those in bold are what the pupils thought.

Topic Asia Europe North America Africa S America and Caribbean
People 12           6 2           3 2            3 2           5 2           3
Dollars 2             5 6           6 8            6 2           1 2           2
Refugees 8             6 4           7 0           4 6           1 2           2

Figures from (A Rich Man’s World? – NYCI Development Education Programme)

This is intended to be a conflict activity, focussing on perceptions of refugees and asylum issues. The initial two categories of population and wealth were used as warm-ups to get the pupils used to the idea of reducing the world to 20 people, but they clearly show other misunderstandings and inaccurate ideas about population and wealth. In general pupils significantly overestimate the populations of Africa and North America, and underestimate the population of Asia. This may be due to media reports of Africa focussing on large numbers of refugees and migrants, on population increase, and on images of large numbers of people crowded together in small spaces. Pupils are generally unaware of the size of the continent, although this may be a factor in over estimating population.

The figures show a great overestimation of the number of refugees travelling to Europe and North America. In the pupils’ image of the world, over 50% of the world’s refugees are attempting to come to Europe and North America, when the reality is that far fewer wish to come. It would be good to use headlines from the media to unpick the bias and persuasive language that is used, and encourage pupils to see the information in the media more critically.

To improve this activity as a way of assessing attitudes rather than factual knowledge, it would be vital to include a recording sheet for jotting down key arguments used in making the allocations, use a voice recorder, use a pupil as a scribe for each group, or have an online way of recording responses. Having an extra member of staff to record discussions might be useful also.

In this trial, the refugees category led to the largest amount of discussion, and the most disagreement. Comments that were noted reflected the same sort of attitudes as are implied in the data.

For example, one pupil argued strongly: Canada gets lots of refugees because it’s a safe place, while another strongly insisted: Asia needs to be higher because of all the refugees leaving Syria for places like Jordan and several agreed refugees would never go to Africa. These comments that arose during the discussion are what really give insight into their attitudes, and possible misconceptions.

Students may be unsure of how to divide the cards according to population and wealth and may be generally open about their uncertainty regarding the true numbers. There tends to be a much greater level of confidence in the placement of the ‘refugee cards’, with students moving more quickly and with more unanimity to place the majority of the cards in Europe and North America, often accompanied by the assertion: They’re all trying to come here [Europe] and America.

Some sympathetic students commented that People come looking for a better life, suggesting an attitude towards refuge and asylum issues that have been shaped by a view of people as consumers. The perception seems to be that rather than being forced to flee their home and becoming refugees, people are making lifestyle choices (this way of live vs. that way of life). This view is increasingly dominant in mainstream media reporting of the crisis in the Mediterranean, with people making the crossing described as migrants and clandestines, rather than refugees, or even, people.