As the new school year kicked off in Greece, the country’s Ministry of Education announced a plan to enroll 22,000 migrant and refugee children in schools around the country.
The children, who fled war and poverty, are stranded in camps and refugee centers all across Greece, where opportunities for learning have been limited.
But the ministry’s decision to help them gain access to formal education has already been met with resistance. Two parents associations in Oreokastro, a town on the outskirts of Thessaloniki in northern Greece, have issued statements saying they will not accept the 420 migrant and refugee children living in the area in their schools.
The two associations, for the 1st primary school of Paleokastro and 5th primary school of Oreokastro, said their decision was “unanimous” and threatened to occupy school premises to oppose the children’s entry.
HuffPost Greece contacted the parents associations to find out the reasoning behind their opposition.
Fotini Kitsiou, president of the Paleokastro school’s parents association, claimed the parents were primarily concerned about health: “These children have not been vaccinated and we are worried about diseases.” If refugee children met health and vaccination standards, she added, the parents would not have a problem with them attending school.
But she also mentioned cultural and religious differences as a reason for the parents’ opposition, saying, “These children are raised in a different way and they wouldn’t feel comfortable in our schools.”
“This attitude stands completely at odds with the love, solidarity and understanding that the great majority of Greek parents, students and teachers have shown [towards refugees] in our country.”
Oreokastro Mayor Asterios Gavotsis said he believed the best solution would be for refugee children to attend classes in a separate location. If the government does not agree with the proposals Oreokastro residents have submitted, he warned, they will mobilize in protest.
Not everyone in town stands behind the two parents associations, however. Athanasios Tsolakidis, the president of the Union of Parents Associations of Oreokastro, told HuffPost Greece the two parents associations were “two isolated cases” and said their views do not resonate with the majority of parents associations in the area. Tsolakidis later resigned, citing attacks from the public.
Education Minister Nikos Filis said the groups’ opposition to admitting refugee children is “incomprehensible” and attributed it to lack of information and prejudice. “This attitude stands completely at odds with the love, solidarity and understanding that the great majority of Greek parents, students and teachers have shown [towards refugees] in our country,” he said.
According to Filis, the government’s integration plan already addresses health concerns and includes an immunization program. “We have taken all necessary measures,” he affirmed in a radio interview. “Refugee children will be received at schools, will be vaccinated and will have their teachers. We want them to play with the Greek children and they will gradually be introduced in classrooms. I don’t understand why parents would not accept these children at school.”
Meanwhile, the prosecutor’s office in Thessaloniki ordered an investigation on Wednesday into the two parents associations’ stance and the mayor of Oreokastro’s statements to determine whether their actions can be prosecuted under a law that prohibits hate speech and the incitement of racist violence.
A version of this story originally appeared on HuffPost Greece.