The new access challenge is for refugees, says UNHCR

University access for refugees has become a major challenge for countries in Asia, which like Europe, are seeing an influx of more educated and aspirant refugees.

Unlike previous waves of refugees in Southeast Asia, refugees are arriving with higher levels of education, particularly from countries such as Syria and Iraq.

However their qualifications are not comparable qualifications to those required to access higher education in their country of asylum, a major conference on Global Access to Post-Secondary Education, or GAPS, heard last week.

Receiving countries were so far unprepared for the influx of such refugees, according to Niaz Ahmad, programme officer in Malaysia for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, or UNHCR. Speaking at the GAPS conference held in Kuala Lumpur from 5-8 October, Ahmad said host countries had a problem of collecting data on refugees in their country, and therefore often had not begun to tackle the issue of providing education access.

For example, it was not discovered that of a total of 152,700 ‘population of concern’ – a term used to describe refugee and displaced children – in Malaysia, only 15% were in school. This was in part because refugee children in Malaysia cannot attend publicly funded schools, he said. “We need better data on the refugee population so that we can understand their needs,” he said.

UNHCR said refugees typically did not bring educational certificates with them, and often could not access public examinations in the receiving country for language and other reasons, and were therefore held back in their education.

Refugees from countries in the Middle East “are well educated and want access to tertiary education, as their lives have been disrupted”, said Mimi Zarina Azmin, education associate at UNHCR’s education unit in Malaysia, a country with the second-highest number of refugees globally in an urban setting, according to UNHCR.

Malaysia’s large refugee burden includes 100,000 refugees from Myanmar registered last year, and others from Sri Lanka and Bangladesh as well as the Middle East.

“We are trying to encourage countries and institutions to provide scholarships,” Ahmad said.

Higher education institutions in Malaysia, including foreign branch campuses have granted access and scholarships to refugees, Ahmad told the conference.

UNHCR in the past year had signed a memorandum of understanding, or MOU, with the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus, International University of Malaya-Wales and the private Limkokwing University of Creative Technology – all of twhich provide instruction in English – to provide higher education access for young refugees, the first time this had been done in Malaysia.

“They not only granted access but also scholarships,” Ahmad said. Some 50 refugees will now be able to access higher education in Malaysia under this scheme, he said.

Malaysia earlier this month said it would accept some 3,000 Syrian refugees over the next three years, with an emphasis on professional and semi-skilled people. But UNHCR said it was precisely such people that needed access to universities for further study and for their families.

Ahmad said the MOU’s with the universities in Malaysia could serve as a model for other countries to provide access to refugees.