HE should be a priority in humanitarian crises

How do people manage to survive and build resilience to wars and conflicts that go on for years? How do refugees and forcibly displaced people endure hardship and roll with the punches when they spend 18 years on average in camps?

As with all humans, they need to rebuild a sense of routine and normality to bounce back and avoid falling apart. They need to figure out paths for the future and create a sense of purpose in life.

As with all parents worldwide, refugees want jobs to make a living and education for their children. If kids go back to school and the youth resume their university studies or get admitted to study, families start seeing some light at the end of the tunnel even if life around them is still like the dark side of the moon.

But there is more than that: it is education – in particular higher education – that will produce the leaders of the future and skilled workforce that countries need to move forward after crisis and conflict.

This is why it is urgent to prioritise higher education in the handling of humanitarian crises and emergencies.

If we fail to do it, we will be responsible for rendering entire generations uneducated, developmentally disadvantaged and unprepared to contribute to their society’s recovery. Furthermore, we will be contributing to fuelling people’s despair, grief, rage and victimization, all seeds and water for extremism.

To fast track higher education and make it an independent and self-regulated entry-point in a new humanitarian agenda is a simple, almost ready-made job.

Unlike primary and secondary education, the so-called tertiary level – or higher education – is a largely autonomous system in most of our countries.

International mobility, cooperation and exchanges are integral to the academic system. Universities and higher education colleges are used to hosting foreign students and scholars, they have developed common procedures to recognise previous studies and degrees, and they are for sure able to develop emergency academic responses, if they are asked.

Therefore, setting up a Rapid Response Mechanism for Higher Education in Emergencies should be an easy task for the global academic community. Most of the components are already available; we just need to assemble them and define a working frame.

If a financial facility or a kind of global fund is created at the same time to support effective emergency programmes to provide higher education to refugees and displaced people, with some additional arrangements we would be able to make a real difference.

This fund could be made up of an initial endowment of core-funding made by a small group of champions – countries, foundations, philanthropies and the private sector – and, in order to make it sustainable, it should be based on a voluntary contribution on an annual basis of one dollar, or euro, or pound by all university students, professors and researchers worldwide as a kind of solidarity levy by the global academic community.

Yet higher education in emergencies is too often neglected in humanitarian aid with only 1% of refugees accessing higher education and no strategic shift looming large.

We can catch up and achieve change in 2016. The upcoming World Humanitarian Summit this week (23-24 May) in Istanbul, and, later, on 19 September, the High-Level Meeting on Refugees and Migrants addressing large movements of refugees and migrants hosted by the UN General Assembly, offer us a unique chance to test our commitment to transform the lives of young people – namely students – in situations of conflict, disaster and acute vulnerability.

With strong commitment and bold action we can turn the tide on higher education in emergencies and prioritise it in humanitarian responses. Let’s do it.

Jorge Sampaio was president of Portugal (1996-2006) and UN high representative for the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations (2007-13). He is chairman of the Global Platform for Syrian Students.