UN call to ease visa restrictions for refugee students

UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency, is calling on universities to support scholarships for refugees and on governments to invest in education for refugees and to ease the provision of visas for refugee students.

Melissa Fleming, chief spokesperson for UNHCR, spoke to University World News in advance of making the plea in a speech at the annual conference of the European Association for International Education in Liverpool in the United Kingdom on Friday.

“We are calling on countries as part of the global responsibility sharing not just to think in terms of funding or resettlement of refugees but also of student visas,” she said.

“Sometimes it is not up to the universities but to governments to say 'okay, if this is going to be our part in sharing responsibility for the global refugee problem, we will encourage student visas'.”

Fleming said currently there are a lot of universities willing to provide scholarships but they are facing red tape.

“To try to get a Syrian student into a US university, it takes two years to go through the screening process for resettlement to the US,” she said. “Yet there are a couple of examples – Ireland, which has a number of scholarships for Syrian students and Portugal as well – where it is not just the universities but the government also offering visas as their contribution to alleviating the refugee crisis.”

Fleming said the key message of a new UNHCR report, Missing Out: Refugee education in crisis, released on Thursday is that the current approach to supporting education of refugees is “short-sighted” and “dumb”.

Only about half of refugee children are in primary school, one in four go to secondary school and only 1% of refugee youth have a chance to go to university.

This compares with UNESCO figures of 34% of young people of university age accessing higher education around the world.

“This is not just a situation of haves and have nots; it is short-sighted and dumb, frankly, not to put everything into investment in refugee children and youth."

She said the average time spent as a refugee is 20 years and many refugees stem from conflicts in areas of great strategic interest such as Afghanistan and Syria.

“Refugees would be the future architects and engineers, mayors and doctors and peace-builders of their war-torn country because virtually all refugees want to return home.”

Conversely, there is a lot of evidence that if we don’t put a child in education, they become susceptible to abuse and recruitment by armed groups, and for youths with no prospect of education or a job, working for the local warlord in some situations may be the only option.

Perpetuating violence

So if you don’t invest in education, you “risk perpetuating the cycle of conflict and violence that you are investing in military and diplomacy to try to stop”, Fleming says.

Fleming said that a key problem for UNHCR is that its needs-based budget is designed in a way that makes life-saving the essential priority, followed by recovery from trauma, and support for other more long-term needs gets cut when the money – pledged by governments – doesn’t come in.

This lack of foresight creates a gaping hole, particularly in education. Donors are all on board when it comes to understanding the essential need for primary education, but when it comes to secondary education, there just isn’t enough money made available and higher education is off the scale altogether.

It becomes a vicious circle because if children don’t go to primary school, they won’t make it to secondary; if they don’t go to secondary they won’t make it to higher education, and even if they do make it to secondary, they face the problem of lack of documentation of their secondary achievements or exam passes that might qualify them to move on to the tertiary level.

“Money talks,” says Fleming. “It can help convince countries to integrate refugees into their national education system rather than being stuck in an informal parallel system which is often not accredited.”

“It is more difficult for the refugees,” she says, “because they then have to learn in the local language. But they are doing this in Lebanon with double shifts in the schools, a huge exercise that needs political will as the government has to adapt the school system if there are large numbers of refugees – but they are not going to unless there is the funding.”

There are lots of obstacles to negotiate, from the general underfunding of UNHCR and other humanitarian organisations, to refugees being in a very disadvantaged position. They might not have their high school transcripts with them or they forgot their high school diploma when they fled as the bomb dropped on their house, so there is a lot of red tape to negotiate.

The demand is increasing year by year. This summer’s figure of 65.3 million people forcibly displaced worldwide compares with 38 million 10 years ago, and the funding is not keeping up with the needs, Fleming says.

UN summit

A UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants is being held in New York on Monday, in which the UN General Assembly will address the issue. The draft of the outcomes includes a pledge to support good quality primary and secondary education in safe learning environments for all refugee children within a few months of the initial displacement. And there is a specific pledge to support early childhood education and “promote tertiary education, skills training and vocational education”.

The text recognises that “in conflict and crisis situations, higher education serves as a powerful driver for change, shelters and protects a critical group of young men and women by maintaining their hopes for the future, fosters inclusion and non-discrimination, and acts as a catalyst for the recovery and rebuilding of post-conflict countries”.

The day after the summit, President Barack Obama has called a Leaders’ Summit on Refugees, whose purpose, according to US National Security Advisor Susan Rice, is to take direct action and “urge and support robust action by other UN member states”.

New and significant concrete commitments are to be made, she says, to address the problem that “massive numbers of refugees are turning to dangerous and illegal smuggling networks in search of safety; and millions more face long-term dependence in first asylum countries, without access to lawful employment and education”.

The summits are a response to the European refugee crisis, Fleming says. “All of a sudden the world is noticing that there is a large number of people on the move. The meeting will not resolve the huge structural challenges immediately, but it will definitely launch a new framework for taking care of refugees at the outset.”

Chain broken

The problem is that refugees are moving from one country to the next when they find they can’t work or find a way to put their children in school and the chain of education that leads up to higher education is immediately broken.

“When we surveyed refugees coming from Syria to Greece and moving to Austria, Germany and Sweden, we asked what was driving them to risk their lives again in rickety boats to move to other countries in Europe, and all of them were saying 'I don’t have the ability to make a living and ensure my kids get an education'.”

In Turkey only around 30% of refugee children are in school, in Jordan 70% and in Lebanon 40%. “Countries in Europe did not realise how much refugees would risk to get their children a chance to get an education.”

So many university students came to Europe either directly from Syria or from countries neighbouring Syria and all they wanted to do was continue their education. This presents a big challenge to the richer counties, to sort out red tape, ways of funding places, providing language programmes and bridging programmes to bring students whose education has been cut off by war to readiness for university in a foreign language or country.

There are two pathways that UNHCR highlights. One is investment in schemes like its own DAFI (a German acronym for the Albert Einstein German Academic Refugee Initiative) scholarship scheme, which is funded mostly by the German government, and supports scholarships for students in the country of asylum, typically next to the country of conflict they came from, so that they can more easily return home to help rebuild their country when the fighting stops.

There is also a small but growing number of programmes of blended learning, where a community of learners is created in one learning space and connected online to tutors in partner universities in the country of asylum and in Western countries, with the latter providing accredited qualifications, including diplomas and degrees. Some of the learning is done at a distance online, but in some cases teachers also visit the learning centres in person, depending on the risks involved.

A consortium of this type of 'connected learning' is being developed to spread good practice and provide greater choice for students – typically situated in refugee camps or urban communities of refugees in countries such as Kenya and Jordan – through flexible pathways between providers in the consortium.

The UNHCR report cites the example of Nawa, a 20-year-old Somali refugee who never set foot in a school until she was 16. But thanks to the Fugee School, one of 121 refugee learning centres in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, she was given a chance to learn English and study for her secondary school certificate – and now she has been accepted onto a course at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus, where she is doing a foundation course while still volunteering as a teacher in the learning centre.

Nawa is one of 42 refugee students currently enrolled in three universities in Malaysia as a result of strong advocacy with tertiary institutions by UNHCR.

“Every human being has the right to an education,” she said. “With education, you have the key to unlock every door. Before I came to Malaysia and started at Fugee School, I did not know what I wanted in the future. But now I know what life is like, what opportunities are out there, and I have better skills to serve the world.”