European partners to recognise refugees’ qualifications

It is often the case that refugees arrive in a country with educational qualifications and work experience, but with no documents. To make the most of their potential, we need to recognise those qualifications. That requires ‘thinking out of the box’ and it requires thinking fast. If refugees cannot use the skills for which they are qualified, they will eventually lose them, along with their motivation.

Too often, refugees are unable to use their qualifications to the benefit of their host countries. This is a loss for host countries, a waste of talent and expertise, as well as for the individual refugees, who miss out on the chance of using their qualifications and developing their skills.

It is also a loss for the refugees’ home countries, which will badly need the refugees’ competencies if they are eventually able to return home or able to help rebuild their home countries even if they have established new lives abroad.

This is why the Council of Europe, the Greek ministry of education and four ENICs (national information centres working on recognition issues) in Greece, Italy, Norway and the United Kingdom tested a method for assessing refugees’ qualifications, even when they cannot be adequately documented, in a European pilot project last year. The method was originally suggested by the Norwegian and UK ENICs in 2015 and tested in Norway in 2016.

Through an evaluation of whatever documentation is available, a self-evaluation that the refugee provides and a structured interview with two qualified credentials evaluators, the European Qualifications Passport for Refugees (EQPR) maps and presents information on the refugee’s education level and profile, work experience and language proficiency.

The project established the EQPR as a format for describing the qualifications in such a way that the assessment can be used for access to higher education or employment. It is designed to be of use not only in the country where the EQPR is issued but also in other countries in the European region. Several refugees assessed during the pilot have already been able to use the EQPR to access studies.

Given the success of the pilot project, a three-year project is now being launched to develop the EQPR further. The project will allow for testing in more countries and involve more partners: in addition to the former partners, the new project will involve the Italian ministry of education as well as the ENICs of Armenia, Canada, France, Germany and the Netherlands.

The UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, will also be more involved in this next stage, which will be launched in Athens on 28 March. The project has so far received financial support from the ministers of education in Greece, Italy and Norway as well as from the Council of Europe.

Online assessment and electronic storage

The new project is not only larger; it is also broader in scope. The pilot project was only able to test online assessment in a few cases towards the end of the project. Now online assessment will be a key part, as will the development of secure electronic storage of the EQPRs issued. The goal will be to enable refugees to access their own EQPR and share it on an individual basis with any higher education institution or prospective employer of their choice.

In the next phase, running from 2018 to 2020, new groups of refugees will be included. Those interviewed in the pilot phase were mainly Syrian, Iraqi or Afghan refugees claiming higher education qualifications. These groups will still be included in the new project, especially in Greece.

The refugee population in Italy, however, has a different profile. Many of the refugees currently in Italy come from Sub-Saharan Africa and many claim secondary rather than higher education qualifications. This offers an opportunity to test the EQPR in new circumstances and potentially to expand its use.

In the second and third assessment rounds of the pilot project, some of the refugees who had already been interviewed played an important role in helping other refugees. They informed others about the EQPR, helped them apply for an assessment and were able to explain what the project was all about.

There is no help better and more credible than that delivered by peers. Therefore the new project will include developing an alumni network of EQPR holders. Alumni will help new holders of the EQPR to integrate better into their new local societies by accessing further studies and the labour market.

Usable in any European country

Moreover, the involvement of more ENICs will help put the EQPR more firmly on the agenda of the ENIC and NARIC Networks, which is crucial in developing recognition policy and practice in Europe.

The European Qualifications Passport for Refugees can be of use to any European country and is explicitly mentioned in the recommendation on the recognition of qualifications held by refugees, displaced persons and persons in a refugee situation that the Lisbon Recognition Convention Committee adopted in November 2017.

Preparing for future crises

In an ideal world, there would be no need for the European Qualifications Passport for Refugees. In the real world, however, the EQPR can help refugees who are already in Europe. It can also help us prepare for future situations where we will have to help large numbers of refugees resettle in a short period of time. In addition, it may have the potential to be of use in other regions of the world.

Sjur Bergan is head of the Education Department at the Council of Europe. He has been central in the development of both the Bologna Process/European Higher Education Area and the Lisbon Recognition Convention. Stig Arne Skjerven is director of foreign education in NOKUT (Norwegian ENIC-NARIC). He is the president of the bureau of the ENIC Network – European Network of Information Centres.