Help academic refugees to contribute to inclusion

As the world grapples with the future of the United Nations migration pact, Europe’s higher education community is busy examining the ins and outs of a related challenge: How do we promote widespread acknowledgment of the value of refugees to society and the labour market? One unique answer is to empower academic refugees to become part of the solution.

When universities cooperate with organisations representing refugees, important things start to happen. Such collaborations can result in more diverse student and staff populations, enhance inclusion and foster deeper understanding of both the value of refugees and the challenges they face in higher education and in their host countries in general.

It also provides opportunities to self-organise and develop democratic structures that refugees may not have had in their home countries. This mix can become even more interesting when the focus is on positioning academic refugees to help not only themselves, but also to foster the inclusion of fellow newcomers in their new contexts.

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Proof of this surfaced at a recent seminar held at the Restad Gård asylum seeker camp in Sweden, where members of the European academic community met with refugees to discuss their role in supporting diversity, inclusion and democracy.

It was a unique and notable occasion that showed how important it is for refugees themselves to make a contribution to their new home country – and how very difficult it is for them to be allowed to do this. Importantly, it brought forward examples of how cooperation between universities and refugees can facilitate this.

A domino effect

The concept is simple: universities and organisations representing refugees work together to provide academic refugees with the means to create their own organisations and NGOs in a democratic process. This can create a positive domino effect as those with more experience and “academic capital” can in turn support newly-arrived refugees. The result is the opening of an intellectual reserve, with refugees playing an active role, potentially transforming the perception of refugees from people to be helped, to people who are making an important contribution.

This approach is currently being taken up not only in Sweden, but also in Germany and France with support from the Swedish academic refugee organisation Support Group Network and volunteers from University West.

It is important to understand that academic refugees are particularly vulnerable and need to establish new networks and contacts swiftly in order to succeed in their host country.

The qualifications and competences that refugees with an academic background have upon arrival can quickly be lost while living in refugee camps, eventually leading to a risk that such refugees lose their academic identity. Early intervention is clearly key to preserving their skills and making sure they find their place in society.

This is where cooperation between universities, employment agencies, immigration authorities, local authorities and NGOs comes into play. They can work together to ensure that not only essential information for academic refugees is available in different languages, but that the information is presented in a context that is understandable for someone from a very different cultural and societal background.

Facilitating integration

Refugee organisations and refugees themselves can play an essential role in taking this a step further. More experienced refugee students can counsel newcomer refugee students, offering them answers to unspoken questions and explaining the underlying context. This can help solve the challenge of a lack of intercultural understanding, both among refugees and the host countries. It can also address the fact that refugees are often very afraid upon arrival and might not give full information about their educational background.

Language barriers can also be addressed by facilitating refugees who have already learned the local language to teach the newly-arrived. This, together with individual study and career counselling, relevant bridging courses and flexible conditions for recognition, can help speed up processes and facilitate more fluid integration.

Refugees who have gained access to the labour market can also provide invaluable help to fellow refugees on the cultural aspects of working life and provide career guidance. Universities can also play a key role in helping match academic refugees to the labour market through internships, practical placements and complementary or upskilling courses that include these activities.

Universities have been working very hard in recent years to address issues related to refugees in higher education. Important initiatives like the European University Association’s Refugee Welcome Map and the InHERE project have produced concrete recommendations for the higher education community and policy makers.

We know that this work, coupled with collaboration with refugees themselves, can lead to successful outcomes – especially if there is a focus on changing mindsets from regarding refugees as a cost, to seeing them as an asset to society. An acknowledgement of the value of refugees is much needed across Europe. Positioning academic refugees so they can support others like them is a key step in the right direction.

Hanne Smidt is senior adviser for higher education policy at the European University Association. The “European Seminar on Refugees Supporting Diversity, Inclusion and Democracy” was held on 26 November 2018 and hosted by the Support Group Network, the European University Association, the Association of Swedish Higher Education Institutions (SUHF), Committee for Academic Refugees, Institut Français de Suède, and University West.