Refugee studies are too focused on developed countries

Forced displacement has reached a record high. We are living in a world where every two seconds a person becomes a forced migrant, according to the annual Global Trends Report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The number of forced migrants has already exceeded 68.5 million and seems likely to continue going up in the coming years.

‘If I am alive, I must have an education’

The huge forced displacement crisis has resulted in masses of refugees seeking a new life in another country. This has inevitably required countries and organisations to meet their needs.

When it comes to helping refugees, it is generally considered that they need accommodation, food and health-related aids only. It is sad to see that a very low percentage of international humanitarian funds are used for educational purposes.

For example, only 8% of the European Commission’s overall humanitarian aid budget was used to develop education in emergencies and crises in 2018. Although the commission has committed to increase it to 10% in 2019, there is still a long way to go.

Although the need for education does not get the attention it deserves during a forced displacement crisis, it is as crucial as food for forced migrants.

As Christopher Talbot notes in his report entitled Education in Conflict Emergencies in Light of the Post-2015 Millennium Development Goals and Education for All Agendas, “children and adolescents who are not in school are at greater risk of violent attack and rape, and of recruitment into fighting forces, prostitution and life-threatening, often criminal activities”.

This is why he reminds that “education saves lives” in emergencies.

An impressive real-life example which explains how education helped a forced migrant and provided hope for the future in such a tough situation is Grace's story published in The Guardian. Grace is a South Sudanese woman who fled her hometown at the age of 17 and took refuge in the Minkaman Refugee Camp in South Sudan due to the conflict in her hometown at the end of 2013.

Unlike other forced migrants who had valuable belongings with them when they left home, she had her textbooks in her hands. Even while she was fleeing, she did not give up on her dream of becoming a doctor.

As she understood that the humanitarian investment in the Minkaman Refugee Camp mostly involved food and shelter, she decided to move to Kenya alone and continued her education at a medical school there.

She summarised why she needed education at that time in a powerful sentence: "If I am alive, I must have an education."

Scholarly interest in refugees' access to HE

As an inter-disciplinary research topic, forced migration attracts attention in various social science disciplines. It is pleasing to see that there is a growing interest among higher education scholars in this topic.

Policies employed at the national and international level to enhance refugees' access to higher education, recognition of refugees' previous academic credentials and support with financial issues, such as scholarships, to ensure refugees are able to continue their studies, are among the top current topics of recent academic publications.

As witnessed in most forced displacement cases, unceasing conflict in their home countries stops refugees from returning home. This means that they tend to live permanently in their host countries, although most did not plan to do so and intended their stay to be only temporary.

This makes the role of higher education of vital importance, not only for the individual refugees but also for their host countries. As Sarah Dryden-Peterson, associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, reports, higher education helps refugees rebuild their lives by providing them with knowledge, skills and hope for the future.

Host countries benefit too as they get highly qualified professionals for their labour markets – if they are prepared to give them access. In addition, education fosters refugees' social integration into host societies and even helps with the development of their post-conflict home countries in the long run once they return there.

For all these individual, societal and global benefits of refugees' access to higher education, scholarly interest in this topic is appreciable as it raises awareness about the significance of the topic.

More research needed in developing countries

Any academic work on forced displacement is of great importance as the more publications there are about this topic, the more the voices of refugees are amplified.

However, studies focusing on refugees' access to higher education in developed countries are becoming more numerous and visible, although the vast majority of refugees live in developing countries.

According to the UNHCR's annual Global Trends Report, 85% of the world's forced migrants live in developing regions. Focusing on a minority in developed regions does not give an accurate sense of the issue.

As forced displacements mostly occur in developing regions, neighbouring countries there become a frequent destination for refugees.

According to UNHCR, there are 3.6 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, almost one million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, about one million refugees in Bangladesh, nearly 700,000 Venezuelan refugees in Colombia and almost half a million African refugees in Kenya.

Responding to a forced displacement crisis in a neighbouring country in a humanitarian way, these countries do not select immigrants through interviews, security background checks or health controls. Rather, they employ an ‘open door policy’ for their neighbours who are seeking to escape conflict. Despite their limited resources, many do their best to enhance refugees' access to higher education.

For example, according to the Turkish Council of Higher Education, more than 27,000 Syrian refugees have become university students in Turkey. Similarly, more than 7,000 Syrian refugees have accessed higher education in Lebanon, according to the Policy Brief by Hana Addam El-Ghali and her colleagues.

And in Ethiopia, more than 2,300 refugees are enrolled in universities, according to the UNHCR's Ethiopia: Education Fact Sheet.

The countries above and other emerging economies and developing countries in a similar situation enhance refugees' access to higher education by providing them with scholarships from their limited national budgets, coping with local tensions as admission to universities is already highly competitive for local people in those countries, which makes refugee access controversial.

Moreover, the prospect of more refugees needing higher education in the future due to the significant number of refugee children or teenagers in host countries looks likely.

Unlike those in developing regions or emerging economies, refugees in developed countries are admitted in a planned way, through selective procedures and quotas. As an elite group of refugees who benefit from the opportunity of reaching developed regions – the dream of most refugees – they may not experience the same challenges or go through the same procedures that those in other regions do.

For example, being host to one of the largest groups of refugee university students, Turkey can only provide one in every four refugees with a government scholarship. This inevitably forces refugee students into work and eventually to drop out of their studies.

This may not be experienced in a developed country – at least on the same scale – as a previously determined number of refugees are admitted to a university or country in a strictly controlled and well-planned way.

Get your hands dirty

Due to the differences above, the profile of refugees in developed and developing regions and the academic, financial and legal procedures around their admission to universities are quite different from each other.

The real individual suffering, drop-outs, financial issues, local resistance and other integration issues are mostly experienced in developing regions. For this reason, it is not possible to make global inferences by just focusing on refugee students' experiences in developed regions.

More research – especially on-site and empirical ones – should be carried out in emerging and developing regions to better understand both refugee students and local societies' challenges around refugees' access to higher education.

Otherwise, a limited focus on developed regions risks seeming similar to ivory tower research, distanced from the reality of most refugees’ lives.

Hakan Ergin holds a PhD from Bogazici University, Turkey. His research interests include internationalisation of higher education, migration, adult education, the right to education and distance learning. He works as a post-doctoral scholar at Boston College Center for International Higher Education, United States. E-mail: