Preparing for recognition of refugees’ qualifications

In November 2019, UNESCO’s General Conference in Paris gathered higher education ministers and other high-ranking representatives. High on the agenda was an introduction to the UNESCO Qualifications Passport for Refugees and Vulnerable Migrants.

The Qualifications Passport methodology, developed by NOKUT (Norwegian ENIC-NARIC), was first introduced in Norway in 2016. Based on the Norwegian experience, the Council of Europe introduced a European Qualifications Passport for Refugees in 2017.

The UNESCO Qualifications Passport brings that concept to a global level – indeed it could become a powerful worldwide tool for recognising refugees’ qualifications.

Over the past couple of years, the Qualifications Passport methodology has successfully been tested and implemented in several countries. This includes Armenia, France, Greece, Italy, Lebanon, the Netherlands and Turkey. Now, with the implementation of the UNESCO Qualifications Passport, the methodology is really being put to the test. If it proves to work when applied in vastly different contexts worldwide, it could have a tremendous impact.

Pilot in Zambia

On 4 December 2019, The Guardian published the story of Timothée, a Congolese refugee who had fled to Zambia. He holds a doctor’s degree and practised medicine in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Timothée was, however, not able to show sufficient proof of his high-level qualifications. Without this, he was not able to put his qualifications to proper use.

Fewer than 15% of migrants in developed countries have jobs that match their level of education, according to a joint UNESCO-UNHCR report. Currently, according to UNHCR, only 3% of refugees have access to higher education. Similar statistics are not available for Zambia, but it is likely that Timothée would fall into this category if his qualifications were not recognised.

UNESCO, UNHCR, NOKUT and the Zambia Qualifications Authority (ZAQA) met Timothée in the last week of October as part of a pilot of the UNESCO Qualifications Passport in Zambia, the first African country to introduce the methodology.

Credential evaluation experts from ZAQA together with credential evaluation experts from NOKUT participated in an interview session in the Meheba refugee settlement. That time in Zambia provided new insight and perspectives. Most importantly, the methodology proved adaptable to local contexts.

Three-step recognition process

This is a small but significant step towards creating a global tool for recognising the qualifications of refugees – even in cases where sufficient documentation is lacking.

Evaluating a refugee’s qualifications by using the Qualifications Passport methodology is a three-step procedure: First, all available documentation, including the applicant’s self-assessment, is gathered. Then credential evaluator experts assess the available information. This is followed by a structured interview with two credential evaluation experts, trained in the methodology.

In Zambia, the interviews were carried out in the Meheba refugee settlement in the northwest of the country. Out of a settlement population of more than 20,000, 30 people were invited for interviews after a pre-screening process. After the interviews, UNESCO issued a Qualifications Passport to 11 applicants.

The Qualifications Passport includes information about the applicant’s highest achieved qualifications, relevant work experience, language proficiencies and recommendations about the road ahead.

Refugees settled at Meheba are predominantly from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but also from Burundi, Somalia, Angola and Rwanda. Among the interviewed participants were people with medical degrees, nurses, teachers and individuals who had had vocational training.

The project attracted positive attention among the refugees in the settlement. The interviewees were excited about the opportunities a UNESCO Qualifications Passport could provide. The interviews themselves were highly appreciated. According to a community leader at the settlement, the applicants felt that being listened to and acknowledged as resourceful individuals, not just people in need, conferred self-esteem and dignity on them.

UNHCR and the Zambian Commissioner for Refugees offered crucial support in recruiting applicants. Finding interested candidates was not a difficult task. Selecting applicants for interviews was more of a challenge.

Our capacity to conduct interviews and assessments is still quite limited. However, as more credential evaluator experts are trained in the methodology, that capacity will increase.

The need for skilled and experienced evaluators cannot be stressed enough. The credibility of the UNESCO Qualification Passport is dependent on the trust that end-users, such as higher education institutions and employers, have in the expertise of the recognition authorities and the procedures behind them.

Mutual trust

Credential evaluation experts from NOKUT and ZAQA who participated in the pilot found that the co-operation and collegiality that the project brought would benefit not only further development of the methodology, but also daily work in the field of qualification recognition.

Performing the interviews and collaborating on the initial assessments of qualifications led to the sharing of ideas and expertise.

Recognition is an exercise founded upon mutual trust, which is also at the heart of the global recognition convention, adopted at UNESCO’s General Conference in November 2019. Hence, building relationships ultimately increases quality and effectiveness in our profession.

Plans for further pilots of the UNESCO Qualifications Passport are already scheduled. In 2020, new ones are planned in Iraq, Colombia and Zambia. Iraq and Colombia are facing challenges that are different from those we met in Zambia. Testing the methodology in various environments at this early stage gives us the opportunity to refine and strengthen it as we move forward.

We are confident that the introduction of the UNESCO Qualifications Passport will provide member states of UNESCO with a useful tool for assessing the qualifications held by refugees and displaced people. The successful pilot in Zambia proves that the methodology is robust and ready for further roll-out in Africa and other regions.

Marina Malgina is head of interview-based evaluations in NOKUT (Norwegian ENIC-NARIC). Helge Schwitters is a student, advisor at NOKUT and former president of the European Students’ Union. Stig Arne Skjerven is director of foreign education at NOKUT and president of the ENIC Network – European Network of Information Centres.