Qualifications passports open doors for Syrian refugees

On 27 May, the first UNESCO Qualifications Passports (UQP) issued in Iraq were awarded by the Iraqi Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research during a ceremony in Baghdad.

In two evaluation sessions organised by UNESCO in collaboration with the Iraqi Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, the UN refugee agency UNHCR and the Norwegian Agency for Quality Assurance in Education (NOKUT), Syrian refugees lacking proof of their qualifications were interviewed by credential evaluators to substantiate their qualifications, resulting in the first 21 UQPs issued in Iraq.

The pilot project in Iraq is part of the UNESCO Qualifications Passport for Refugees and Vulnerable Migrants initiative, which aims to improve refugees’ and migrants’ access to higher education and work.

The most recent UNHCR figures show that the percentage of refugees enrolled in higher education is still only 3% globally. Moreover, recognition of foreign qualifications has been identified as one of the main barriers to refugees finding relevant work.

While more than 80 countries globally have ratified UNESCO’s recognition conventions – which include the commitment to fair, transparent and non-discriminatory recognition of refugees’ qualifications even when documentary evidence is lacking – national recognition authorities and higher education institutions are lacking the tools needed to evaluate refugees’ qualifications.

Global mobility tool

Based on an analysis of all available documentation, supported by a structured interview, the qualifications passport indicates a person’s highest achieved qualification at upper secondary or tertiary level, as well as their language skills and other relevant information. Such verified and quality assured information is crucial when applying for further studies, scholarships and work, and can open doors for refugees lacking documentation of their educational achievements.

The qualifications passport methodology developed in Norway has been tested successfully in other European countries in the framework of the European Qualifications Passport for Refugees. The EQPR was initiated by the Council of Europe in 2016, and was recently endorsed by the ministers of the European Higher Education Area who pledged to support its use in their systems.

In cooperation with the Council of Europe, NOKUT and UNHCR, UNESCO has committed to scale up the qualifications passport for use at the global level.

A first pilot in Zambia resulted in the first UQPs being issued in December 2019. To develop the UQP into a global mobility tool which helps refugees to access higher education and find relevant work in their new home countries, UNESCO is now extending the project to more countries in Africa, Latin America, Asia Pacific and the Arab states.

Enabling refugees to use their skills

The results so far show that qualifications passports can be a practical solution to the challenges refugees are facing when seeking higher education and that they constitute a concrete tool for recognition bodies and admission offices wishing to fulfil national or institutional policies for inclusion of refugees in higher education.

In Europe, the results of the EQPR are starting to show. For instance, since 2018, Italian universities have been accepting the EQPR for scholarship applications, and around 50 EQPR candidates are now studying at Italian universities.

In Iraq, UNESCO and UNHCR are now working on identifying scholarship opportunities for UQP holders in collaboration with Al-Iraqia University, the American University of Iraq in Baghdad and DAFI (Albert Einstein German Academic Refugee Initiative) of UNHCR, and there is a dialogue on upscaling the UQP for use in the Kurdistan Region in Iraq.

In this way, refugees can use their skills and abilities to better contribute to their host countries, and possibly to the rebuilding of their home communities.

Dag Hovdhaugen is director of foreign education at the Norwegian Agency for Quality Assurance in Education (NOKUT). Marina Malgina is head of interview-based evaluations at NOKUT (Norwegian ENIC-NARIC). Peter Wells is chief of higher education at UNESCO. Andreas Snildal is senior programme officer at UNESCO.