Refugee qualification passport: Not just a technical issue

After three weeks of the Russian war against Ukraine, more than 3.2 million people have had to flee their country, while an additional 6.5 million Ukrainians are internally displaced. Poland now hosts almost two million Ukrainian refugees, while Romania has received more than 500,000 and Moldova (population four million) 350,000.

Each refugee represents a unique story of suffering, but refugees also have many challenges in common. They need homes and food, medical care and protection, but they also need jobs and possibilities for continuing their education. Access to the labour market and to higher education, however, depends on what qualifications they have, and education diplomas are often not the priority when bags have to be packed at short notice, if bags can be packed at all.

Therefore, we need to find ways of assessing refugees’ qualifications even when documentation is missing. The European Qualifications Passport for Refugees (EQPR) does exactly that. It could be of great value to the many Ukrainian refugees who have had to leave their diplomas behind.

Developed through a Council of Europe project and based on a methodology first developed by the Norwegian ENIC-NARIC (European Network of Information Centres in the European Region-National Academic Recognition Information Centres in the European Union), the EQPR provides a proven methodology for assessing refugees’ qualifications even when they cannot be adequately documented as well as a format for describing these qualifications so that if and when EQPR holders move to a new host country, they do not need to undergo a new assessment.

The EQPR puts Article VII of the Lisbon Recognition Convention into practice.

This article commits all the 54 countries that have ratified the convention to taking “all feasible and reasonable steps” to assess “fairly and expeditiously” whether “refugees, displaced persons and persons in a refugee-like situation fulfil the relevant requirements for access to higher education, to further higher education programmes or to employment activities, even in cases in which the qualifications obtained in one of the Parties cannot be proven through documentary evidence”.

How it works

The EQPR was first tested through a pilot project in Greece in 2017. Today, the Council of Europe coordinates a project in which 13 countries as well as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees participate.

All applicants provide background information through a standardised form. Those who are judged to have a reasonable chance of obtaining the EQPR are then interviewed by two credentials evaluators from two different national recognition centres (ENIC-NARICs), at least one of whom will have specialised knowledge and understanding of the education system in which the refugees obtained their qualifications as well as of the language of instruction in the system.

This is essential to ensuring the quality of the assessments, and there have been cases where applicants demonstrated little knowledge of the institution they claimed as their alma mater. However, the vast majority of applicants are bona fide.

All new credential evaluators in the project now have to undergo a five-module training course and, once issued, information on the EQPR is stored securely on the web through a system developed by the Italian ENIC-NARIC.

All EQPR holders have access to their own EQPR – of course, without any possibility of modifying the information stored – and can give access to it to specific persons for a specific time, for example, if they apply for access to a study programme or for a job.

To date, more than 610 refugees have received the EQPR and the success rate is around 83%-84%. The rate does not vary significantly between interviews conducted face to face (prominent in the early phase of the project) and online (dominant now, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic).

A European crisis

The EQPR was developed in response to the Syrian refugee crisis, but as already outlined in University World News, it was intended not only to respond to an immediate need but also to prepare us for the next refugee crisis.

We knew a new crisis would come, even if we did not know when and where. Few imagined, however, that Europe would face a new refugee crisis less than seven years later and that this crisis would be the result of an all-out attack on one European country by another. Although it will be of limited immediate comfort to those who have to flee, Europe now has a good instrument to help them qualify for employment or further studies.

Of the countries that have so far received the highest number of refugees, only Romania participates in the project. The EQPR is, however, open to all European countries. Poland, Moldova, the Slovak Republic, Hungary and other frontline countries can make equally good use of the EQPR.

As in the previous refugee crisis, however, providing protection and opportunities for refugees cannot only be a challenge for the countries where refugees first arrive. In 2022, the refugee crisis is also a European crisis, and it must be met by all European countries.

This is why the EQPR is a European project, and the project group will meet before the end of the month to consider how the EQPR can best make life a little less difficult for many of the refugees who now have to flee Ukraine.

Inclusion of frontline countries

In parallel, the EQPR is offered to the countries that have so far not been a part of the project and now find themselves on the frontline. That offer was made when the Council of Europe’s Education Committee met in Strasbourg on 15-17 March, it was included in the statement the committee adopted, and it will be repeated in direct contact with individual national authorities.

Recognising refugees’ qualifications may sound like a technical, and even peripheral, concern in a dramatic crisis. The EQPR, however, has the potential of turning a vicious circle into a virtuous one. In the vicious circle, refugees’ lives are put on hold, individuals with high qualifications are told that these are of no interest to their countries of refuge, they are demotivated and will ultimately not be able to do the jobs they once had.

A qualification unused is in the long run a qualification lost. A qualification is not like biking or skiing where once you have the ability you never lose it. Qualifications are like languages: if you do not practise them, you forget them.

The virtuous circle, therefore, is one in which the host country shows the refugees that they are valued and gives refugees an opportunity to use their qualifications and develop them further. This way, refugees are motivated and help their host countries.

If and when they can return home, they do so with motivation and increased competences rather than with broken spirits and reduced skills. In its own way, the EQPR can help those who will rebuild Ukraine as a strong, democratic society once the invasion has been ended.

Sjur Bergan was head of the Council of Europe’s Education Department until the end of January 2022 and is a long-time member of the Bologna Follow-Up Group. He remains a member of the EHEA (European Higher Education Area) Working Group on Fundamental Values and has written extensively on higher education, including as series editor of the Council of Europe Higher Education Series. He oversaw the European Qualifications Passport for Refugees until his retirement.