TVET for refugees: Sustaining qualifications and employment

Governments, international organisations and donors in many countries are increasingly seeking to address barriers to the training and employment needs of refugees through the use of technical and vocational education and training, or TVET.

Beyond creating opportunities for providing relevant skills and training, TVET is regarded as a key instrument to bring about economic and social gains to refugees and host communities.

The education strategy of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, ‘Refugee Education 2030’, underscores the fundamental role TVET plays in supporting refugees to gain market-relevant skills, strengthen their capacity to lead independent and fulfilling lives and enhance social cohesion with host communities.

TVET is also regarded as a core pillar of the UNHCR’s 15by30 roadmap with the target of a 15% enrolment of young refugees in higher education by the year 2030.

Despite the many conventions, agreements as well as national and international laws that guarantee refugees the right to study, work or establish businesses, achievements lag behind as access to refugee education and employment opportunities remains meagre across the globe.

Currently, around 3.7 million refugee children are out of school, which is more than half of the 7.1 million school-age refugee children.

In terms of access to employment, research also shows that refugees are up to six times more likely to be unemployed than non-refugees.

The Ethiopian context

Ethiopia has a long history of supporting refugee populations. It is the second-largest refugee-hosting country in Africa, with more than 800,000 refugees accommodated in 26 designated camps across five regions of the country.

While more than 60% of the refugees are schoolgoing-age children, over 19% constitute older adolescents and youths between the ages of 15 and 24.

Ethiopia’s Refugee Proclamation, revised in 2019, has created improved opportunities for refugees. Among others, it grants refugees the same right as Ethiopian citizens to access pre-primary and primary education as well as attend secondary and tertiary schools within the limits of available resources.

The global figures indicate that 63% of refugee children at primary education level, 24% at secondary level, and only 3% at tertiary level have access to education, while the figures for non-refugees are 91%, 66%, and 37% respectively.

Current achievements in Ethiopia indicate that the primary gross enrolment rate (GER) for refugee populations was 67% in 2018-19. According to the Education Sector Development Programme VI, the plan is to increase this to 83% by 2024-25.

There is also a plan to raise the GER in secondary education from the current 13% to 54% by 2024-25. The GER in tertiary level is still less than 3%.

Another major opportunity the 2019 refugee proclamation created is the right to employment. Previously, refugees were partially or wholly restricted from conducting their lives outside their designated camps and could not obtain work permits.

TVET provisions and new initiatives

For too long, Ethiopia’s support to refugees’ education was restricted to the lower levels of education. Earlier efforts in the provisioning of TVET programmes were limited and undertaken with an emphasis on non-formal TVET.

Ethiopia decided to offer TVET for refugees as part of the nine pledges the country made during the Global Refugee Forum 2019.

One of the key pledges the country made was to provide quality and accredited skills training to 20,000 host community members and refugees on an equitable basis.

Encouragingly, and as a follow-up to this pledge, recent initiatives in the sector have started using formal TVET to promote relevant training and employment opportunities for refugees and host communities.

One of the major initiatives in this regard is perhaps the Qualifications and Employment Perspectives for Refugees and Host Communities in Ethiopia Programme (QEP) which is regarded as a flagship project of the Global Compact on Refugees.

The project is funded by the German Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development and Norway, and implemented by Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit, which provides services in the field of international development cooperation and international education work.

The programme aims at establishing linkages between the TVET sector and the private sector to support the integration of TVET graduates, Ethiopians and refugees into the labour market through its three major outputs: improved quality of TVET colleges in selected areas; improved training for refugees and host communities and expanded offers of job orientation and entrepreneurship advice with private sector links.

The project is currently being implemented at national level in five regions of the country (Somali, Benishangul-Gumuz, Gambella, Tigray and Addis Ababa) and aims at serving about 5,500 refugees and members of the host communities.

So far, as part of the project, hundreds of TVET trainers have received technical and soft skill training in the Addis Ababa, Somali and Benishangul-Gumuz regions.

Curricula for employment-relevant training areas have also been revised in line with the occupational standards of the Ethiopian vocational training system.

In Addis Ababa, Nefas Silk TVET College was chosen as the first inclusive public vocational college for refugees and Ethiopians. Vocational training centres in Awbarre and Shedder refugee camps in the Somali region have also been established.

As an institution where refugees and host communities attend class together, Nefas Silk Polytechnic College is expected to promote mutual understanding and social cohesion between the two groups, in addition to transferring employment-relevant skills.

The first batch of trainees graduated from the college in 2019 and included 18 Ethiopians and 56 urban refugees from six different African countries (Eritrea, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi, Yemen, Sudan and Côte d’Ivoire). They received training in employment-related areas such as auto mechanics, textile and garment, welding and food preparation.

Further efforts focused on the creation of business groups comprising the first batch of graduates and offering entrepreneurship training and advice. There are also a few business groups that were supported with start-up kits and are currently running their own businesses.

Linked to the QEP, the Inclusive Employment Promotion Programme (IEPP) is another initiative designed to facilitate entry-level employment and work experience for refugee TVET graduates in collaboration with local companies.

IEPP started operation in 2019 benefiting 150 graduates and 40 companies in Addis Ababa, Tigray and Benishangul-Gumuz.

The scheme allows local companies to select suitable candidates while the partnering vocational colleges are expected to cover the trainees’ stipends.

Future directions

The initiatives described above are a clear indication of efforts by the Ethiopian government and its international partners to exploit the potential of TVET as a tool for improving the qualification and employment prospects of refugees.

While additional research is needed to understand better how such interventions can shape the qualifications and working lives of refugees, it is worth noting that scaling up the efforts and ensuring their sustainability demand considerable and ongoing efforts and resources.

Aside from national policy directions that promote the inclusion of refugees in TVET programmes, the challenges related to the development of relevant curricula, the improvement in teacher training, infrastructure, teaching and training materials are key areas that need to be addressed.

In addition to the development of essential life skills and competencies, TVET institutions are also expected to provide different forms of support to young refugees that include academic and career guidance and psychosocial support.

With regard to resources, another critical component for success in the future is the active participation and commitment of relevant stakeholders in long-term funding and technical assistance.

It appears that, as the matter stands now, international organisations that support the TVET programmes are few in number, suggesting the need for higher levels of cooperation and increased advocacy.

Hence, galvanising significant funding support from international governments and aid agencies and developing additional mechanisms of internal resource generation should be key elements of future endeavour in the area.

All said, facilitating substantial refugee access to TVET and the formal labour market will remain a serious challenge in a country where the needs of national citizens on both fronts are far from being met.

However, whatever little contributions, they are worth the effort because addressing the global refugee crisis is the responsibility of every nation and citizen.

Wondwosen Tamrat (PhD) is an associate professor and founding president of St Mary’s University, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, a collaborating scholar of the Programme for Research on Private Higher Education at the State University of New York at Albany, United States, and coordinator of the private higher education sub-cluster of the Continental Education Strategy for Africa. He may be reached at or This is a commentary.

This commentary was updated on 19 August. There are around 3.7 million refugee children out of school, not 37 million as was reported initially.