Universities urged to go ‘beyond words’ and enrol refugees

Before fleeing Afghanistan as a refugee, Bilal Seddiqqi was in his final year of medicine, but now he is struggling to have his un-finished credentials recognised in order to continue his higher education in his new home, the United States.

“I was just months away from finishing my studies when the Taliban overran Kabul and I had to flee because of threats posed to our family due to affiliation with the government and civil society,” the young Afghan told University World News via phone from California.

Seddiqqi’s situation is shared by thousands of refugees from all over the world who are struggling with the uphill task of pursuing higher education in host countries, particularly in the West.

To find ways and means to resolve this and similar issues, the international Refugee and Migrant Education Network Conference at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, Italy, saw university administrators, faculty and education practitioners, as well as leaders of NGOs, international agencies and humanitarian organisations gather under the banner of “Initiatives in Refugee and Migrant Education – Moving forward, diving deeper, together”.

100 million refugees

No less than 100 million people have now been forced to flee their homes globally, the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, said last week, highlighting worldwide food insecurity, the climate crisis, the war in Ukraine and other emergencies as leading causes.

By the end of 2021, the number displaced by war, violence, persecution and human rights abuses stood at 89.3 million, according to the agency’s annual Global Trends report.

That figure was up 8% from 2020 and is “well over double the figure of 10 years ago”, the report’s authors said, attributing last year’s increase to numerous escalating conflicts “and new ones that flared”.

Among thousands of these refugees, many are Afghans who headed to places like the European Union, the US and Australia, where added woes such as cultural barriers, the high cost of living and bureaucratic hurdles awaited them.

Maryam Barek, a female Afghan refugee studying on a funded scholarship in Italy, told University World News that for many refugees learning a new language and earning a livelihood was proving difficult if there were no fee waivers or other means of financial support.

“The government and people are treating the refugees well, but many Afghan students are struggling because they need to earn [money] to support stranded families or extended families in Afghanistan,” she said.

Further exposing the issues faced by the refugees, Dr Abdul Sami, head of the Afghan Alumni Association in Australia, told University World News that the turmoil in Afghanistan hurt Afghan students in two ways: losing international scholarships for studies abroad and restrictions on education by the hardline regime within the country.

“Even getting a passport in Afghanistan became complicated and dangerous. Therefore, the international community must support Afghan students eligible for scholarships to use their rights to study abroad through new and convenient ways.”

Regarding refugees from other parts of the world seeking to rebuild their lives and embark on new careers and education paths, he stressed that refugee students from all parts of the world should not be restricted by the limited disciplines offered by the host institutions or donors.

“The students should be allowed a free choice,” said Sami.

Fostering conditions for access to education

At the heart of the education conference in Rome was UNHCR’s 2019 education strategy known as “Refugee Education 2030”.

This is aimed at fostering the conditions, partnerships, collaboration and approaches that enable all refugees, asylum seekers, returnees, internally displaced persons and stateless children and youth and their hosting communities to access inclusive and equitable quality education, including at the tertiary level.

The slogan for this strategy is ‘15by30’, ie, achieving 15% enrolment of refugee learners in higher education by 2030.

Based on current population data, achieving 15% enrolment by 2030 will mean that approximately half a million young refugee women and men will be participating in an enriching academic life. That is in dramatic contrast with the nearly 90,000 refugee learners known to be participating in higher education worldwide at the moment.

One way of achieving the ‘15by30’ has been proposed by the University of the People, a non-profit and tuition free university in the US.

How to end the crisis

Shai Reshef, president of the University of the People (UoPeople), argued at the conference that if every university in the world enrols just 15 refugee students, the refugee higher education crisis would be over.

“Sympathising with refugees and talking about the crisis is not enough anymore. The world’s 31,000 universities need to go beyond words and take action to resolve this issue themselves,” he said.

The UoPeople currently enrols more than 126,000 students from over 200 countries.

“UoPeople’s student body includes over 16,500 refugees – more than any other university in the world, and UoPeople has pledged to enrol 25,000 refugees by 2030,” he said.

Earlier, in a written response to queries, Reshef told University World News that responding to the refugee issue was a way for higher education institutions to address a major global crisis while at the same time enriching the educational experience for all of their students because refugees bring a spirit of resilience, diverse cultures and unique perspectives into the classroom.

“We can learn much from their life experiences,” he said.

Providing educational opportunities to refugees would not only benefit participating universities but would also benefit host nations and the rest of the world, he said.

As far as Bilal is concerned, 2030 is a long time to wait. “For more than a year now, I have been puzzled and struggling to resume [my] studies,” he said.