Can Canadian models help refugees in the United States?

Globally, more than 100 million people are displaced and in need of protection. Roughly 40% are children. The majority of the world’s displaced people are ‘hosted’ in lower- and middle-income neighbouring countries, forced to contend with uncertain futures, underutilised skills and limited educational access. Fewer than 1% have access to more permanent solutions through resettlement in third countries annually.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) now encourages the development of complementary pathways beyond traditional resettlement to find more durable solutions, and higher education pathways have been identified as one potential area for policy innovation under the UNHCR’s Global Compact on Refugees.

This policy area is attracting significant international interest, particularly as a way to support refugees in countries where persecution results in limited higher education access – for example, women and girls in Afghanistan.

There are also growing calls for higher education institutions to better support displaced learners.

A private refugee sponsorship pathway

Despite being implicated in many conflicts, the United States admits a relatively small number of resettled refugees per capita. However, the US recently rolled out a long-awaited private refugee sponsorship pathway modelled after Canada’s.

Even though this Canadian initiative has been described as “widely successful by resettlement experts”, private refugee sponsorship is not without its challenges. Still, there is much that the US can learn from.

One programme in particular that the US might consider building upon is the World University Service of Canada (WUSC) Student Refugee Program, in which student-run local committees partner with higher education institutions to facilitate the sponsorship of young refugees, who are typically offered scholarships to support their tuition, housing and other fees.

These scholarships are based in part on the funds generated by levies current university students have voted to approve and pay.

The WUSC Student Refugee Program requires significant commitment from local committees and institutions. However, when appropriately resourced, it leverages the existing international student support structures in place at many higher education institutions.

It also facilitates the settlement process through campus communities, which tend to be relatively diverse, even in more rural areas. Finally, it positions displaced students for success by not only supporting their resettlement but connecting them with higher education.

Programmes modelled off of the WUSC Student Refugee Program can contribute to America’s responsibility to support the higher education access of refugees, asylum seekers and other displaced learners. This is a dynamic group in terms of national origin, linguistic preference, age and other identity markers.

In 2022, the top-sending countries among refugees resettled in the US were the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Syria and Afghanistan, while the top-sending countries of individuals granted asylum were Venezuela, Guatemala and Haiti.

An advantage of mimicking the WUSC Student Refugee Program model of student-run, locally focused organising groups is that each group will be in a position to gather data and iteratively support programme development alongside the local constituency of displaced learners.

In this way, university student groups may in fact serve as not only service providers but also data architects, collating voluntary data that American higher education institutions do not.

What are the key next steps?

For student government associations of colleges and universities as well as state systems such as the State University of New York, the first step is to review the WUSC Student Refugee Program model.

Then, thinking about individual campus priorities together with members, campuses can assemble a menu of possible activities with closely calibrated funding streams attached, keeping in mind local refugee resettlement trends and demographics.

Student leaders will need to step forward, ready to innovate pilot programmes that will be assessed and scaled. However, higher education leaders should also step forward to help support and equip student leaders to be partners in sustainable humanitarian action within our higher education systems.

Lisa Ruth Brunner recently completed her PhD in educational studies at the University of British Columbia in Canada. She is an international student advisor and regulated Canadian immigration consultant. E-mail: lisa.brunner@ubc.ca. Lisa Unangst is assistant professor of higher education leadership at SUNY Empire State College and lead editor of the recent book Refugees and Higher Education: Trans-national perspectives on access, equity, and internationalization. E-mail: lisa.unangst@esc.edu.