The Refugee Crisis and UniRef Initiative

« The Syrian crisis has become the biggest humanitarian emergency of our era, yet the world is failing to meet the needs of refugees and the countries hosting them. » – Antonio Guterres

Since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, millions of Syrians have left the country, fleeing the conflicts that are destroying their homeland and seeking asylum and protection in other countries. On December 31st, 2019, the UNHCR counted a total of 5’556’192 registered Syrian refugees around the world.

The refugees are mainly hosted in Turkey (64,4%), Lebanon (16,4%) and Jordan (11,8%). In these host countries, only on average 8% live in refugee camps; the vast majority live outside the camps and are known as “urban refugees”.

In Jordan, the analysis is relatively similar. The Jordan Red Crescent Society estimates that 1’35 million Syrian refugees have found refuge in Jordan, whilst only 632’000 of them have been registered under the UNHCR. Amongst the latter group, 100’000 live in camps – approximately 15% – and 532’000 live outside of them.

Syrian refugees generally reach the host country with very limited financial resources and face difficulties when trying to cover their essential needs. Those who originally were able to count on their savings or on the support of their host families are today in need of help.

Approximately 85% of the urban refugees are housed in squalid accommodation in the suburbs of the biggest Jordanian cities or in Amman, the capital city. According to the UNHCR estimations, 93% of refugees in Jordan live below the poverty line.

 

The question of refugees and tertiary education

According to Article 26 of the Human Rights Declaration, “Everyone has the right to education” and “Higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit”. The 4th Sustainable Development Goal of the United Nations clearly refers to higher education, aiming to “ensure equal access for all women and men to affordable and quality technical, vocational and tertiary education, including university”. However, in countries affected by conflicts and amongst displaced populations, the access to education, particularly to higher education, is often seriously compromised.

The last UNHCR report on education shows that only 3% of refugees worldwide are enrolled in an institution in order to get a higher education diploma, compared to the world average of 37%. Nevertheless, the report draws relatively optimistic conclusions concerning education for refugees worldwide. The school enrolment rate for displaced children has progressed, increasing from 61% to 63% in primary education and from 23% to 24% in secondary education. Furthermore, the most notable progression has been made in tertiary education, where the school enrolment is 3%, after several years of stagnation at 1%.

The humanitarian crisis in the Middle Eastern region produced by the struggle against ISIS has generated one of the most important migratory waves of the twenty-first century. A high number of displaced people have sought refuge in more stable neighbouring countries, such as Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and also in the European Union. This tragic crisis is the main reason for the existence of UniRef. While there are many humanitarian programs devoted to either education or refugees’ education, UniRef’s mission is an opportunity for refugees to seek enrolment in a higher education program, which will be useful for their professional integration.

 

The case of Jordan

Because of its history and geographic position, Jordan has been receiving multiple waves of refugees since its independence in 1946. The country particularly hosts Palestinian refugees since 1948 and Iraqis since 1970. Since the beginning of the conflicts in Syria in 2011, Jordan, Iraq, Turkey and Lebanon have also hosted approximately a third of the Syrian refugees’ totality.  Even though the reception of refugees is part of a long tradition in Jordanian history, the significant arrival of Syrian refugees has caught the Jordanian infrastructure off-guard. In an interview granted to France 24, King Abdullah II of Jordan noted that there are about 1.3 million Syrian refugees living in Jordan, which represents about 20% of Jordan’s total population.

 

Why UniRef acts differently in its provision of higher education for refugees

The first challenge is that of assuming an operational role when such a role is generally attributed to public services. In fact, this mission is normally carried out by academic institutions, through specific academic programs for refugees. Because of their universal vocation, academic institutions are well known for their inherent characteristics of cultural openness, cosmopolitanism and social diversity, which are useful tools for the integration and the future autonomy of students.

Nevertheless, this logic assumes that these academic institutions are able to propose an adapted frame, which represents a problem when the host country is undermined or under demographic pressure, as happens in Lebanon and in Jordan because of the flow of refugees. These types of programs, well developed in Europe, are less efficient in humanitarian hotspots where most of the refugee population lives. Refugees are in an exceptionally precarious situation, given that the hosting capacity of the State has not been designed to cope with such catastrophes. The host country feels the effects all the more because its structure and population also suffer from the troubles of neighbouring states. Their social and economic support necessarily depends more on international aid and in particular on the parallel intervention of NGOs and international organizations.

Our NGO, albeit based on the cooperation with the hosting country, adds a real value by supporting the refugees whilst relying on its own capacity. Together with our partners, we provide the whole service provision in order to deliver an on-site university training, where action is most needed.

 

How we overcome the challenge of matching the needs of the refugees with solutions

Access to higher education is firstly conditioned by prospects. The traditional higher education system is obviously planned to work in a stable context, and not on the assumption of a deep migratory crisis. In addition to this challenge, their educational offers might be relatively unsuitable for this kind of public. The university programs proposed by public services are established in a cycle of studies that suppose a projection capability for refugees of at least two years, which means a relatively long term for them. It might constitute a double obstacle when it comes to higher education, causing a reluctance that might dissuade a refugee person from enrolling in a program at all.

In order to solve this issue, our programs are shortened to a year-long training. This way, the autonomy of a refugee will be more favourable than it would be in a traditional educational system. Our programs have been designed to suit the specific challenges that refugees face in the local labour market, by delivering the academic skills to eventually enable them to be hired in different national employment areas. In other words, UniRef’s project makes a difference because of the complete adaptation of its actions for the benefit of refugees.

By enabling the acquisition of new knowledge, the development of critical thinking and the optimization of professional prospects, higher education is decisive for the future of young refugees, especially in the professional area. It contributes to the training of a new generation of graduates who will be qualified to work in both the public and the private sector. These diplomas will lead to finding a lasting solution, either while voluntarily returning to their home country or while remaining and settling in their host country, or even moving to another country in the region.

While 3% of the refugees now have access to higher education – after several years of stagnation around 1% -, prospects for the future look more promising. It is with the aim to increase this figure even more that UniRef has been created.

 

Sources: Jordan Red Crescent (JRC), The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)

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