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Stronger international support urgently needed to improve access to higher education for young refugees

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Stronger international support urgently needed to improve access to higher education for young refugees

28 May 2021
After fleeing DRC as a child, Vickie is now a DAFI Scholar and third-year student in Administrative Science at Kyambogo University in Kampala, Uganda.

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency is launching today a new campaign called Aiming Higher seeking to enable talented refugees to get into higher education by funding their scholarships for university and technical skills training. The fundraising campaign aims to address the urgent and massive need among young refugees. It coincides with the 70th anniversary year of UNHCR and 70 years of the 1951 Refugee Convention, the bedrock of international refugee protection.

Across the world, only 3 percent of young refugees are enrolled in some form of higher education. This is shockingly low and UNHCR aims to increase that proportion to 15 percent by 2030. The Aiming Higher campaign will contribute to the achievement of this goal.

Currently, UNHCR’s refugee tertiary scholarship programme (DAFI) is heavily underfunded. The current budget for the programme for the campaign’s duration (2021-2023) is $75 million. At present, private and government funding contributions for this period are at $52 million, leaving a funding gap of $23 million to reach our projected goals by 2023.

Aiming Higher calls on the private sector to bridge this gap and help raise the additional capital. If realized, this contribution will fund 1,800 refugee scholars for their entire higher education and meet UNHCR’s target of 9,200 scholars enrolled and studying at any one time by 2023.

“Access to higher education is life-changing. For refugees, it can be a chance to take control of their futures and give back to their communities. One of the most meaningful ways we can support young refugees is to help make those opportunities more widely available,” said Kelly T. Clements, Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees

Aiming Higher is inspired by the vision of the Global Compact on Refugees and is consistent with the pledge to “leave no one behind” in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. In just a few short months, the campaign has sparked an unprecedented response, raising $4 million from more than a dozen individual and corporate donors since launch in December 2020. Significant donors to date include CTP, the BNP Paribas Foundation, and Hikma Pharmaceuticals.

Higher education is key to creating long-term growth in low and middle-income countries, underlining the importance of the Aiming Higher campaign. According to the World Bank, economic returns for college graduates are the highest in the entire educational system with an average 17% increase in earnings per year of schooling.

Those with a quality post-secondary education are more employable, earn higher wages and cope better with economic shocks.

With the Aiming Higher campaign, UNHCR is urging the private sector to be part of the effort to give young refugees the chance they need to build their own futures. It is an investment with life-changing returns.

Campaign website and donate link:

Campaign hashtag: #AimingHigher

Background information

The DAFI (Albert Einstein German Academic Refugee Initiative) scholarship programme offers qualified refugee and returnee students the possibility to earn an undergraduate degree in their country of asylum or home country. Through the dedicated support of the governments of Germany, Denmark and the Czech Republic, as well as UNHCR and private donors, the programme has supported over 18,500 young refugees to undertake tertiary studies since 1992.

The DAFI programme is:

Cost effective. On average, a scholarship costs $3,200 per student per year. This includes tuition and fees as well as an allowance to ensure that students, who usually have no means to support themselves, have housing, food and other essentials covered, as well as support services including counselling, academic support, monitoring and social activities.

Proven, effective and of high quality. The DAFI scholarship programme has been running for almost three decades. DAFI student clubs and alumni groups are active in many countries,and make valuable contributions in the communities that host them. The barriers that refugees face in accessing higher education has not stopped DAFI scholars from excelling in their chosen disciplines: in 2020 only 1 per cent of DAFI students had to repeat an academic year, and only 3 percent dropped out of the programme. This is an astonishingly high success rate.

Varied and expanding. The programme permits college-eligible students to benefit from university scholarships. Since 2019 it has also been expanded to fund scholarships for technical and vocational skills, which are often aligned to host country labour market needs.

Fair and inclusive. The programme is managed by UNHCR to ensure its implementation is in line with the principles and standards of equal and inclusive access.

Linked to careers. Transition to employment remains a major challenge for refugee university graduates, who often face restricted access to formal employment or live in countries with high youth unemployment rates. UNHCR’s Refugee Scholarships Programme aims to improve the preparedness and employability of students to enter the job market after graduation. This includes career readiness trainings, skills training, internships and mentoring as well as volunteering and networking opportunities.


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