UNHCR urges more support for refugee higher education to withstand impact of COVID-19 pandemic

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Shabia Mantoo to whom quoted text may be attributed at today's press briefing at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

Salam AlHariri, 26, is a Syrian refugee and pharmacist in Jordan. A DAFI scholarship graduate from the University of Jordan in 2018, she has since been training in a local community pharmacy in Amman.

Salam AlHariri, 26, is a Syrian refugee and pharmacist in Jordan. A DAFI scholarship graduate from the University of Jordan in 2018, she has since been training in a local community pharmacy in Amman.   © UNHCR

With only three per cent of refugees accessing higher education, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is urging governments and donors to help bridge critical gaps by ensuring the inclusion of refugee students in national education systems and the continuity of tertiary education programs, as well as offering more places for refugees.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been tough for students and especially for refugees, many of whom - 85 per cent - reside in developing or least developed countries. With some affected by school closures, remote learning is not always available and even if so, mobile phones, tablets, laptops, TV and radio sets as well as internet connectivity are often not accessible to those displaced. 

The socio-economic consequences of the pandemic not only constrain opportunities but also may force displaced and destitute students to drop out of school and into work, begging and early marriages, to try and support their families.

UNHCR is also worried that unless support is urgently boosted, one of the consequences of the global health emergency will be the reversal of some of the hard-won gains in refugee education, including an increase in refugee tertiary enrolment rates. 

In 2017 only one per cent of refugees were enrolled in higher education. Since the end of 2018, this figure has increased to three per cent, largely owing to a greater recognition on the part of states, education institutions and partner organizations of the importance of tertiary education for refugees.

2019 was also a record year for UNHCR’s higher education scholarship scheme known as the DAFI programme (the Albert Einstein German Academic Refugee Initiative), which is largely funded by the German government with the Government of Denmark as a new partner. 

Aiming to support national education systems, the program prioritizes refugee enrolment in public, higher education institutions. Scholarships are provided to refugees through a competitive selection process and cover tuition and other associated costs. 

Highlighting the growing demand from refugees around the world and the strong response, by governments and partners, on the need to improve refugee education, the number of refugee students enrolled through this program at the end of 2019 was 8,347 in 54 countries of study. 

This is a record level since the program’s inception almost three decades ago, and an 18 per cent increase when compared to last year, or 1,481 additional scholarships. This expansion was made possible through increased funding.

In 2019, DAFI scholarship recipients came from 45 countries with Syrian refugee students representing the largest cohort (29 per cent), followed by refugee students from Afghanistan (14 per cent), South Sudan (14 per cent), Somalia (10 per cent) and the Democratic Republic of Congo (6 per cent).

The top five refugee host countries of study for DAFI students were Ethiopia, Turkey, Jordan, Kenya and Pakistan, also reflective of global refugee movements. 

For refugees enrolled in the program, major fields of study were; medical science and health related fields, followed by commerce and business administration, social and behavioral science, engineering and mathematics, and computer science.

This and further data on refugee tertiary enrolment is highlighted in UNHCR’s “Refugee Students in Higher Education” report released yesterday. 

Rallying support for education, including at the tertiary level, was a key objective of the Global Refugee Forum held in December last year.

To withstand the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, UNHCR is calling on governments, the private sector, civil society and other key stakeholders to help strengthen and improve refuge inclusion and accessibility to national education systems in refugee host countries and to secure and safeguard education financing. Without such action, countless futures will be jeopardized. 

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