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Students can play a vital role in advocating for refugees – UNHCR chief


Students can play a vital role in advocating for refugees – UNHCR chief

Speaking in Berlin, a city that has flourished while tearing down walls, Filippo Grandi puts the power of students and education centre stage ahead of World Refugee Day.
18 June 2019
UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, speaks at Freie Universität in Berlin.

Students can play a pivotal role in Europe’s debate over refugees and they should push for their acceptance and integration, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, said in a keynote address on education today.

Students should volunteer and help refugees learn the language of their host country because it is vital for integration, he said. At the same time, universities should apply rigorous analysis to the world’s refugee crises to counter superficial narratives used in some countries to foster opposition to refugees.

Speaking to hundreds of students at Freie Universität, here in the German capital, Grandi encouraged them to volunteer for refugee causes. 

“If we are to turn around this narrative of impossibility which leads to rejection…we have to continue to uphold values that today are very much threatened,” he said. “If young people like you cannot do that I cannot think of anybody else can help us respond effectively to this crisis,” he told the students, also warning of a dangerous “narrative of impossibility that has fueled a negative, toxic sometimes racist language – a language that could eventually undermine the foundations the freedom of our societies.

The crisis he described was a “crisis of solidarity,” a deficit of compassion for people in distress.

"If there is a crisis, it is this incapacity of the world to resolve conflicts.”

To bring about a change of heart, he said, it is vital to show that there are policy answers to the question of how newly arrived refugees can be managed and integrated.

Grandi was speaking ahead of the release on Wednesday of the annual Global Trends report by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and before World Refugee Day on Thursday. He said the report would show an upward trend in the number of forcibly displaced people worldwide, which currently stands at 68.5 million people, including 25.4 million refugees. What this shows, he said, is “if there is a crisis, it is this incapacity of the world to resolve conflicts.”

Earlier, Grandi said it was crucial that refugees be given greater access to higher education to fulfill their economic potential and contribute effectively in their new countries. At present, just one per cent of young refugees are able to pursue tertiary education, compared to 37 per cent of young people globally, according to UNHCR.

Some 4 million refugee children go without school altogether, the agency said last year in its annual education report, while just 23 per cent of refugees attend secondary school, compared to 84 per cent of children globally. Access to education needs to increase at all ages for young refugees but it is particularly acute at the tertiary level, Grandi said.

“Education is an opportunity in itself,” Grandi said. “It is also the best avenue to self-reliance and perhaps even more to that dignity that so often people affected by war and by violence are deprived of.”

“Without education there is only a life of dependency, a life of exclusion."

Grandi was speaking at the start of a two-day conference on the world’s largest higher education scholarship programme for refugees, called DAFI, the Albert Einstein German Academic Refugee Initiative.

One argument for letting refugees access education is that it enables them to qualify for higher paying jobs and makes them less likely to be economically dependent. In addition, highly educated refugees can make a greater contribution to their home societies once they return.

“Without education there is only a life of dependency, a life of exclusion and sometimes worse, the temptation to embrace bad ideas and bad practices,” Grandi said.

More than 20 refugees who have received DAFI scholarships attended the conference in Berlin.

All of the DAFI scholars at the conference said that the opportunities that flowed from the scholarships had changed their lives.

“The DAFI scholarship was the springboard for everything. Without it, I would be nowhere,” said Marie-France N’dou Nessere, who fled Côte d’Ivoire in 2011. Four years later, she completed an MBA in Ghana on a DAFI scholarship.

Nessere, who has young children, now works for the U.N. International Organization for Migration in Ghana, a job she says would not have been possible without an advanced degree.

Nessere called the scholarships a “passport” and said she knew many others at the camp where she lived in southwestern Ghana who would benefit.

The number of DAFI students has almost tripled in recent years, rising from 2,300 in 2015 to almost 7,000 in 2018, with scholars now in 51 countries. In all, there have been more than 15,000 scholars since the programme was set up in 1992.

The vast majority of the funding has come from the German government but talks are ongoing with New Zealand and Canada and others with a view to expanding the programme.