Refugees and Higher Education

Part II: The Refugee Crisis

For anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the current refugee situation, this material will be familiar. Yet it is important to review it as a prologue to reconceiving the role of universities in tackling the problem. Of the millions of refugees worldwide, almost 17 million are of relatively recent vintage and represent at least two-thirds of the refugees worldwide. The list below includes the largest movements but leaves out a number of refugees – Yemenis, Libyans, Nigerians, Central Americans, Congolese, Eritreans, etc.:

Syria             6.6 million

Venezuela      5.2 million

Afghanistan   2.7 million

South Sudan  2.2 million

Myanmar    ­  1.1 million

Somalia          .4 million

Iraqi                .25 million

Total            17.45 million

Why is Yemen not included? The answer: because though there some refugees from Yemen, this is primarily a humanitarian crisis, one that is currently growing much worse. In Yemen, 3.6 million people have been forced to flee their homes and 80% of the population (24 million) are in desperate need of humanitarian assistance. The United Nations refers to Yemen as the worst humanitarian crisis on earth. Severe storms, a destroyed economy, COVID-19, an immanent famine and continuous Saudi-led airstrikes makes Yemen ill-prepared to deal with the massive cutbacks about to take place in UN programs. However, as horrific as the situation is, Yemen refugees are not the prime target of these blogs since there are not enough of them. Just over 16,000 Yemenis sought refugee status in 2018 in Jordan, Egypt and Germany. Yemeni refugees will undoubtedly benefit from the program proposed, but as a side effect rather than a primary focus. The proposal does not address the very severe issue of the humanitarian crisis in Yemen.

Venezuela is a possible target, even though, in the end, the program proposed will not primarily apply to Venezuelan refugees. That is because of the level of education of the refugees and the fact that most have self-settled in the adjacent countries or the USA.[i] There may be a modest program since Venezuelans in Brazil, Colombia, Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago, the immediate neighbours,[ii] tend to have the lowest educational attainment, but they are also the oldest cohort in age. Those who traveled to nearby Ecuador and Peru tend to be young, but one-third hold a technical degree or higher. Venezuelans who moved to other countries farther away (Argentina, Chile, Costa Rica, Paraguay and Uruguay) are more likely to be older on average with high levels of educational attainment, over half with a bachelor’s or master’s degree. Those who went to the US form the smallest cohort and are the richest group. Many are dubbed migrants rather than refugees. Only 5% of all of these groups would consider returning. They were (and continue to be) in flight from a failed state and government rather than from a war and violent conflict, the source of the other “official” refugees.

Very few of the latter could claim a well-founded fear of persecution and ask for resettlement as a matter of right. In the case of Syrian, Afghani and Iraqi refugees, in a mass migration from January 2015 to March 2016 that continued until 2019, almost 1.7 million refugees migrated either across the Mediterranean Sea or overland through Southeast Europe.[iii] In 2016, 750,000 in 2016 filed asylum requests in Germany. In March 2019, the European Commission declared the “migrant” crisis to be at an end even though most refugees remained in dire straits in the countries of first asylum. In spite of initial forebodings and some security problems at the beginning, the program was a tremendous success[iv] though critics have placed the effort within a securitization and deterrence context.[v] 

There is another major difference between refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq versus those from Somalia, South Sudan and Myanmar. The latter are mostly in camps. The former group have overwhelmingly settled in urban areas.[vi] This difference directly affects how universities can play a role in helping refugees. It also affects possible, even likely obstacles, when the solution is applied to some camps. [vii]

Of the three durable solutions, my focus will primarily be on resettlement. However, one cannot look at resettlement and ignore voluntary repatriation and settlement options in adjacent countries of asylum, if only because a country like Canada has a policy of considering an applicant for resettlement only after first being satisfied that there is no reasonable prospect, within a reasonable period of time, for the refugee applicant to obtain another durable solution.

Let me begin with the prospects of repatriation for Arab refugees from Syria and Iraq (without excluding refugees from Yemen described above and from Libya where wars have also produced refugees). “The prospects for early repatriation of refugees who have fled conflicts in Arab countries in recent years do not yet look promising. The conflict in Yemen is at a stalemate; Libya is wedged in a power struggle between two military/political factions; Iraq is struggling to recover from decades of instability; and Syria remains a country at war.”[viii] There is a limited trickle of return, but any organized large-scale repatriation seems premature. Further, the possibility of naturalization currently is closed, especially given the weakening socio-economic situation in host countries. Prospects of resettlement are also miniscule.

I will suggest that integration in countries of first asylum can best be facilitated through the postsecondary student visa route. In 2019, roughly 1% of refugees worldwide were enrolled in some form of tertiary education prior to resettlement[ix]—compared to 37% of non-refugees.[x] There is a huge gap between demand and opportunity between the global refugee regime and the global higher education regime. Fortunately, the networks developed on refugee research can be used as a basis for improving the network of refugee higher education.[xi]

Canada accepts refugees as permanent residents under its Refugee Resettlement Program for humanitarian reasons to align with its international obligations to protect those in need and reunite refugee families. This report suggests that the pathway of private sponsorship, facilitated by dedicated civil servants as was the case in the flow of Indochinese refugees in 1979-80[xii], can be replicated in the 2020s using a new pathway of private sponsorship for student refugees who are sponsored to come to Canada on student visas. UNHCR has actively promoted the search for such pathways whereby actors to find new ways to bring refugees to safety as well as to rebuild public interest and consensus around the importance of protection. New pathways will not only benefit refugees but discourage irregular migration.[xiii]

Many other countries have programs or plans underway[xiv] to copy the Canadian private sponsorship initiative.[xv] “Amid the divisive debates over migration in Europe, national governments broadly agree on the need to provide safe, legal ways of entry for refugees. The Global Compact on Refugees endorsed by the UN General Assembly provides “a basis for predictable and equitable burden and responsibility-sharing” based on a firmer mechanism for that responsibility sharing. However, development can no longer be the critical vehicle for change as was featured in the past. We suggest that access to higher education is.[xvi]

One initiative that could help achieve this aim is the private sponsorship of refugees whereby communities or individuals take the lead in helping refugees to find jobs, language courses, and other services. Some even envision creating new private sponsorship pathways[xvii]. This kind of initiative, put on the map by Canada and now piloted in different parts of the globe, could work in Europe if planned and implemented carefully. However, civil society and engaged individuals[xviii] are the bedrock of any such program; EU-level oversight should not be heavy-handed.[xix]

In the existing Canadian program, based on targets to focus efforts where needed, these refugees are referred to the Canadian government by IRCC, the UNHCR, other authorized agencies or by a private sponsor in Canada where the refugee can be slotted into the privately-sponsored refugee (PSR) program which pays most of the costs for resettlement[xx] rather than the government-assisted refugee (GAR or Quebec GAR) program which provides full government assistance. There continues to be strong support in Canada for this mode of settling refugees.[xxi] According to a UN Global Trends Report, Canada did relatively well in opening its doors to refugees but not in terms of its past history or the dramatic need. Canada did relatively well in comparison to the Trump Administration’s policies in the US. However, on a global level, Canada’s position does not seem as positive.[xxii]

In addition, there is the Blended Visa Office Referral (BVOR) program[xxiii] where government assisted refugees may benefit from sponsor support and Joint Assistance Sponsorship (JAS) for government-assisted refugees with exceptional needs requiring extended support. Canada also select cases for priority and special processing referred for urgent protection, vulnerable cases, public policies, applicants who are persecuted on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity expression (SOGIE-LGBTQI) and other groups requiring special attention.

One purpose of this proposal is to recommend creating a special class of refugees who enter Canada on student visas and only, subsequent to the completion of their studies, become eligible for landed status. These students will be privately sponsored by student organizations partnered with faculty, civil society partners and accepted by postsecondary institutions. This has the benefit of mobilizing students and faculty eager to play an active social role in welcoming and settling refugees arriving on student visas. These might be designated as the Privately Sponsored Student Visa (PSSV) class.

The point of such a program is to use education as not only a vehicle of upward mobility, but of horizontal mobility to end protracted refugee situations over time. Currently, the Canadian Student Refugee Program (CSRP) (administered by World University Service of Canada) receives far more applications than places available. CRSP supports 130 refugees per year. WUS provides a critical foundation on which to build and should definitely be a partner in the scheme proposed.

[i] Diego Chaves-González and Carlos Echeverría-Estrada (2020) “Venezuelan Migrants and Refugees in Latin America and the Caribbean: A Regional Profile,” Migration Policy Institute.

[ii] Cf. Dany Bahar and Sebastian Strauss (2018) “Neighbor nations can’t bear costs of Venezuelan refugee crisis alone.”

[iii] For an experiential account in 2015, cf.Heaven Crawley, Franck Duvell, Katharine Jones, Simon McMahon and Nando Sigona (2018). Unravelling Europe’s Migration Crisis: Journeys Over Land and Sea. Policy Press.

[iv] Philip Oltermann (2020) “How Angela Merkel’s great migrant gamble paid off,” The Guardian, 30 August. He tells the specific story of Mohammad Hallak, a 21-year-old Syrian from Aleppo studying computer science at the Westphalian University of Applied Sciences.

[v] Susana de Sousa Ferreira (2019). Human Security and Migration in Europe’s Southern Borders.

[vi] For a comparison of the two possibilities, see Betts, Alexander, Remco Geervliet, Claire MacPherson, Naohiko Omata, Cory Rodgers and Olivier Sterck (2018) Self-reliance in Kalobeyei? Socio-Economic Outcomes for refugees in northwest Kenya. University of Oxford Refugee Studies Centre and the World Food Programme. This study compares outcomes for refugees from South Sudan who are now in two places in northwest Kenya, the Kolobeyei settlement established in 2015 using a self-reliance model and the older Kakuma camp that uses more of an ‘aid model’.

[vii] When Howard Adelman was part of the Key Centre for Ethics, Law, Justice and Governance at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia, we studied the attitudes of NGOs to resettlement and integration of Burmese refugees in Thailand. There was (to us) a surprising resistance. A number of reasons were offered, but a major one was the vested interest of NGOs in humanitarian services to refugee and the concern with disrupting services in the camps because the best resettle first. Further, enhancing critical thinking skills of refugees create a possibly of providing leadership for disruptive behaviour as refugees mobilize themselves. Thus, agencies may prefer traditional “charity” work to tertiary education.

[viii] Ibrahim Elbadawi, Roger Albinyana, Belal Fallah, Maryse Louis, Samir Makdisi and Jala Youssef (2019) “Repatriation of Refugees from Arab Conflicts: Conditions, Costs and Scenarios for Reconstruction,” FEMISE Euromed Report, p.8. See also Samuel Hall (2018) Syria’s The author concludes that returns to Syria should neither be promoted nor facilitated Spontaneous Returns Study.

[ix] ESPMI discussion series analyzes the effects of disrupted education on school-age refugees: “What are the most significant impacts of disrupted education on refugee children & youth and what are solutions to address them?” According to UNHCR, 50% of refugee children attend primary school, just 22% of refugee adolescents receive a secondary education.

[x] [x] UNHCR. “Stepping Up: Refugee Education in Crisis.” Geneva: UNHCR, 2019.

[xi] Cf. McGrath, S., & Young, J. E. (eds.) (2019) Mobilizing Global Knowledge: Refugee Research in an Age of Displacement, University of Calgary Press.  The essays by academics and practitioners reflect on the emerging global collaborative research network and the efforts to bridge silos, sectors, and regions to address power and politics in refugee research, engage across tensions between the Global North and Global South, and engage deeply with questions of practice, methodology, and ethics in refugee research. 

[xii] Molloy, Michael J., Peter Duschinsky, Kurt F. Jensen, and Robert J. Shalka (2017) Running on Empty: Canada and the Indochinese Refugees, 1975-1980. McGill-Queen’s Press.

[xiii] Triandafyllidou, A., Bartolini, L., Guidi, C.F. (2019) “Exploring the links between enhancing regular pathways and discouraging irregular migration: a discussion paper to inform future policy deliberations,” International Organization for Migration, Discussion Paper.

[xiv] A 2020 Migration Policy Institute Europe policy brief examines refugee private sponsorship programs as one route increasingly used as a complementary or alternative resettlement pathway. Such initiatives empower community groups, civil-society organizations and even private individuals to take on some degree of responsibility for helping refugees settle and integrate into their new society, and even in some cases to identify and prepare refugees for travel. Interest in refugee sponsorship is booming, with a range of countries joining Canada, which pioneered the concept and has seen more than 306,000 refugees sponsored by private or community groups since 1978. Argentina, Australia, France, Ireland, Italy, Germany, New Zealand, Spain and the United Kingdom have launched or committed to start such initiatives. The brief, Refugee Sponsorship Programmes: A global state of play and opportunities for investment, was released in advance of the 2019 Global Refugee Forum in Geneva, where the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) which launched a new three-year resettlement strategy, including a commitment to expanding access to complementary pathways such as sponsorship and, presumably, private sponsorship of student refugees on student visas.

[xv] Audrey Macklin, a prominent refugee researcher, and her colleagues, after refugee migrations reached a moment of ‘crisis’ in 2015, started investigating the realities of resettlement and responses to precarious migration. Their respective research projects explored questions of private sponsorship and community resettlement from the perspective of various actors and access to higher education for young adult refugees as well as various other topics related to private sponsorship. See the workshop they ran at the University of Toronto on “Lived Learning as Researchers: Reflections on Migration Research,” 30 March 2020.

[xvi] Refugee Law Initiative’s 9th International Refugee Law Seminar Series, Speaker: Professor Penelope Mathew, Griffith University, Date: 19 November 2018. Matthew was Dean of Law at Griffith from 2014-2018.

[xvii] M. The Expert Council’s Research Unit (SVR Research Unit (2018) What Next for Global Refugee Policy? Opportunities and Limits of Resettlement at Global, European and National Levels. Berlin.

[xviii] For a more critical approach to private sponsorship as an expression of neo-liberalism, cf. Enns, T. (2017). The Opportunity to Welcome: Shifting responsibilities and the resettlement of Syrian refugees within Canadian communities, Dissertation, University of Oxford This dissertation asks: to what extent have local and individual resettlement efforts been shaped by a rhetoric of “welcome”, and to what extent have national policies and practices of refugee resettlement reconfigured the scales of responsibility? It starts by providing a revisionist history of refugee resettlement in Canada, it then contextualizes the latter within the recent Syrian resettlement effort, and assess the national, community and individual responses and responsibilities—with a particular focus on the community-led response within the Region of Waterloo. It argues that the Syrian example has revealed manifestations of neo-liberalization, regarding who determines one’s right to resettlement, and on whose shoulders the moral and economic impact of resettlement rests.

[xix] Cf. Migration Policy Institute (MPI) Europe prepared with ICF International for the European Commission’s Directorate General for Home Affairs prepared by Hanne Beirens and Susan Fratzke. These are a potted version of their words.

[xx]Cf.  Ilcan, S., Thomaz, D., & Jimenez Bueno, (2020) “Private sponsorship in Canada: the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the Kitchener-Waterloo region,”. IMRC Policy Points, Issue 17; see also Suzan Ilcan, Diana Thomaz, and Manuela Jimenez Bueno. (2020) “Private Sponsorship in Canada: The Resettlement of Syrian Refugees in the Kitchener-Waterloo Region,” International Migration Research Centre, Wilfrid Laurier University.

[xxi] A majority of Canadians continue to see Canada as an international role model with 86 per cent of respondents saying the country can have a positive impact on world affairs, both in 2008 and in 2018. 25% of respondents think the most important contribution the country can make to the world is accepting immigrants and multiculturalism, a shift from ten years ago when peacekeeping topped the list. Consequently, the survey estimates that two million adult Canadians were involved directly in the sponsorship of refugees, with another seven million who knew someone who did. In addition, a majority of those surveyed believe Canada should either increase the number of refugees accepted over the next two years or continue to accept the same number. Cf. the 2018 survey by Francesca Fionda forEnvironics Institute for Survey Research.


[xxiii] The BVOR program was introduced in 2013 as a modified version of private sponsorship and middle ground between sponsorship and government-assisted resettlement. While the program was met with criticism and skepticism that the government was off-loading more resettlement responsibility to private sponsors, the Syrian crisis significantly impacted and changed the Canadian resettlement landscape. Labman, S., & Pearlman, M. (2018) “Blending, Bargaining, and Burden-Sharing: Canada’s Resettlement Programs,” Journal of International Migration and Integration, 1-11.


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