– Dr Joanna Newman is Chief Executive and Secretary General of the Association of Commonwealth Universities, and author of ‘Nearly The New World: The British West Indies and the Flight from Nazism, 1933-1945’
The Second World War and its aftermath – when millions of people were displaced and unable to return to their homeland – prompted an international response, leading to the formation of the agencies and laws in place today to protect and assist refugees.
Refugees now technically have the protection of the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1968 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. But has the situation really improved?
There are currently over 70 million people worldwide who have been forcibly displaced from their homes. Nearly 25.9 million are refugees, fleeing conflict, war or persecution – this number is higher than at any time since World War II.
Comparisons between the current migration crisis and that of the 1930s are common. In 2015, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein warned that the dehumanising language used by politicians and the media echoes the rhetoric deployed in the pre-war era to stoke prejudice for political gain.
Another similarity is the indifference of potential host nations and their unwillingness to accept refugees.
The Evian Conference convened in 1938 by US President Roosevelt was supposed to bring countries together to devise a solution for the thousands of Jewish people already displaced by the Nazi regime and its policies.
But, faced with a looming humanitarian crisis, countries decided to close borders and turn away those in need of help. The parallels with ‘Fortress Europe’ are clear.
Access to education for refugees is ‘the solution’ universities must help address
Over half of refugees today are under the age of 18. The scale of the current crisis means that we risk creating – in the words of the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights – a “lost generation” of young refugees.
Education is clearly the solution, but less than half of refugees attend school, and only 3% access higher education.
Universities can and should be part of the solution. Many are already taking steps to encourage wider participation in higher education for refugees and displaced people through, for example, flexible approaches to admissions criteria.
UNESCO’s new Global Convention on the Recognition of Higher Education Qualifications will support this further, providing a global standardised process for countries to understand and map out the equivalence of higher education qualifications.
But with 80% of refugees living in countries neighbouring their countries of origin and the world’s poorest countries hosting about a third of all refugees worldwide, there are also more basic education needs that need to be met.
Innovative approaches to deliver education – from primary to skills to higher learning – are required in order to reach those in environments such as refugee camps. Technology, through online and blended learning, offers some of the answers.
Migration is one of the major global challenges of our time. It’s obvious that those who have been forced to flee their homes will have their education disrupted. It is up to universities to help provide the solutions, through expanding access on campus and beyond.