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Refugee Scholarships Should ‘First, Do No Harm’

Advocates for young refugees have welcomed the large increase in the last two years in the number of scholarship programs allowing such youth to escape civil wars and attend colleges and universities.

But even as advocates have pushed for more educational opportunities for the refugees, they also warn that scholarship programs must do more to meet the unusual needs of refugee students. Especially urgent, they say, is the need to deal with the dangers to students’ refugee status when they leave a country of first asylum to study in another country.

The focus of many aid efforts has shifted to provide educational opportunities in the countries neighboring Syria, especially Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon, where most refugees have settled. But hundreds of young refugees have received scholarships to study in third countries, especially in Europe and North America.

That generosity brings risks that may not be obvious. The biggest is that when a young Syrian refugee travels to another country to enroll at university there, he or she generally loses the refugee status they had in their first country of asylum. So if a Syrian refugee in Jordan, for example, goes on a scholarship to study in the United Kingdom or France, they will no longer have the status of refugee in Jordan.

This typically means they can no longer return to Jordan to visit their family, especially if their Syrian passport expires while they are abroad. Indeed, in many countries that don’t have diplomatic relations with Syria, there is no way for Syrians to renew their passports. If the refugee youth had a United Nations travel document, it may lose its validity when they move to a third country to study.

Some European countries allow foreign students to stay for internships or jobs for a limited period after graduation; others do not. So when a refugee finishes, or drops out of, their study program, they may end up in limbo.

“Many graduates can’t work in their host countries, their way elsewhere in Europe is blocked, and the way back to Syria is not an option,” says Carsten Walbiner, director of HOPES, a European-Union-funded program that expects to expand its support from 201 mostly master’s-degree-level students in the region currently to about 450 in September.

Walbiner, who is based in Amman, adds that of the various universities, and public and private organizations providing scholarships, “many are not aware of these issues.”

In particular, not all scholarship providers appear to be aware of an 11-page briefing note, Higher Education Considerations For Refugees in Countries Affected by the Syria and Iraq Crises, issued by the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, two years ago. “All its parts are still relevant today,” says Maren Kroeger, the senior UNHCR official for tertiary education.

Among the key principles the note promotes, she adds, is “non-refoulement” (refugees should not be forced out of a country where they are currently residing and back to a country where they may face persecution), and family reunion: the idea that immediate family members —especially spouses and children— should be allowed to accompany a refugee who is admitted to a study program in another country.

The UNHCR briefing note states: “It is essential to remember that third-party initiatives designed outside UNHCR’s global protection frameworks and education strategy should first
 and foremost consider the protection and safety
 of refugee students, [and] establish the requisite precautions to do no harm.”

According to the briefing note, scholarship programs:

  • Need to cover a full course of study 
to enable the refugee student to complete a certificate program, degree, or other educational qualification. Programs may also provide support for daily living expenses and accommodation.
  • Should provide proper orientation and social support throughout the course of study. This is particularly important for disadvantaged or socially vulnerable students.
  • Should take precautions not to jeopardize the legal status, protection or psychosocial well-being of refugees and should carefully manage their expectations.
  • Should, most crucially, give students complete information about the conditions of their scholarship, what part of their living costs will be covered, and how acceptance of the scholarship will affect their refugee status. Skilled counselors should be available to help students navigate these complicated issues.

Kroeger says the UN refugee agency has been working to persuade organizations that provide scholarships to respect the principles laid out in the briefing note. Recently, when Japan was establishing a program to provide mostly graduate-level scholarships for Syrian refugees, UNHCR negotiated with Japanese officials. As a result, says Kroeger, Japan adopted policies advocated by the UN agency, including the right of a student’s family to accompany them to Japan, and the principle of non-refoulement, even if a student drops out of their studies.

Drop out has been a constant concern of officials. Refugees have generally been torn from their support networks and have often undergone considerable trauma. “Scholarship programs alone are not enough,” says Yannick Du Pont, director of SPARK, a Dutch organization that plans to expand the number of students it supports in the countries neighboring Syria from 3,200 now to 6,200 in September. “They need psycho-social support, academic counseling, career orientation—everything you would get at a western university.”


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