The role of higher education in responding to the global refugee crisis

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The role of higher education in responding to the global refugee crisis

September 15, 2021, Toronto, ON:

The higher education sector can help facilitate solutions to the most challenging and pressing issues facing our society, and the current refugee crisis is one of these global challenges that we all have a moral obligation to address.

Following the news of what is happening in Afghanistan brings back memories of the Syrian refugee crisis. Who could forget the stark image of the three-year-old Syrian boy Alan Kurdi, who drowned off the coast of Turkey? The single image that shook the world, shaped global perceptions and policies of refugees, and prompted the international community to act. According to the UNHCR, globally there are 82.4 million people who have been forcibly displaced from their homes, a staggering figure that requires our attention and action. Recently, heartbreaking images coming out of Kabul’s airport have shown the tragic plight of Afghan refugees and their desperation to reach a safe haven. How could one not think about these images, and how could the stories we’re hearing not inspire us to act?

Canada has played a leadership role in responding to previous refugee crises. The initiatives taken in the past to resettle refugees demonstrate that not only do we have the infrastructure in place, but we also have a well-established settlement sector, a one-of-a-kind private sponsorship of refugees program that gives citizens the power to offer refugees a new life in Canada, and a socially and civically engaged citizenry. 

More specifically, the question arises: what role can higher educational institutions do to support refugee resettlement? Universities are sites for knowledge creation and mobilization. They are centers where education can transition to awareness building and advocacy, with potential to lead change through social innovation. The higher education sector can help facilitate solutions to the most challenging and pressing issues facing our society, and the current refugee crisis is one of these global challenges that we all have a moral obligation to address. The higher education community cannot turn a blind eye to the plight of millions of refugees, and we undoubtedly have our part to play in this global crisis. 

In 2015, Ryerson University led Canadian universities’ efforts to aid Syrian refugees. The University of Toronto, York University, and OCAD University joined the Ryerson-led Lifeline Syria Challenge (RULSC). The initiative successfully engaged more than 1,000 volunteers, raised $5-million, and sponsored more than 400 Syrian refugees. RULSC took an innovative approach to Canada’s private sponsorship program, and has used this as an opportunity to educate students about refugee issues and refugee advocacy. 

Currently, with the Afghan refugee crisis, higher education institutions in the U.S. are offering several forms of assistance to support the cause of Afghan refugees. In Canada, building on the success of the RULSC, the Diversity Institute at Ryerson’s Ted Rogers School of Management led by Dr. Wendy Cukier along with other community leaders founded the Lifeline Afghanistan, a non-partisan network of individuals and organizations responding to the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. Initiatives such as the RULSC and Lifeline Afghanistan are a testament to how higher education institutions can leverage their resources to support refugee resettlement and integration efforts. 

Lessons learned

There are many lessons learned from previous higher education approaches to refugee resettlement. York University recently published its Syria Response and Refugee Initiative report. The report highlights the importance of building ongoing partnerships with civil society and refugee networks. It also emphasized the need to recognize students’ efforts and leadership as change makers responding to a global humanitarian crisis. Moreover, a UNESCO report suggests that peer-to-peer refugee initiatives are crucial in higher education refugee resettlement efforts, indicating that such initiatives offer students in host countries the opportunity to “be globally minded, outward-looking and humanitarian oriented.” In addition, refugees expand their social capital, have a smoother integration process, and overcome language and information barriers. Finally, we know that universities can act as catalysts for change and can utilize their infrastructure and resources to mobilize their community to take action and support refugee resettlement. 

How can the higher education sector in Canada do better? 

Although Canadian higher education has some programs in place to support refugees, such as the World University Service of Canada’s (WUSC) Student Refugee Program (SRP), and they participate in refugee resettlement initiatives, we continue to be far behind other countries that have initiatives to increase higher education access for refugees.

In Ontario, undocumented students continue to face substantial barriers to access higher education. They are required to pay international fees and are denied access to the Ontario Student Assistant Program (OSAP). Higher education response to the global refugee crisis must take a multi-pronged approach. Universities can create initiatives to address refugee resettlement and integration, facilitate their transition to higher education and eliminate access and success barriers. They can provide platforms to engage their community in debates to change the public perceptions and stereotypes about refugees.

Finally, advocacy matters. Universities can be vocal and put pressure on governments to show commitment to refugee resettlement.

Many refugees worldwide are stuck in indefinite limbo in situations that are difficult at best, and dangerous at worst. Many are denied access to higher education opportunities. In 2016,  less than one per cent of refugee youth had access to higher education. While removing barriers to access higher education for refugees is crucial, it is equally important for institutions to create infrastructure and support systems in order for these students to transition smoothly and succeed in their studies. 

Sara Asalya is the founder and executive director of the Newcomer Students’ Association, a not-for-profit organization working at the intersection of migration, higher education, and social justice.

Read this article as it originally appeared in the Hill Times on September 15, here.

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