Interview with Melissa Fleming, spokesperson for the UNHCR

Melissa Fleming, spokesperson and head of communications and public information for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, discusses the vital nature of her work

September 15, 2016
Melissa Fleming
Source: UNHCR

Why is the UNHCR’s work so important – particularly at the moment?

The number of displaced persons around the world stands at 65.3 million – that includes internally displaced, refugees, asylum seekers and stateless persons. That is a level we have not seen since the Second World War. Of the more than 21 million refugees, more than half are aged under 18.

Syria is the crisis in the headlines, but there are conflicts and crises all over the world: Yemen, Iraq, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, Burundi, Afghanistan. There are protracted refugee situations, such as Afghans living in Iran or Pakistan or the Somalis living in Kenya for decades; and there are smaller but escalating situations where violence has reignited after years of relative quiet, such as Central America.

On top of all that, if you think about the places that neighbour these crises, most of them are in developing regions, which means that refugees find sanctuary in countries that may already be facing big challenges in feeding, housing and educating their own populations. This is not to make light of the situation in Europe, where millions of people have sought safety. But 86 per cent of the world’s refugees are hosted by developing countries, which urgently need the help of the international community if they are to cope.

How do you work with students and universities?

Only 1 per cent of refugee children make it to higher education, so the short answer is: we are simply trying to turn an unacceptable figure into a more acceptable one.

First, we are working to enrol many more refugee children at the primary and secondary level, so university can later be an option. We have our scholarship programme, called DAFI (which is a German acronym for the Albert Einstein German Academic Refugee Initiative), funded by Germany, and we have partnerships with several other organisations to provide courses and scholarships for refugees.

These have got thousands of refugees into college and university; our challenge is to expand these programmes so that more refugee students can have access to quality, certified higher education courses.

Could universities do more to recognise those who don’t have typical pre-higher education qualifications?

This is one of the big problems that refugee students of all ages face. One in two refugee children goes to primary school; by secondary school, that figure has fallen to one in four. You can already see where the problem is for refugee children getting enough qualifications to make it to higher level – they have so many pressures on them to find work and to help provide for their families rather than to attend school.

In addition, refugees often have to leave home in a hurry. They take what they need to survive and to make the journey, and that rarely includes exam certificates (though sometimes it does, which shows you how much refugees value education). Their education can be severely disrupted – it can be hard registering your child for a new school if you move from the UK to Europe or the US, so imagine how tough it is if you arrive in a new country with nothing but the clothes you stand up in.

If you have any identification documents, in some countries the authorities aren’t interested in them anyway. There needs to be much more recognition of these problems, and we need to figure out smarter ways of getting around them.

What can universities do to help tackle the current crisis?

There are three steps: look at how they can offer education opportunities to refugees; how they can support sister education institutions in refugee-hosting countries to educate refugees; and support student initiatives that work in support of refugees.

What is the one action or policy change that would do the most to help improve the current situation?

There are still some countries that are unwilling or unable to allow refugees into state-run schools or to study the host country’s curriculum. But including refugee children in national education systems means that they are immediately in a more stable and sustainable learning environment with access to trained teachers and proper textbooks, studying towards recognised qualifications.

There are difficulties in doing this – it often involves learning a new language, for instance, and it puts extra pressure on schools and teachers – but in protracted refugee situations in particular, it is the most durable solution.

Many refugees are academics. What value can they bring to universities?

There is a long list of some of the most important thinkers in history who were also refugees. They include Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Max Born, Hans Krebs, Karl Popper. Imagine if they had been denied access to education?

We have seen a proliferation in free online education in recent years. Is this a good way to reach refugees?

E-learning has been a huge benefit, and not just at the higher level. The sheer volume of new materials that refugees can access, the amazing variety, the way that universities and other organisations have been putting their resources online, the way in which teachers can now access support networks and training. It has opened up all sorts of new avenues.

But it would be wrong to consider online learning an adequate replacement for face-to-face education. It can supplement a course – and universities are doing that on campus anyway – but it should not be the only alternative. It would certainly be wrong for universities to say, “We can’t give you a scholarship because we don’t like the cost or the visa and immigration hassle or the cost of flying you home and back to see your family, so here is a bunch of lectures we posted instead.”

We do work with some universities that offer blended courses where e-learning is combined with on-site tutoring and mentoring. But we have also heard of individual refugees who get excited by an online learning course and might even hand over money for it, only to find that the certificate they receive is of little value – or drop out because they have other pressures and duties that would affect them less if they were on campus.

What are the key points you will address in your speech at the EAIE conference?

In addition to the global statistics on education, I will highlight the Syria conflict, which exemplifies the devastating impact that war has on a child’s education. A close look at the education statistics from Syria pre- and post-conflict shows the dramatic fall in education at all levels when children are surrounded by war. Before the war, 94 per cent of Syrians attended primary and secondary school. According to UN estimates, school attendance has dropped more than 50 per cent.

Meanwhile, almost 5 million Syrians live as refugees in neighbouring countries. Half are children. I just returned from Turkey, where only 60 per cent of Syrian refugee children were attending school, and only 2 per cent of youth were enrolled in universities. In pre-war Syria, 20 per cent of youth between 18 and 25 were pursuing higher education. In Jordan and Lebanon, the figures are slightly better, but still very worrying. If this trend continues, there will be a lost generation of Syrian children. And that is dangerous and short-sighted.

Educating refugees makes them more self-sufficient – better able to find work and support themselves and their families, more capable of critical thinking and defending their rights. But it also creates leaders, especially at the higher education level – the scholars and scientists and engineers and builders of civil society who will lead and promote post-conflict reconstruction, campaign for social, economic and gender equality, and empower their communities.

There are the things that we need to survive – food, water, shelter – and we want to feel secure, to build families and make friendships. But we also seek to better ourselves, to realise our full potential, and education lies at the heart of that. I find it amazing that the international community says, “OK, here’s a tent and a blanket, there’s the food and there’s the doctor – but you can’t have anything more than that.”

When donations fall short and the money is tight, education is the first item on the list of refugees’ needs that gets crossed off. Yet without education, we can forget about long-term, durable solutions to refugee crises for we are fatally undermining the prospects for reconciliation, reconstruction and prosperity. And that is not very clever.

The UNHCR has just issued a report on the state of refugee education.

The 28th annual conference of the European Association for International Education takes place in Liverpool from 13 to 16 September. The conference, which focuses on internationalisation and cooperation between European universities, will include sessions on issues affecting institutions across the continent, including the refugee crisis, Brexit and universities’ use of social media.

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