Tuesday, November 17, 2015

University Education for Syrian and Other Refugees

by Salman Hameed

As expected, things have gone south after the Paris attacks, and sane conversations have taken a hit. This is particularly true of anything about refugees from Syria and other parts of the Middle East. Now 25 Republican governors - including that of Massachusetts - are trying to block relocation of Syrian refugees to their respective states. If you are wondering how many Syrian refugees have been accepted so far by the US? According to the NYT, that number is just 1900 over four years! And if you want to see how low things are, some of the Republican candidates (Jeb!) want to select (or deselect) refugees based on their religion.

But there are other serious issues as well. The civil war in Syria has displaced millions of people, including those who were in colleges and universities. To gain any kind of stability in the future, it is vital that they get higher education. The prospects of reasonable jobs will be even slimmer without these opportunities. This is not just a moral issue (though that should be enough to act), but it is also about the stability of both the Middle East as well as the larger world. A few weeks ago, Nature brought up this issue:
Human-rights organizations are calling on universities and governments worldwide to invest more in the education of the hundreds of thousands of student refugees who are
Syrian refugees in Istanbul. Image from Nature
fleeing war-torn regions of the Middle East. 
They warn that the countries in conflict risk losing a future generation of scientists, engineers, physicians, teachers and leaders — and that university-aged refugees who have found shelter elsewhere represent a crucial opportunity to reverse some of the lost intellectual capital. “Each scholar and student that we lose now deepens the challenge of restoring the region when the violence eventually subsides,” says Robert Quinn, executive director of the Scholars at Risk Network, a human-rights group headquartered in New York City. 
Quinn also cautions that allowing an educational void to develop in the Middle East could create a fertile recruiting environment for radical militias and terrorists. “It is deeply in the interest of Europe and the West to protect and invest in the intellectual capital of the region,” he says. “The failure to invest massively is foolishly shortsighted.”
Here are some numbers for refugees:
Conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, as well as in Libya and other North African countries, have led to a record number of refugees. By the end of 2014, 60 million people worldwide were seeking refuge either in safer parts of their countries or abroad, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. That is the highest number ever recorded, and almost double the 37.5 million displaced individuals a decade earlier. 
Syria, which had a population of nearly 21 million before the ongoing conflict there began four years ago, has produced the most refugees, with 7.6 million people displaced internally and a further 4 million forced to flee the country. Around 10% of those people are of university age, estimates James King, who is a senior researcher at the Scholar Rescue Fund, part of the Institute of International Education (IIE), a non-profit, educational-exchange organization in New York City. 
Yet the university system in Syria has all but collapsed, and few of the young people who have left the country are receiving higher education. Of those refugees who fled abroad, most have found temporary shelter in neighbouring countries — Turkey is hosting some 1.8 million, Lebanon 1.2 million and Jordan 630,000 — but only around 5% of the university-aged refugees in these countries are enrolled at local institutions, according to a March report funded by the European Commission (see go.nature.com/9ljpbl). 
Before the conflict began, 26% of young adults in Syria were receiving tertiary education. That leaves hundreds of thousands of people who would normally be attending university going without.
Of course there are other challenges as well. Places like Turkey have pressure to accommodate their own qualified graduates. Then there are challenges of language in another country. Plus, many of the refugees don't have the documents to show their prior academic records. All of this is not even counting the daily struggle of survival as a refugee in another country, and if they can even afford to go to a university - both in terms of time and money.

There are some good signs regarding this:
Scholarships are available. The IIE-led Syria Consortium for Higher Education in Crisis, a network of higher-education institutions worldwide that was created in 2012, has provided US$4.5 million to support 333 Syrian students, including 158 scholarships to attend universities in Western countries. At least 20 similar initiatives also offer scholarships to institutions across the globe. However, demand far outstrips supply: these combined efforts have been able to provide only around 7,000 students with some form of tertiary education. 
Allan Goodman, president and chief executive of the IIE, notes the sheer scale of the crisis. “No organization or country is set up to deal with it,” he says, “The only thing we can do is — one by one, family by family, scholar by scholar, student by student — try to help individuals.” 
He also says that humanitarian efforts have tended to focus on saving lives and relieving misery among those fleeing conflict. “Education is the orphan of all these crises,” he says. “People are so concerned about food, water, shelter and other basics, and we haven’t thought enough about education.” The 1.5% of global humanitarian aid that goes to education, meanwhile, is spent largely on primary and secondary schooling, not higher education, which traditionally has been seen as a luxury. 
There are signs that attitudes are changing. In May, the European Union’s trust fund for the Syrian crisis committed €12 million (US$14.5 million) to assist 20,000 Syrian refugees in obtaining higher education through scholarships and other means. As the European Commission report notes, however, scholarships cannot meet the enormous need, which would amount to billions, not millions, of euros. 
It would be more cost effective to provide direct financial aid to universities in the countries with the most Syrian refugees, the report states
You can read the full article here (though you will need Nature subscription).

Now reading all this, please ponder on some of the thoughtless comments of several of the Republican governors and Presidential candidates regarding refugees. 


Blogoratti said...

An interesting article that highlights the divergent views of the world on this important crisis.

Unknown said...

It is a very informative article that reflects the important issue regarding education of refugees.

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