Refugees’ right to education during times of ‘crisis’: Civil society experiences in Brazil
Forum on the Partnership Principle in the UN Global Compact on Refugees
Contribution by Andre Leitão, Executive President of Compassiva (Sao Paulo based NGO)
9 June 2022
All eyes are on Europe as the war in Ukraine rages on and causes an alarming and deeply concerning scale of refugee displacement in Europe. There has never been so many refugees in such a short period of time in recent European history. More than four million refugees have fled to neighboring countries as of beginning of May. However, a similar scale of displacement has been witnessed in Latin America in the fallout over the Venezuelan Crisis. This ASILE forum blogpost suggests that we learn from civil society experiences in Brazil, in particular from partnerships within the field of education – from local schools to higher education institutions or those governmental authorities recognising qualifications acquired abroad. So, what can governments responding to a ‘crisis’ learn from partnerships with civil society?
Refugee childrens’ right to education during global crises
According to the UNHCR, 90 % of the more than 4.3 million Ukrainian refugees who have crossed the border to neighboring countries since the outbreak of the war are women and children. This displacement has had a great impact on the lives of children who have been separated from their communities and consequently from their schools. The Polish government has announced it is expecting to welcome an additional 700 000 children into the country’s education system.
The Russian invasion and war crimes in Ukraine is already producing a terrible and devastating impact on the lives of millions of children. This, unfortunately, is a well-known fact for those who work and follow the consequences of conflicts and refugee displacement situations around the world. Every year, UNHCR reports on the situation and key developments concerning the education of the world’s refugee population.
According to the last UNHCR report ‘2021 Refugee Education Report – Staying the Course’, an average of 290 000 children every year are born as refugees. Children amount to 42 % of all the displaced people in the world. That figure alone would be an enormous challenge for governments to deal with. According to the UNHCR, they would need to create around 300 000 new classrooms and recruit 10 000 new teachers to attend to the increasing number of newly born refugee children. On top of that, there is the growing number of newly displaced children due to continuous unrest in conflict-affected areas.
The data collected by the UNHCR indicates that only 68 % of refugee children are enrolled in any school system. The figure drops radically once we look at secondary level education, with 34 % of the enrollments among refugee children. In the case of higher education, the percentage of refugees who manage to continue their education up to tertiary level is as low as 5 % according to the UNHCR data (see below).
Source: Author, based on UNHCR report ‘2021 Refugee Education Report – Staying the Course’
These numbers can vary according to the region of displacement and the rights that host countries grant to refugee families and their children. For example, in Jordan the host community children at the primary level have an enrolment level of 89 %, while for the domestic refugee children it is only 59 %. At the secondary level, it was 25 % of enrollment for the refugees against 65 % for the Jordanians.
Source: Author, based on UNHCR report ‘2021 Refugee Education Report – Staying the Course’
According to the UNHCR, some of the key reasons that account for this enormous difference in school and especially in higher education enrollment include: children’s and young adults need to work to support their family (or themselves, if unaccompanied), language barriers, limited places available in the school system, untrained teachers, different teaching methods, a lack of adequate school materials, and obstacles in recognising the diplomas and transferring credits acquired in the country of origin.
A refugee crisis south of the equator
The situation in South America is particularly disturbing due to the consequences of the mass displacement of Venezuelans. Currently, there are a total of 6.1 million Venezuelan migrants, refugees and asylum seekers globally, of which 5.06 million are displaced in Latin America and the Caribbean. The vast majority live in Colombia (1.84 million), Peru (1.3 million), Ecuador (513 000), the United States (465 000), Chile (448 000) and Spain (418 000). To end the list, we have Brazil, which is hosting 325 000 Venezuelans (see below).
Source: Author, based on UNHCR data in the Response for Venezuelans platform (R4V)
Brazilian immigration laws give the right to education to all children. It means that refugee children can be enrolled in the public education system, that is also free and accessible to all those who have not been able to present any documentation proving their school grade levels. It is the responsibility of the local school to verify these children’s level of formal education and secure their right to continue their studies.
Even with all the challenges that the Brazilian education system faces when accommodating refugees, the acceptance of the children into the public system is a great step towards normalising their lives and bringing the perspective of a new future built on strong educational values. This principle holds true in other host nations, where refugee children are eager to reestablish connections with their peers and recreate a social network that is crucial for their inclusion and integration into the host society.
Recognition of higher education diplomas
When we look at the statistics of refugees that have completed higher education it is important to note that many of them face obstacles in having their diplomas recognised by host countries. Addressing the issue of diploma recognition is key for accelerating their integration and financial independence, thus producing positive change in the lives of many families. Very often, the young and adult refugees who have already completed their graduate studies have to deal with several challenges to have their diplomas recognised. Often it is practically impossible for them to work in their area of expertise as a result.
First, they will need to focus on providing for themselves and, often, for their families. Second, they face a great deal of bureaucracy and, in most cases, an awfully expensive process to validate their degree. Refugees need to provide a long list of documents, such as an officially recognised translation of documents, fees that are often too expensive for those who have fled their homes to save their lives. It is not uncommon to see university buildings completely destroyed in situations of intense military conflict. For instance, the United States’ invasion in Iraq caused damage or destruction to 84 % of Iraqi higher education institutions, according to a United Nations Universities report. Up until 2020, up to 40 % of Syrian schools had been damaged by the war according to Syria Relief. If it is not possible to recognise their academic credentials these refugees remain technically disqualified to access the formal labor market. This is one of the reasons that many end up working in informal and underpaying jobs, while others are subject to various other forms of exploitation.
In some host countries the being subjected to exploitation is especially true for women, even if they are more qualified than men. The ‘Regional Refugee and Migrant Response Plan for Venezuelans (RMRP 2022)’ reports that in Chile, Peru, and Colombia up to 2020, only 10 % of Venezuelan refugees with degrees have managed to have their academic credentials recognised.
According to Gustavo da Frota Simões in 2017: ‘Venezuelan migrants in the Brazilian city of Boa Vista in the state of Roraima, have high levels of formal education: 28.4 % of the migrants have a higher education degree, 3.5 % of them also have postgraduate degree.’ This is a much higher number when compared to Brazil as a whole which only counts 21 % of its population as having higher education.
It is not a coincidence that the Integration Sector of the Response for Venezuelans, (R4V) has aligned its goals in the Regional Refugee and Migrant Response Plan to fight refugee unemployment in the region with the need to invest in programmes aimed at enhancing the recognition of qualifications and skills certification.
Compassiva’s advocacy for the recognition of foreign diplomas in Brazil
Advocacy for the recognition of foreign diplomas held by refugees is one of Compassiva’s main objectives in Brazil. In Compassiva, we fight for a faster, unbureaucratic, cheaper and fairer process to recognise the academic certification of refugees and immigrants nationwide. We seek to help refugees gain their financial autonomy, reducing their vulnerability through empowerment, making them the protagonist of their own lives, and gradually decreasing their need for humanitarian assistance until they do not need it at all anymore. With their diplomas in hand, refugees are much more self-sufficient and can afford better living conditions. Just as access to education system is extremely important for displaced children, the same goes for the academic validation of diplomas for young people and adults.
A key dimension of the adaptation and integration of people in refugee situations in the host society is their ability to join and integrate into the job market. Most of them are professionals who had to abandon their jobs, studies, and businesses when fleeing their countries of origin. Many held prominent positions and have experience in their field, including technical skills or university education. Therefore, when they arrive in a host country, they carry the expectation of continuing their professional activities or, at least, to work in the same area.
This is a reality in many countries, including in Europe. The millions of displaced women and children from Ukraine are now in need of urgent access and inclusion in the public educational system of their host countries. This is a major challenge due to the large number of children who need to have access in a very short timeframe. But countries in Europe can rely on well-established education systems that, with some adjustment, should be able to absorb the newcomers.
In Brazil, we worked with the state government’s representatives to create laws that exempt the refugees from paying the fees for the certification of their degrees by state-run universities. So far, the states of São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Paraná are among those that have approved this regulation. We have also engaged in dialogue with the Brazilian Ministry of Education of Brazil allowing private universities to certify the degrees. There are more private universities than state-run ones in Brazil. Only today are the latter universities permitted to undertake the certification process for international degrees. If private and community universities are also permitted to certify refugees’ degrees, that would help to accelerate their labour market integration process.
Today the refugee in Brazil can only apply twice to certify a degree. If s/he fails on both occasions, then this person can no longer initiate a certification process in any university throughout the country. Thus, this limited diploma certification practice must be reformed.
After working on this programme for more than six years at Compassiva, we have been witnessing too many refugees failing the exams that are used by some universities to approve their qualifications. Refugees need to have an unlimited number of attempts to certify their qualifications until they have acquired the necessary language skills and stability to pass the exams if requested by the university.
However, in the longer-term, how governments deal with recognising the academic diplomas and certificates of the displaced from this ongoing war in Ukraine will determine to a significant extent how fast and successful their integration and inclusion process will be.
Hopefully, we are going to witness a modernisation of the recognition process for degree and academic certificates.
This would include promoting an educational campaign to inform universities on the diploma validation processes, increase the number of universities that are able to certify diplomas, promote the verification of refugees’ qualifications that do not depend exclusively on their universities’ documentation if they are unable to provide such documents, and eradicate the request for the Hague Apostille documentation.
These policy changes can help facilitate better and faster integration for the adult refugees. While the guarantee of the right to education has been provided for children, real integration happens through the education system at any level. We need more schools worldwide for refugee children to attend, more schools equipped to receive the children, more teachers, and continuous training for these teachers. We need to educate local schools on how best to receive the refugee children.
Civil society has been witnessing the numerous challenges for giving refugee children access to education and the recognition of academic diplomas. Civil society has also been actively advocating for ways to make such processes faster, cheaper and fairer.
Building on Compassiva’s experience, we call on national, regional and local authorities to include civil society as advisors on academic certification for refugees and other migrants.