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Promoting access to quality, safe, and relevant education for all persons affected by crisis

The impact of higher education in refugee situations: 20 years of UNHCR scholarships

25 March 2013

by Corinna Frey

UNHCR is a member of the INEE Working Group on Education and Fragility. Corinna Frey worked as an intern for the DAFI Programme in UNHCR’s Education Unit in late 2012. 

“As a refugee, to attend university was something that I did not even dream of,” says Tiwawa Kabwe [name changed to protect identity], a Congolese refugee who studied in Tanzania.

There are several reasons why refugees like Tiwawa Kabwe sometimes do not even dream about going to university. Being forcibly displaced from their home countries often implies a disruption of their education. The possibility of continuing education in a refugee context can be limited and inconsistent, particularly for girls and at secondary level. On a global scale, only 36% of refugee children are enrolled in secondary school (Source: Dryden-Peterson, Sarah (2011) Refugee Education. A global review. UNHCR. Policy and Evaluation Service).

And even if schools are accessible, adverse conditions related to forced displacement (e.g. lack of school materials and professionally qualified teachers, language issues, discrimination) decrease the likelihood of achieving a general qualification for university entrance.

Having fled their country due to persecution or conflict, many refugees also lack the necessary financial resources to pursue a higher education.

William Tarr was a child when he fled his home country Liberia and arrived in Ghana as an unaccompanied minor. Despite all the hardship he faced he was able to study Development Planning at a university in Ghana thanks to the Albert Einstein German Academic Refugee Initiative (DAFI). The DAFI programme is funded by the German Government and is the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) most prominent tertiary education scholarship programme. William Tarr and Tiwawa Kabwe are two of the over 6,000 refugees who have benefitted from this programme since it was initiated in 1992.

On the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the DAFI Programme, celebrated this year, UNHCR emphasizes the impact of higher education on refugee situations.

UNHCR underlines that these scholarships help transforming personal lives and increase possibilities of sustaining meaningful livelihoods. Access to higher education has several multiplier effects for the individual and the community as a whole. By accessing higher education, graduates act as role models in their families and communities. Female graduates in particular have the potential to promote education for girls. Moreover, refugees who are qualified in areas such as architecture, medicine, engineering and social work can take part in developing and reconstructing their host countries or countries of origin.

After having finished his studies in development planning, William also returned to his home country, as an integration officer for UNHCR. He says: It was a wonderful experience giving back to my community in a positive way and witnessing lives [being] transformed after a decade and a half of conflict.

To increase access to higher education, UNHCR’s new Education Strategy focuses on two innovative approaches: building partnerships, and developing distance-learning programmes. Innovative partnerships mainly imply enhanced cooperation with local universities, to achieve a reduction of enrollment fees for DAFI scholarship holders, for instance. Distance-learning programmes are cost effective solutions especially in situations where refugees cannot move to another city to pursue their studies. This type of approach also allows relevant skills to be developed and retained within refugee camps. Both approaches will help in promoting higher education as part of humanitarian responses to refugee crises.


For more information about the DAFI programme, click here.

To view the “Seeds of Hope” exhibition, which shows how investment in higher education has changed the lives of thousands of refugees, click here.