Higher education is often regarded as a door to a better future. However, for refugee youths, having fled war and persecution, the path to higher education is often disrupted.
Monash University Malaysia’s School of Business lecturer Priya Sharma said a large number of refugees had been denied access to higher education due to various reasons.
“These include the inability to provide identification documents, as well as the lack of economic resources and educational qualifications.
“In Malaysia, for example, there is an absence of a national legal framework for refugees and asylum seekers because the country remains a non-signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol.
“In terms of education, not having such a structure means no access to education. Refugee children and youths in Malaysia, therefore, are educated via an informal parallel system,” she said, adding that there were 48 refugees pursuing their tertiary studies in the country, as recorded by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Priya said without basic tertiary qualifications, many young adult refugees were forced to take up menial jobs, exposing them to exploitative conditions.
In light of the above predicament, a coalition of private tertiary institution academics, which Priya is involved with, have teamed up with humanitarian actors to find innovative ways to boost access to higher education programmes for refugees in Malaysia.
One important initiative is a white paper titled “Towards Inclusion of Refugees in Higher Education in Malaysia”, which proposes that the government recognise the UNHCR Refugee Card as an identity document to facilitate enrolment in private learning institutions.
The proposal was sent to the Education and Foreign Ministries, as well as the Prime Minister’s Office last December.
Priya said such a strategy might offer several benefits. It provides space and a platform for refugee youths, who may need to wait years for resettlement, to learn and gain knowledge from their time in the country.
It also boosts opportunities for constructive interaction and harmonisation between refugees and civil society.
As a passionate advocate of human rights and refugee education, Priya has been involved with refugee youths through an intiative called CERTE (Connecting and Equipping Refugees For Tertiary Education).
“It is a task force that aims to support young adult refugees in accessing tertiary education opportunities through knowledge and resource sharing, a bridge course, school readiness preparation and mentorship.
“CERTE’s aim is to identify refugees who can demonstrate the motivation and academic potential to gain access to education, and to equip and empower them to gain a place at any university or college.”
The task force is supported by Open Universities for Refugees (OUR), UNHCR Malaysia and non-government agency Fugeelah.
Its mission is to provide quality education for refugees globally and international universities in Malaysia. CERTE Malaysia was established during the OUR-UNHCR Forum in 2016, which was held in Kuala Lumpur.
It holds annual three-week courses to expose refugee students to campus life.
“Through the course, students are equipped with basic knowledge on the application process of higher-learning institutions, have better understanding of different academic disciplines, and develop basic research skills in writing and presentation.
“At the end of the course, they are given a certificate that not only endorses their participation, but also serves as a stepping stone to future learning opportunities in Malaysia or elsewhere.
“In addition, students who successfully complete the course are given the opportunity to sign-up for a mentorship programme that will provide continuous support in their university application process.”
Priya is the ambassador of Principles of Responsible Management Education (PRME) for Monash University Malaysia’s School of Business. PRME is an initiave involving the United Nations and 150 business schools around the world.
She was invited to present the Monash University Malaysia’s School of Business’ initiatives to bring higher education to refugee youth at the Global Refugee Forum (GFR) in Geneva, Switzerland, last year. The forum represented the first major opportunity to turn the promises of the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR) into action, said Priya.
GRF provided a unique platform for multistakeholder and multisectoral partnerships to mobilise action towards the objectives of GCR, designed to bring real change to the lives of refugees and the countries and communities that receive them.
It also saw the formal establishment of the Global Academic Interdisciplinary Network (GAIN).
Priya said: “GAIN is one of GCR’s proposed arrangements for burden and responsibility sharing designed for academics, researchers, institutions, teachers and students to facilitate research, teaching, scholarship opportunities and complement activities of researchers and scholars worldwide.
“From my observation at GRF, one thing was clear. It is without a doubt that access to higher education will open new avenues and create opportunities for many. It will give young refugees training, knowledge, maturity and experiences they need to become agents of change with the potential to contribute to their host communities, be the voice of their fellow refugees and someday, rebuild their home countries.”
She said it was a moral obligation to help refugee children and youths.
“They are so hungry for education and I think it is wrong not to do anything (to help them).”