Anwar Horani, a Palestinian Syrian who fled to Greece in 2016, had earned a physiotherapy degree from Al-Baath University in Homs. But when she was forced to leave the country, she wasn’t able to bring proof of her studies, and faced the prospect of starting from scratch. “Papers are important here,” Horani said — and she didn’t have any.
There could be tens of thousands of people across Europe in a similar situation to Horani’s. But this March, the Council of Europe expanded a program designed to help refugees get proof of the tertiary qualifications they earned back home: a new document called the European Qualifications Passport for Refugees.
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The scheme could make refugees’ transition into work and education much smoother, and help host countries benefit more from their skills. But it doesn’t seem likely to solve some of the more complex challenges associated with recognising migrants’ foreign qualifications.
Degrees without borders
The Qualifications Passport pilot, launched in 2017 in Greece, involved 92 applicants, 73 of whom were successful. While Greece still has a large refugee population, many are likely to eventually settle elsewhere, so a document only recognised in Greece would have limited value. This made a cooperative European approach, which would result in a portable document, vital, said Sarah Keating, who works on the project at the Council of Europe.
To ensure this portability, each assessment was conducted by staff from two different countries. Evaluators from the UK, Norway and Italy were involved in the pilot. The project was tailored to newly-arrived refugees, who often lack the language skills, as well as the documentation, ordinarily needed for qualification recognition. Refugees completed a questionnaire, providing details on their university and course structure, and then took part in an interview with trained credential evaluators.
Horani was approached by UNHCR officials in the camp she was living in in Greece about applying for the qualifications passport. “Everyone was very friendly, we felt very comfortable,” she recalled. “You chose the language you want to speak, and there were three professionals who had really good knowledge of the Syrian system.” The documents are typically issued within a few weeks of the assessment interview.
“Many people told us that this was the first time they spoke to someone who really understood what their qualification is worth”
Some benefits from participating in the pilot arrived immediately. “Many people told us that this was the first time they spoke to someone who really understood what their qualification is worth,” said Marina Malgina, from the Norwegian qualifications recognition agency. “People look at them as refugees and think it’s a homogeneous group. They’re not accepted as professionals.”
But securing more concrete benefits from the qualifications passport can be harder. The scheme doesn’t give refugees the immediate or automatic access to education that would come with full formal recognition. Aura Lounasmaa, who runs a program at the University of East London which helps refugees access higher education, said that universities are often hesitant to accept documents they have little experience with. “It’s admirable, but at this stage its recognition is quite limited,” she said.
Although the passport on its own doesn’t allow holders to work in their professional field, it can speed up the process significantly. When Horani was relocated to Norway, she was able to apply for a full assessment of her degree, using the qualifications passport as a starting point. “A lot of people have to wait one or two years for their recognition,” she said. “Mine took about two months.”
The process was simpler because Horani’s formal evaluation also came from the Norwegian qualifications recognition agency, NOKUT. The scheme developed out of work done by NOKUT following a growth in refugee arrivals to Norway in 2013, and the agency had been involved in the pilot program, so it was familiar with the new document.
“When you flee a war, you feel like you’ve lost your identity”
The expanded program, which has been funded through to 2020, will conduct about 500 evaluations of refugees in Greece, Italy and the Netherlands. Since the passport is more useful to refugees when authorities are already familiar with it, the new phase will include staff from qualifications bodies in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Canada and Armenia, as well as those involved in the pilot.
Keating said that the Council of Europe is also seeking funding for outreach to run awareness workshops in receiving communities, so that educational institutions, employers and local authorities are more likely to understand the passport’s worth. “We’re trying to make people who might encounter this document familiar with it and its methodology,” she said.
The qualifications passport has limitations, but — particularly as more countries and agencies start to recognise it — it could play an important role in speeding up refugees’ move into study or work. In 2015, the Institute of International Education estimated that about 2.5% of Syrian refugees were university-educated. Data from the Council of Europe suggests that the proportion is probably higher among the several million refugees who have arrived in Europe since 2014, meaning tens of thousands likely have tertiary qualifications in need of recognition.
Horani is now practising as a physiotherapist at a student clinic while she finishes studying the professional rules of physiotherapy in Norway. “When you flee a war, you feel like you’ve lost your identity,” she said. “You don’t want to lose your profession as well. This document really made me feel that I still had that.”
(Picture credit: Council of Europe)