Why the Refugee Crisis is so Unique

Over the past two weeks, the Institute has been asked to make a series of presentations on how higher education can respond to the current refugee crisis. Sarah Willcox, Director of IIE’s Scholar Rescue Fund and I spoke at The Rockefeller University, Nikki Davis, Program Manager of IIE Initiatives, chaired a panel during a UN high-level event on “Teaming Up to Boost Higher Education Opportunities in Emergencies,” the Best Practices Conference hosted this year by the University of California at Davis convened a pre-conference workshop on “Project No More Lost Generation: Principles of Higher Education Support,” and James King, Assistant Director of the Scholar Rescue Fund, represented IIE in Helsinki at a conference on opportunities for Finnish higher education institutions to become involved in the IIE-Scholar Rescue Fund to support Syrian scholars.

As has been true in the past, the Institute is seen as active on the front lines when there are higher education emergencies, where students and scholars need to be helped and rescued.

What is striking is that when you think of the headlines today’s refugee crisis is making, you don’t think of it as a higher education emergency. But it is and in an unprecedented way. 

The world’s humanitarian response to refugees is focused on food, sanitation, and shelter. There is no doubt these things are vital and in great demand.  But we don’t tend to mention educational needs in the same breath.

Past refugee crises did not involve many students or their university teachers. The former tended to be drafted into the armies led by officers who were university educated and often employed by those same institutions. The last time the sheer refugee numbers were so large, moreover, only a small proportion of the 18-24 age cohort even went to university. In most countries at the outbreak of World War II this was a very modest percentage. When the Syrian civil war started, some 25% of that age cohort was enrolled in higher education. We estimate that for Syrians alone today, there are over 100,000 university-qualified students in refugee camps or urban environments, and at least as many displaced inside Syria. There are also thousands of teachers (at all levels) in the millions of persons now forced to flee and find temporary haven and probably hundreds of thousands of students who were on a track to enter university when the conflict began.

We also know from nearly a century of our scholar rescue work that that refugees and masses of displaced persons do not build universities. Perhaps this generation will have to do that. But the prospects are not encouraging. It took decades before the first universities were established near the UNRWA camps in Palestine and if you look at a list of the largest refugee camps today none of them have even what was eventually built in the Gaza Strip and West Bank.

The Institute is asked to speak to the issue of what to do very frequently now. Our Scholar Rescue Fund work and pilot programs for assisting students in emergencies show how much more help could be provided if only the resources existed to scale up. Responding to today’s crisis is not a matter of figuring out what to do but creating the political will and funding to do what we know works.