Blog: University corridors and the role of academia in opening safe and legal pathways for refugees to Europe

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In this blog I discuss the potential contribution of EU universities to opening safe and legal pathways for refugees to Europe. I describe the example of a recent project in Italy called ‘University Corridors for Refugees’ and argue that the expansion and scaling up of this initiative can save lives and partially remedy the inequality of opportunity that many refugees face. 

What can universities do for refugees?

Since the ‘long summer of migration’ in 2015, universities across the EU started various refugee-related initiatives. Many contributed in the conventional way through research on topics like reception and integration. Some developed more practice-oriented solutions and opened their doors to forced migrants. Recognized refugees were given access to full-time study programs and asylum seekers were allowed to enroll in single university courses. In the majority of cases this was accompanied by softening rigorous intake procedures and removing financial barriers. One example here is the Incluusion program of Utrecht University, which in the last years has provided free access to a wide range of courses for hundreds of students with a refugee background. While attempts for large-scale and coordinated cross-national initiatives were not absent, solutions usually emerged bottom-up, driven by the active engagement of university management, academic staff and student communities.

These attempts, however, have an important limitation – they have been focused on the access to higher education for forced migrants who have already made their journey to the EU. A recent estimation by Amnesty International showed that about 80% of all refugees live in developing regions, while one third of the global refugee population resides in the world’s poorest countries. Even the most brilliant refugee students among these approximately 20 million people face disproportionate and unjustified burdens in their attempts to pursue higher education at EU universities. Rather than limited to lack of finances, as many would correctly suggest, these burdens often involve bureaucratic issues, which eventually deprive refugees from the equality of opportunity they deserve based on their own efforts, knowledge and skills.

How could EU universities, or at least those who have already demonstrated their commitment to assisting refugees, provide a remedy to this problem? My argument is that they can do so by extending their engagement beyond the EU borders and by opening university corridors for refugee students residing in third countries. Initially, universities can be the protagonists in creating coalitions of local civil society and private sector actors ready to provide material and social support to refugee students who want to continue their education in Europe. Subsequently, they can collaborate with international organizations and national authorities for the removal of bureaucratic obstacles that disproportionately affect refugees.

The evidence upon which I build my argument comes from a recent initiative called University Corridors for Refugees. It started as a small pilot project at the University of Bologna in 2019, and within just a year expanded to ten other higher education institutions across Italy. In brief, it is a wide partnership between public institutions, civil society and private sector actors that supports refugees to pursue a post-graduate degree in Italy in the following way. Each of the participating universities prepares a call for applications for a range of Master’s programmes for refugees residing in Ethiopia. UNHCR, with the assistance of NGOs, helps disseminate the calls among refugees who have recently graduated at Ethiopian universities and who live either in camps or in urban areas across the country. After a merit-based selection procedure conducted by the host universities, the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation issues a study visa to the successful applicants. Once they have arrived on campus, the refugee students are welcomed and supported by a network of local partners. NGOs, regional/local authorities and churches provide study equipment, a public transport subscription, language classes and integration assistance. Universities award a tuition fee waiver and support the beneficiaries of the project with accommodation, while tutors selected among the local students help the newcomers adapt to the new environment. Finally, private sector partners facilitate the access to internships and training programs during their studies, with the potential for permanent employment after graduation. While the University of Bologna has already welcomed its first refugee students arriving through the University Corridors, the rest of the Italian universities participating in the project expect their successful candidates to join them in the following months.

Opening university corridors for refugees is not a novel idea. In fact, the Student Refugee Program in Canada has been operating for more than 40 years and has helped more than 2000 refugee students pursue higher education in nearly 100 Canadian universities. The Canadian model, however, makes part of the country’s private-sponsorship-program, which means that the arriving refugee students are at the same time permanently resettled. On the contrary, the Italian model described above allows refugees to continue their education in Italy on a study visa. In any case, and especially given the participation of private sector actors in the University Corridors project, it is very likely that the fresh refugee graduates will be able to transfer their visas into work permits and therefore remain in the country after their studies. In this way, the participating universities de facto contribute to opening safe and legal pathways for refugees to Europe.

The birth of University Corridors for Refugees

Why is the University Corridors for Refugees project so important and why should it be expanded and scaled up? My answer here is twofold. Firstly, because university corridors can potentially save lives. Secondly, because they can also, at least partially, remedy the inequality of opportunity that even the most devoted, hardworking and gifted refugee students face. The best way to demonstrate the added value of opening more university corridors to Europe is by sharing the little-known story behind the birth of the project in Italy.

In 2004, a young Italian PhD student named Stefania visited Ethiopia for a course in tropical medicine. One day, while traveling to the Blue Nile Falls, she met a twelve year old local Ethiopian boy, who eventually helped her cross the river. The two exchanged contacts and stayed in touch, while the family of Stefania decided to start sponsoring the education of the boy. This helped him complete high school and then enroll into a graduate program at the University of Addis Ababa.

At the university the Ethiopian boy met his two best friends. Both of them were refugees, who had recently fled the dictatorship in nearby Eritrea in quest for realizing their dream – to study journalism. Ethiopia’s open policy towards refugees allowed the two young men to follow courses along with their new Ethiopian friend. All three of them excelled in their studies and graduated together in 2014.

By that time, the young Italian PhD student had become an assistant professor at the University of Bologna. With her support, her Ethiopian friend prepared his documents and applied for a Master’s programme at the same institution. Eventually, he got accepted. Despite all bureaucratic obstacles faced, he received his study visa and arrived on time for the start of the semester. Exactly ten years after the boy had helped Stefania cross the Blue Nile, she returned the favor by helping him to safely and legally cross the Mediterranean and continue his education.

His two Eritrean refugee friends, however, were not so fortunate. They did not lag behind in terms of knowledge or skills and they were perfectly qualified for enrolling into a post-graduate program at an Italian university too. What they lacked was a valid passport. The only travel document they could obtain by the Ethiopian authorities was the Geneva passport, which is issued to recognized refugees. However, the Italian authorities repeatedly refused granting them study visas in these circumstances. It should be noted, that the Geneva passport is a valid travel document issued by all countries that have signed the Refugee Convention. In theory, therefore, there is no legal obstacle preventing refugees who have such passports to apply for and eventually obtain a visa to travel to Europe. After a long period of negotiations and with the immense efforts of Stefania and the intervention of UNHCR, one of the two Eritrean refugees was issued a study visa and flew to Italy where he started his Masters. By that time, the other refugee graduate had already chosen to take an alternative journey. He had already moved to Sudan on his way to Libya and then Italy. Fortunately, and again with the assistance of UNHCR, the Italian embassy in Khartoum provided him the necessary study visa and in September 2016 he arrived in Bologna. Following the steps of his two friends he obtained a merit-based scholarship, passed all his exams and graduated exactly two years later.

In the meanwhile, the persistence and personal engagement of Stefania had created the foundations of a wide network that supported the two Eritrean refugee students all the way from Ethiopia to their graduation at the University of Bologna. Local NGOs and individuals provided financial, material and social support. A crowdfunding campaign and a small concert helped cover the tuition fees. UNHCR, as already noted, took care of the legal issues and the communication with the Italian authorities.

Inspired by the positive experience, the university management decided to build upon this personal initiative and launched the UNI-CO-RE (University Corridors for Refugees) pilot project. The already existing partnership was further expanded and strengthened. The Catholic church and an international NGO supported the selected students during the preparation of their documents in Ethiopia, covering also the cost of their flight to Italy. The University of Bologna provided full tuition fee waivers and scholarships (again with the support of the Catholic church), while the Regional Agency for the Right to Higher Education in Emilia-Romagna offered accommodation in a student house. Local civil society organizations took over the integration of the beneficiaries, providing also psychological support. In addition, two associations of managers operating in the industrial, trade and service sectors agreed to provide internships and eventually employment to prospective refugee students. Ultimately, after a selection procedure with merit-based criteria, five more Eritrean refugees arrived in 2019 in Bologna to pursue their Master’s degrees in Engineering and Economics, while one more joined LUISS University in Rome. Few months later, with the support of UNHCR and the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation the project was extended to 10 more universities and 20 new refugee students are expected to arrive in Italy in the autumn semester of 2020.

No need to passively wait

Returning to the question on the importance of expanding the university corridors, one can now ask what would have happened if Stefania’s efforts had not resulted in removing the barriers that the two refugee students faced in their attempts to continue their education in Europe? It would be a speculation to claim that the Eritrean refugee who had started his journey to Libya would end up in the depths of the sea. It is a fact though that since 2014 more than 20,000 migrants died trying to cross the Mediterranean. Some probably remember the boy from Mali, who drowned on April 18, 2015 with his school report card sewn into his pocket. His story became widely known when an Italian newspaper published a cartoon depicting the boy under water, showing his report to fish and mollusks who replied “Wow…All tens! What a rare pearl!”. Few years after his death five schools in Rome put stumbling stones in memory of the boy stating “To the young man from Mali, who died with a report card on his heart. This school would have welcomed him and other people who drowned while trying to cross the sea." Schools in other Italian cities also developed similar initiatives.

As I have argued above, some solutions already exist and there is no need to passively wait for similar unnecessary tragedies to occur. Universities across Europe have a unique chance to provide at least a partial remedy to the problem, by opening university corridors for refugees. They can demonstrate their leadership, unite efforts with local civil society, private sector partners and international organizations, and work together towards the removal of the various barriers depriving refugee students from equal opportunities. Importantly, the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation eventually recognized the added value of university corridors and became one of the leading partners in the project. This shows that national authorities can be responsive to bottom-up solutions that improve migration governance in general and facilitate safe and legal pathways to Europe in particular. In the same way in which the persistence of a single person gave birth to the university corridors in Italy, the protagonism of European universities can help expand the initiative and build new bridges for refugee students that will provide them the chance to access higher education.

Tihomir Sabchev