Press Statement: Access to higher education for refugees and asylum seekers

higher education symposium

The Higher Education Symposium for Refugees and Migrants successfully took place on 13 February 2023. The event was jointly organised by HCI Foundation, Islamic Relief South Africa, IOM, Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town, Study Trust and UNHCR 

The event began with a welcome talking to the importance of inclusion in national systems and higher education opportunities for the forcibly displaced to strengthen their resilience and be active participants and contributors to cohesive societies. This is in keeping with the goals of the UNHCR Refugee Education Strategy 2030. Thereafter there was an initial reflection on the extent of higher education funding and support available to refugees and migrants and a call for increased awareness of funding that is available. 

The event’s keynote speaker was Dr. Emmanuel Taban, African Person of the Year, author, renowned pulmonologist in South Africa and a former refugee. Dr Taban said: “My purpose was always to find education… I always wanted to be a doctor since I was 7 years old.” It was this goal that kept driving Dr Taban to overcome all manner of barriers during his journey as a refugee to finally achieve remarkable professional and personal success in his life. In his speech, Dr Taban emphasized the important role of higher education in building resilience and supporting cohesive societies. Dr Taban reflected on his story and the impact he has been able to make particularly in the medical field during the COVID-19 pandemic where he practised lifesaving medical techniques to fight this new complex disease. Dr Taban underscored that skills and education are key priorities and added that to be successful, community and support structures are pivotal elements. He called on everyone to keep on working hard to open up opportunities for people on the move as these efforts will all contribute to a stronger country and continent

After the reflection and keynote address there was a panel discussion. Panellists for the day included Mr Michael Bagraim, Ms Aurelie Kalenga, Ms Ellen Boriwondo and Mr Jamala Safari. 

Mr Michael Bagraim is a descendent of refugee grandparents and a well-known labour lawyer, who has and continues to work with the Cape Chamber of Commerce. Mr Bagraim emphasised that the constitution and law are based on equality and that labour rights apply to and protect all in South Africa. He spoke to how the business sector invests in education and training as being good affordable and favourable business practices. He said many businesses recognised the hunger, thirst and drive of refugees. He argued that the greatest scope for funding of tertiary studies and for the economy lies in the small business sector who initially invests in people to survive and then, through hard work, to thrive.  

Ms Aurelie Kalenga, a journalist with the SABC, host of the morning show on Channel Africa for SABC and founder the Grace Beyond Borders NGO, spoke to the importance of integration and looking to internships to put a foot in the door. She spoke to the challenges of accessing tertiary education and the workspace, and the number of doors closed to migrants and refugees that should be opened.

Ms Ellen Boriwondo is a Senior Advocacy Officer at the Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town, who reflected on her journey and the challenges experienced in pursuing her undergraduate studies and masters’ qualifications, hoping that the lessons learned from her experience will help equip others to access tertiary funding and support. She called on everyone to map and gather available resources and support building an extensive network for possible scholarships and other support for asylum-seekers, refugees and migrants. 

Mr Jamala Safari is an author and poet, CEO of the HCI Foundation and former refugee from the DRC. He is also a former recipient of an HCI Foundation bursary. He reflected on his personal journey in South Africa and how challenging it was to juggle his studies and multiple part-time jobs. If it was not for the HCI Foundation’s bursary, he could not have achieved his potential.  The HCI Foundation now regularly allocates 5% of its bursaries to refugee and asylum seeker students, whilst the rest goes to South Africans. Mr Safari encouraged philanthropic organisations and corporates to similarly consider ring fencing a percentage of their bursary funding towards refugees and migrants 

This event created a platform for diverse interested stakeholders to cooperate and collaborate on opportunities to better support scholarships, internships and other educational and vocational skills in support for persons on the move. The event organisers hope that the discussions held at the symposium will help raise awareness on the importance of inclusion in national opportunities and strengthen stakeholder collaboration and cooperation for refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants.