From higher education to employment skills for refugee youth

CERTE closing ceremony in 2018

Closing Ceremony of CERTE 2018

By Priya Sharma
School of Business

World Refugee Day is a day that we pay tribute to the resilience and determination of millions of refugees worldwide. The enormity of the world refugee crisis is difficult to grasp, but raising awareness on even just one issue can help make it easier for others to understand the extent of what refugees around the world are going through.

On 20 June, we celebrate World Refugee Day 2021, the theme of which is "Together we heal, learn and shine." To learn and to have an adequate education has the power to propel any student towards future success. For young refugees, the academic, social, and environmental aspects of attending higher education build important tools supporting advancement later in life. Advocating higher education for refugees appeared to be on course in 2019. It was one of six topics of focus at the inaugural United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) Global Refugee Forum in December 2019 and earned support from donors and policymakers who pledged to make refugee higher education a primary concern.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic dealt a significant setback to this agenda and existing educational drawbacks that young refugees disproportionately face have only worsened. Moreover, there is an absence of a national legal framework for refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia as the country remains non-signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. In terms of education, this lack of structure also means an absence of access to education. Refugee children and youth in Malaysia, therefore, obtain education via an informal parallel system.

Developmentally, 2020 has shown us that losing a full year of education for any student is hard to recover from. For the young refugee in Malaysia, the added instability of their environment and the lack of the right to education puts them at even greater risk. Without basic tertiary qualifications, many refugee youths are forced to take up menial jobs in the informal sectors exposing them to exploitative labour conditions, highlighting the impact of this instability.

As one refugee youth said, "I managed to get into a university, but before I even started, my brother lost his job due to this pandemic, and we had to withdraw the money we paid as an initial payment for my tertiary education."

It is easy to feel helpless in the face of such a massive worldwide crisis. However, taking small steps can help make a difference. One such step is the CERTE (Connecting and Equipping Refugees for Tertiary Education) Program established in 2016. 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 aims to identify refugees who can demonstrate the motivation and academic potential to gain access to education and equip and empower them to gain a place at any university or college.

The task force is supported by Opening Universities for Refugees (OUR), UNHCR Malaysia, the CERTE Steering Committee comprised of academics and humanitarians from the UK, USA, Bahrain, Singapore, Malaysia and a non-government agency, Fugeelah. Since the introduction of this course, out of 93 CERTE participants, 19 have gained admission to private institutions in Malaysia as at 2019. Unfortunately, the program came to a halt in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, which made it impossible for the program to continue.

In December 2020, led by refugee youth, the CERTE Steering committee regrouped to discuss how the CERTE Program could be offered in a virtual platform. As a result of months of late-night meetings, tedious planning, fostering partnerships with stakeholders and meticulous coordination, the CERTE Virtual Program 2021 became a reality.

The program began on 5 June 2021 and will end on 26 June 2021. Although designed to provide basic academic skills, the CERTE Virtual Program has evolved into a space that offers support, comfort and inspiration for these young refugees. "I am so glad I have something to do during this lockdown. It helps me forget about how bad things are," revealed one CERTE participant.

"I am hopeful, I feel cared for and relevant," expressed another.

"I feel connected to people of different backgrounds, beliefs and purposes with various skills and abilities. It has given me a clear understanding of my future decisions," they added.

At the end of the CERTE Virtual Program, participants are given a certificate that endorses their participation and serves as a stepping stone to future learning opportunities in Malaysia or elsewhere.

One such learning opportunity for the CERTE graduates is the Employability Education Virtual (EEv) Program by the School of Business Principles of Responsible Management Education  (PRME) platform in collaboration with the school's Entrepreneurship and Innovation Hub (Eihub), the Monash Business Alumni Chapter and industry partners, taking place in July 2021.

In partnership with the CERTE Steering Committee and UNHCR, Malaysia, the EEv Program complements the CERTE program and seeks to offer young refugees a chance to secure the skills and attributes that can help them meet their basic needs. Like everyone else, refugees need to earn a living to support their livelihoods, especially given they have lost most, if not all, of their productive assets after fleeing their home countries. Due to desperate living conditions, in many cases, refugee youth share financial responsibilities for their household.

Coupled with academic skills, the EEv Program aims to help these young refugees develop and improve a host of intersecting soft skills and foundational personal attributes directly tied to employability. It also seeks to build opportunities for them to practice skills, discuss ideas, be creative, build relationships and participate in a meaningful way.

As the world builds back in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, refugees cannot and must not be left behind. This day encourages all of us to think creatively and resourcefully about what we can do to help. While working towards this agenda is not something that can materialise overnight, it is an important aspiration and World Refugee Day reminds us of just how vital it is.