University education in refugee camps must meet refugee needs

Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya.

Paul O’Keeffe, Université de Genève and Abdeljalil Akkari, Université de Genève

In recent years there’s been an increasing demand for higher education in refugee camps across Africa. This is because young people in camps (or coming into camps) are finishing school or looking for something to do, and because humanitarian-development initiatives promote education as a key to success. There is also a widespread belief among refugees that education improves their chances of being resettled overseas.

Online education has, in recent years, emerged as one of the main methods of delivering higher education in the camps.

Refugee camps lack infrastructure, have few resources and people are confined far away from traditional higher education institutions. Coupled with advances in technology and global education inter-connectivity, online education is touted as a viable solution for refugees that seek further learning.

While there is great potential for online higher education to reach many people, caution needs to be paid if online education is to live up to the hype.

As academics who operate in both refugee and non-refugee higher education spaces, we have insights into how education is delivered and the very different roles it plays in these contexts.

The online education delivered in refugee camps is typically developed and facilitated by Western universities and humanitarian organisations in partnership with local universities. They offer a range of qualifications such as degrees, diplomas and certificates.

The types of courses vary greatly depending on what resources are available and how strict the camp’s confinement policies are. For example, a course could include the option of attending classes in a local university or it could take place solely online.

Technology and reliable internet connections are the most important resources. But both are rare commodities in refugee camps. Refugees also face the challenge of learning non-contexualised material, in extremely inhospitable surroundings, with little or no support.

We find that the purpose of higher education in camps, its delivery method and the content to be problematic for refugee learners. In our experience, we believe that this is because the needs of refugees haven’t been considered before a course is introduced. In addition, the necessary pedagogy to support learners is not in place.

With the rush to use online education in refugee contexts, it is imperative that we scrutinise its role and application. Higher education has a very different meaning for those who have the freedom to do what they want, than for those who don’t always have the agency to make their own life choices.


The most important question to address is what are the goals and the significance of higher education in a refugee camp?

Refugees usually have three options: remain for a long time or resettle in the host country, resettle in another country (usually in the US or Europe) or go back home. Higher education may equip refugees with the skills to cope in all these situations. Humanistic skills – such as knowledge of their human rights, gender sensitivity and empowerment – and competencies, such as language, technological and professional know-how. However, unless it’s relevant and delivered appropriately, it may lose its power to enable these skills.

We’ve seen courses – that would not be out of place in Harvard or Oxford – delivered in places where electricity, food or smart phones are not a given. How can a refugee, whose basic needs are not being met, spend hours online discussing philosophies that bear no resemblance to their daily lives or learn to code with limited access to a computer that frequently doesn’t work?

In addition, these courses are often delivered without being sensitive to different student realities. They assume all students have access to the same resources, learn in the same way and have the same cultural references in which they can process and embed new knowledge.

In our view, a lot more thought needs to be given to what and how courses are implemented in these contexts.

Western education

There are also questions as to why Western education providers are in refugee camps in the first place and whether local universities aren’t better placed to operate.

This is because the majority of refugees will not be resettled to a third country. They will have to build their futures in the refugee camp they’re in, unless they return home. Local universities may, in many situations, be better placed to understand the education needs of refugees than foreign ones.

To legitimise their presence, western humanitarian and development agendas like to promote the idea of partnering on the ground. This appeals to funders of education development projects, who wish to promote “capacity building” as a key facet of what they do.

In this context, partnerships are formed between foreign and local universities. However, we’ve seen how power dynamics can often result in a local university – despite having a better understanding of the context and needs of refugees in its area – being sidelined by well-funded western institutions.

What needs to happen

Concepts such as “localisation” and “culturally appropriate pedagogical practices” must be at the centre of our common reflection on online higher education in refugee camps and be put into practice.

To meet the higher education needs of refugees, those of us working in refugee contexts need to take the time to get to know our students better. For our work at the University of Geneva, the success of our programmes in refugee camps has always hinged on truly listening to refugees’ views on how education can improve their lives.

For instance, from our conversations, we developed the InZone-Raft Basic Medical Training course in Kenya’s Kakuma refugee camp. This online course, its content and delivery, was informed by and facilitated by the refugees with the assistance of their tutors in Geneva.

The course focused on health-care issues relevant to communities in Kakuma. It has provided its participants with skills and knowledge that are much-needed in the under-resourced health care system in the camp. The first cohort of students from the course recently graduated and are currently preparing to undertake internships with the International Rescue Committee in Kakuma.

Online higher education can be a great lever for social change in refugee camps. It can really work well, but many innovative ideas remain to be explored and implemented, if it is to be done right.The Conversation

Paul O’Keeffe, Post Doctoral Researcher, Université de Genève and Abdeljalil Akkari, Professor, Université de Genève

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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