6 May 2016
Jorge Sampaio, Former President of Portugal and Founder of the Global Platform for Syrian Students
ECRE interviewed Jorge Sampaio, who served as the President of Portugal from 1996 to 2006. Mr. Sampaio is the founder and Chairman of the Global Platform for Syrian Students, an organization that supports Syrians students to resume their university studies in Portugal. From 2007 to 2013 he was the United Nations High Representative for the Alliance of Civilizations, an initiative that strives to work towards a more peaceful, more socially inclusive world, by building mutual respect among peoples of different cultural and religious identities and fostering intercultural dialogue and cooperation.
“Higher education in emergencies plays a critical role and should be prioritised within the humanitarian assistance.”
You have founded the Global Platform for Syrian Students in 2013, why did you think it was so important at that time to give scholarships to Syrians?
During my time as the UN High Representative for the Alliance of Civilizations, I had the opportunity to develop a network of contacts notably in the Middle East and developed a greater understanding how education can play a unique role as a catalyst for change. Education, in particular higher education reduces the risk of marginalization among young adults. In addition, harnessing the energy of young educated people should be a strategic priority during lengthy crises and protracted conflicts.
At the beginning of the Syrian conflict, the refugee crisis as a result of the conflict was largely ignored by the media and European decision makers, but it was severely affecting the countries around Syria that were hosting a big Syrian refugee population. This is why in November 2013 I launched the Global Platform for Syrian Students, a humanitarian initiative that would focus on Syrian students affected by the war. This NGO provides emergency scholarships for Syrian students who cannot continue their education because of the war. Having worked on this initiative for almost 3 years, I am totally convinced that although too often neglected, Higher Education in emergencies plays a critical role and should be prioritised within humanitarian aid.
Why should Higher Education be prioritised when providing humanitarian aid?
Within the current context, refugees from countries in the Middle East are well-educated and have higher levels of education but have very little access to education. Today´s protracted crisis have left a large segments of the population affected without the possibility to continue their academic paths and to contribute to their self-reliance and livelihoods. Moreover, higher education can maintain the hopes, help shelter and protect young men and women during crisis situations in the future and preventing them from being driven into the hands of violent groups.
Another reason is the fact that higher education can be a catalyst for change and can aid the recovery and rebuilding of war-torn countries. Educated future leaders are necessary and we must prevent the creation of lost generations of academic graduates during wartime. Finally, during protracted conflicts (the average duration of a civil war is 8 to 12 years) and when there is a sizable portion of a population displaced, education people are needed to propose and implement appropriate solutions.
Under the UDHR, everyone has a right to education including those affected by conflict and national disasters. Secondly, the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development sets up a new framework and new commitments, namely those linked to “providing inclusive and equitable quality education at all levels – early childhood, primary, secondary, tertiary, technical and vocational training” and the goal to “set up equal access for all women and men to affordable and quality technical, vocational and tertiary education, including universities”.
So all in all, there is a big need for urgent action to prioritize higher education in humanitarian aid. 2016 should be a year of change and the upcoming World Humanitarian Summit and the UN General Assembly Meeting on Refugees and Migrants, offer us a unique opportunity to take bold action and prioritize higher education in emergencies within the humanitarian agenda.
“2016 should be a year of change and the upcoming World Humanitarian Summit and the UN General Assembly Meeting on Refugees and Migrants, offer us a unique opportunity to take bold action and prioritize higher education in emergencies within the humanitarian agenda”.
What is the impact of these scholarships?
The number of scholarships awarded by the Platform until now has been very limited but their impact is not limited to the student who benefits from the scholarship. It resonates in their families and communities and it is a strong driver for keeping hope in the future. On top of that, it is very rewarding to see that an increasing number of students are now graduating despite the war and are thriving in life, building hope for the future. In the long run, hopefully these students will be part of the next generation of leaders who will participate in the rebuilding of Syria.
“In the long run, hopefully these scholarship students will be part of the next generation of leaders who will participate in the rebuilding of Syria”.
The Global Platform for Syrian Students has supported over 150 Syrian refugees in 10 countries. Around 100 are hosted by Portuguese universities. How are they integrating in Portugal?
Integration is a process that requires time, resolve and strong policy support, but it is a two-way street. For refugees and forcibly displaced persons, there is always the hope of returning home so they can feel that their stay in their new host country is only temporary. However, current data show that the average duration displacement situations is 17 years. Integration cannot therefore be optional, but necessary both for the refugees and the host communities.
The Global Platform for Syrian Students offers a range of services that allows young people to really feel like students among students. We have tried to ensure that they feel like other students in a mobility programme. Furthermore, we have also made sure with the Portuguese authorities that they would receive the appropriate international protection required by their specific situation. All this together, with strong support from the universities made the integration process a rather swift one.
How many people can benefit from the programme and what are its current obstacles?
We have received thousands of applications from Syrian students but our main obstacle is a lack of funding. Many universities having offered tuition fees waivers for Syrian students, we have the capacity to place them immediately but raising funds for higher education goes beyond scholarship fees and it is not an easy task.
“Now we see stronger voices speaking out for the need to prioritise higher education in humanitarian aid.”
Can you identify some trends in access to higher education for refugee students? Have things improved?
When you compare the current situation and when we started 3 years ago, access to higher education has not improved because the number of refugees and displaced persons has substantially increased and the demand for access to higher education is much greater.
However there is more of an awareness now about the importance of providing academic opportunities for refugees, and we see stronger voices speaking out for the need to prioritise higher education in humanitarian aid. I am currently promoting the idea of setting up a Rapid Response Mechanism for Higher Education in Emergencies.
What as a rapid Response Mechanism for Higher Education in Emergencies?
There are currently 37 conflicts worldwide, 25 million people in need of humanitarian assistance and 60 million people who were forced to flee their homes. These figures show the scale of the humanitarian crisis that we are faced with. In order to improve relief and advance the needs of millions we need to provide sustainable services and need a new vision and innovative approaches.
We need to develop different approaches to the various needs we are confronted with. Higher education is an entry-point on the humanitarian agenda that can be fast tracked. Higher education is a largely autonomous system in most countries and international mobility, cooperation and exchange are integral to the academic system. Universities and schools of higher education are accustomed to hosting foreign students and scholars, they have developed common procedures to recognise previous studies and degrees, and they are able to develop coordinated emergency academic responses, if asked. Most of the building blocks for an effective response are available; they only need to be assembled into a comprehensive framework and a coherent policy.
We need to set up a Rapid Response Mechanism for Higher Education in Emergencies putting the global academic community at its core. Universities and other providers of academic services should come together and work at all levels to achieve collective outcomes. To achieve this the only two missing components are a mechanism for international cooperation in this specific field and a financing facility aimed at supporting effective emergency programs to provide higher education to refugees and displaced people. Finance could come from an initial endowment of core-funding made by a small group of champions; countries, foundations, philanthropies and the private sector. It should also be based on a voluntary contribution on an annual basis of one dollar or euro by all university students, professors and researchers worldwide as a kind of a solidarity levy of the global academic community. With more than 200 million students worldwide, this is an untapped resource that could make a real difference.
Do you think that the EU’s response to the Syrian refugee crisis has been fast enough?
Unfortunately I don’t think so. It has been a very belated, uncoordinated response lacking a strategic vision.
Do you think the EU has had a role in improving access to higher education for displaced students?
The EU has provided some funding to promote higher education for displaced people but I don’t think that it is really making a difference. However, the EU could really lead the way and open up new, innovative, pioneering avenues for collaborative action by placing importance on the unique role that higher education can play in crisis situations.
Can you tell us about one or two success stories of Syrians who are rebuilding their lives in Portugal thanks to the platform?
Yes, I can, I am thinking of a group of brilliant students, all young women who fled Syria to a country where they were safe but stuck at home because they couldn’t access higher education. Though our programme they are now in higher education. I am also thinking about another group of students who, after a two-year scholarship, are about to graduate here in Portugal and are now hoping to enter the job market. In both cases having the opportunity to resume their studies has changed their lives and enhanced their hope for a better future, not only for them, but also for their families and communities.
A shorter version of this interview appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin of 6 May 2016. You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.