SIHMA | Scalabrini Institute For Human Mobility In Africa

Scalabrini Centre Cape Town Access to Higher Education for Migrants and Refugees Symposium

Access to education is important in providing a link between earning and learning allowing young people to thrive and transition to the pursuit of sustainable features (UNHCR, 2019). Access to education for asylum seekers, refugees and migrants not only benefits the individuals seekers involved, but also the host country’s economic and social development.  Although this is a fact, access to higher education for non-nationals remains a challenge in most host countries (Martin & Stulgaitis, 2022; Kavuro, 2021). They face many obstacles in trying to access their host country higher education system. These include the country’s legal restrictions for example, movement or on access to labour markets information barriers, constraining language requirements, psychological and newcomer obstacles, difficulty in getting credentials recognised, financial barriers, lack of certification required, restrictions on fields of study open for refugees etc. (UNHCR, 2019; Martin & Stulgaitis, 2022). All these together add up to a super disadvantage which makes access for refugees more difficult. The number of refugees enrolled in higher education continues to be low, in 2021 only 3% of the refugees were enrolled in higher education UNHCR, 2019.  To increase this number, the Refugee Education 2030: A strategy for refugee inclusion, set a target to enrol 15% (approximately half a million) of the refugees and asylum seekers in tertiary, vocational and technical education (UNHCR, 2019). To achieve this, international and national organisations, host countries and different stakeholders should commit to finding solutions to access to higher education challenge by asylum seekers and refugees. A study conducted in 6 countries with the highest considerable refugee population highlighted multiple recommendations on how countries can support access to education for refugees and asylum seekers. Some of the recommendations include, the provision of accessible information on national higher education systems, flexible procedures for admission   formalities,   funding   opportunities,  credential   recognition for refugees, preparatory courses for tertiary education, opportunities for social cohesion, provision of support, fee exemption to refugee students or  links with  international  donors  to  cover  tuition  fees,   access  for  refugees  to  national  (contingency-based)   student   loan   systems to cover their living cost, funding for higher education institutions to support refugees and lastly the organisation of support networks of higher education  institutions  that  engage  collectively to support refugee students (Martin and Sulgaitis, 2022).

Access to education for refugees and asylum seekers in South Africa remains problematic, although they are entitled to seek and receive education in South Africa as stipulated in various legal documents. According to the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, nobody can be excluded from education even if they are undocumented or non-national (Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996, chapter 2) everyone in the country is implicitly entitled to higher education. The Refugees Act 1998 also gives refugees and asylum seekers special protection with regards to access to tertiary education (Kavuro, 2021).  In contrast, there is a discrepancy of these laws and actual reality as many asylum seekers and refugees continue to face barriers to higher education. In South Africa exclusion emanates from the exclusion from funding opportunities e.g. National Students Financial Aid Scheme and the National Skills Funds, lack of documentation, limited language proficiency, limited access to information, unavailability of necessary documents and precarious life circumstances only to mention a few (Kavuro, 2021; Hühmer, 2020). Thus, also leading to their underrepresentation in higher education which also leads to lack of academic support and ability to succeed (McCowan, 2016; Lenette, 2016; Ramsay & Baker, 2019; Streitwieser et al., 2019). Therefore, there is need for more efforts towards ensuring access to higher education for asylum seekers and refugees to compete in the labour market and have sustainable livelihood strategies.

With the above in mind, Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town (SCCT) and its partners, are continuously working towards the educational inclusion of asylum seekers, refugees and migrants as part of its mandate. In its attempt to continue advancing access to education for all including refugees and migrants, SCCT organised a Higher Education Symposium for Refugees and Migrants which successfully took place on 13 February 2023. The Scalabrini Institute for Human Mobility (SIHMA) had the opportunity to attend this symposium. The event was jointly organised by HCI Foundation, Islamic Relief South Africa, IOM, Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town, Study Trust and UNHCR (Scalabrini Centre Cape Town, 2023). The symposium brought together practitioners, experts, and different stakeholders to discuss access to education for asylum seekers and refugees in South Africa, the importance of education opportunities and scholarships for this group and recommendations to accelerate and sustain access. During the event a reflection on the available funding opportunities for asylum seekers refugees was given, Dr Taban, Africa Person of the Year, author, renowned pulmonologist, and a former refugee gave a keynote address and a panel discussion followed. The event gave  a platform for discussions around cooperation and collaboration on opportunities to support access to education for asylum seekers, refugees and migrants.

For more information on the event please refer to the following link:

Picture by SCCT



Constitution of the Republic of South Africa. (1996). Republic of South Africa. Retrieved from

Hühmer, H. (2020). Blended learning & targeted support for refugees in South Africa: adapting to Higher Education barriers (Bachelor's thesis, University of Twente).

Kavuro, C. (2021). World Refugee Day: SA aggravates the plight of refugees and asylum seekers for higher education funding. Available:

Lenette, C. (2016). University students from refugee backgrounds: why should we care?. Higher Education Research & Development, 35(6), 1311-1315. doi:10.1080/07294360.2016.1190524

Marti, M. & Stulgaitis. (2022). Refugees’ Access to Higher Education in their Host Countries: Overcoming the ‘super-disadvantage’: Policy Paper. International Institute for Educational Planning: Paris

McCowan, T. (2016). Three Dimensions of Equity of Access to Higher Education. Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education, 46(4), 645-665. doi:10.1080/03057925.2015.1043237

Ramsay, G. & Baker, S. (2019). Higher Education and Students from Refugee Backgrounds: A Meta-Scoping Study. Refugee Survey Quarterly, 38(1), 55-82. doi:10.1093/rsq/hdy018

Streitwieser, B., Loo, B., Ohorodnik, M., & Jeong, J. (2019). Access for Refugees Into Higher Education: A Review of Interventions in North America and Europe. Journal of Studies in International Education, 23(4), 473-496. doi:10.1177/1028315318813201

UNHCR. (2019). Education 2030: A Strategy for Refugee Education. Available:


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