Today, more than a million refugees live in Europe, but their voices are not represented.  They are trapped within a cycle of challenges, but without the means to tackle these challenges. Refugees are not represented within our democracies, being denied the right to vote, stand up in elections, or participate through other democratic means.We want their voices to be heard. We want to create communities that are able to shape new ideas together. We need to go beyond the idea that democracy is just casting a ballot. 

G-100 is a series of events, where refugees, asylum seekers, European experts, and decision makers meet to discuss and deliberate about different challenges. These meetings take place in different European cities where these challenges exist. Together we can build a new future for Europe. 

G-100 met in Brussels on March 18th, 2018, gathering more than 80 refugees, asylum seekers, Belgian and European citizens to discuss together two importants topics: access to higher education and democratic participation. Together participants analysed the problems refugees face in these fields, debated new ideas and recommended possible solutions.

These policy recommendations were then presented to policy makers during the G-100 conference on May 15th in Brussels.

Access to Higher Education

From the years 2010 to 2017, statistics show that 28% of non-Belgian citizens, from ages 15-35 years old, are not involved in any form of education, employment or other formal training (also known as NEET). This is compared to the native population average of 12%.

The Belgian government has emphasized the importance of social inclusion and civic integration of refugees and asylum seekers. For instance, since the large arrivals of asylum seekers in 2015-16, the Belgian government has been considering asking refugees to sign a statement, confirming that they respect European “values.” However, it is not always easy for refugees and asylum seekers to understand the nature and the practical implications emerging from the respect of European values and the social duty of civic integration, unless they are trained to do so or are highly educated.

Access to higher education is one of the most efficient ways to move towards civic integration and social inclusion, enabling refugees to gain a deep understanding of their hosting society and the values there. Hence, granting access to higher education for refugees should be one specific policy measure taken by the state to foster social integration of refugees and asylum seekers.

In Belgium, certain local initiatives and “open-door policies” by the universities encourage refugees and their children to pursue higher education. However, there are still numerous substantial and bureaucratic challenges preventing refugees from gaining access to higher education.

 

Obstacles and Barriers

The participants to the workshop event identified five key challenges that refugees and asylum seekers face regarding access to higher education in Belgium, those being: lack of information, institutional ambivalence, legal barriers, motivational aspects, and the need to meet (and formally prove) academic and linguistic requirements. Below, we describe each of these obstacles and barriers in detail.

Lack of Information

The most important obstacle that prevents refugees and asylum seekers from pursuing higher education is the non-existence of centralized and trustworthy channels to access information and assess their eligibility to higher education institutions. Currently, refugees and asylum seekers receive information mainly from their friends and relatives, social assistants, and the universities’ websites.

The available information sources present multiple shortcomings:

  1. Friends and relatives are in many instances not well aware of the actual information about higher education policies in Belgium.
  2. Social assistants are appointed to specific tasks and most of the time, higher education does not concern them or higher education for refugees is not in the interest or priority of their institutions.
  3. Information available on the websites of the universities is not entirely clear. 

Institutional ambivalence

Multiple actors with different competences and asymmetric powers are responsible for integration policies in Belgium. The main governmental organisations responsible for financial support to refugees are the Public Service for Social Welfare (CPAS/OCMW) and the National Employment Office (ONEM/RVA). Their main goal is to provide stability to the refugees and asylum seekers, and therefore to integrate them into the labour market as soon as possible. At the same time, various local actors are implementing Civic and Social Integration programs, aimed at providing assistance with social and civic orientation as well as general knowledge about Belgian society. While there is some coordination in place, there is often a lack of communication and “conflicting objectives” between the different actors.

In addition, universities require refugee students to approve or provide certain documents such as original transcripts from universities in their countries of origin or proofs of citizenship from their embassies. The immigration offices of the “Commissariat Général” issue, might sometimes issue such documents, but they are not always sufficient or acceptable for the universities.

As a result:

  1. Refugees and asylum seekers cannot fully enjoy their access to higher education because of the conflict of interests between the mentioned government institutions and other integration actors.
  2. In many cases, refugees and asylum seekers wishing to enrol in universities are discouraged or even directly prevented by the CPAS/OCMW and ONEM/RVA.
  3. According to the 1951 Refugee Convention, international refugees are prohibited from contacting the embassies or government institutions of their home countries. If they attempt to retrieve a requested document for the university, they risk their own refugee status.

Legal barriers

The Belgian law allows every legally residing inhabitant of Belgium to obtain higher education and apply for scholarships or other kinds of financial support from the government. Yet, there are some legal restrictions within the regional legislations for refugees and asylum seekers.

  1. Political refugees can apply for a government scholarship or educational loan only if they have lived in Belgium one full year after their asylum decision, which means that refugees cannot ask for financial allowance in their first year of residence (Royal decree no. A.R. 17-05-1977, M.B. 08-11-1977). The reality of waiting for a full year to enrol in university strongly demotivates them to pursue higher education, resulting in many individuals taking low-skilled jobs in the labour market instead.
  2. The nationals of developing countries/territories are required to have been residing in Belgium for at least five years, as of October 31 of the academic year during which they apply for enrolment at university, in addition to having completed a minimum of five years of study previously. Or, their country of origin should have a reciprocity agreement with Belgium, in order for them to be eligible for any form of financial allowance.
  3. The implementation of 1 and 2 varies between different Belgian universities.
  4. Asylum seekers usually stay for a long time in protection centres, awaiting the result of their asylum procedure, which can last up to several years. During this time, they are not allowed to benefit from social allowance to obtain “higher education.”

Motivational Aspects

The result of the discussions with refugees and asylum seekers during the event shows that the majority of them are not informed of their rights in obtaining academic qualifications. There is a prevalent perception that being a refugee excludes an individual from access to many rights the autochthonous community enjoys, including the right to higher education. As such, most refugees and asylum seekers do not even consider higher education as an option for sustaining their future lives during their first years of arrival in Belgium.

Refugee participants to the event also highlighted the following issues that lower their motivation to pursue higher education:  

  1. Multi-layered, lengthy and complex bureaucratic and administrative challenges, which prove more complicated than for nationals and EU citizens.
  2. Difficult application processes within the higher education institutions.
  3. Asylum seekers are allowed to pursue higher education during their application procedure but they are not entitled to financial support by the reception centres or government institutions.
  4. In the case of a negative decision regarding the asylum application, the efforts that were put forth in pursuing a higher education become void.
  5. The general feeling of being neglected and marginalized.

Requirements and language issues

The admission requirements into higher education programs depend on the applicant’s previous level and field of studies. Due to the circumstances related to fleeing underdeveloped or war-torn countries, refugees and asylum seekers are not always able to provide all the of those required documents.

  1. Some Belgian universities have developed elementary skills and knowledge evaluation tools, but they are not widely implemented and in some occasions, they have not been fully successful in properly measuring the skills. For instance, if a student who completed his/her studies in the native language wants to continue to study in Belgium, s/he has to go through a skills measuring interview first, then to the language and skill training courses, while the skills assessment could be carried out more efficiently after the language and training courses.
  2. Sometimes refugees are proficient in one of the languages of Belgian universities (Dutch, French, German or English), but because they cannot prove such language proficiency with official diplomas. Therefore they are required to wait until a proper language certification is obtained.

Consequences

The constraints and lack of access to higher education for refugees and asylum seekers living in Belgium has numerous negative consequences.

The participants of the G-100 workshop pointed out some of these potential negative consequences, particularly for the Belgian communities in which these individuals live:

  1. Following the current technological revolution and digitalisation of society, even low-skilled jobs will require individuals with higher levels of education in the future.
  2. An understanding of and respect for European values are considered key principles for refugees to integrate into Belgian society, yet without higher education, such principles prove hard to grasp, thus undermining a smooth integration of refugees into the hosting society.
  3. A lack of access to higher education affects the most vulnerable within a population, often-times the most disadvantaged being women, thus leading to a greater gender inequality within a given society.
  4. Lack of higher education among refugees will make these individuals more vulnerable and susceptible to manipulation by terrorist and other radical groups.

10 Recommendations

Participants of the G-100 workshop indicated that the solutions to the issues mentioned above can be addressed through the following 10 policy recommendations, which can be summarised by the following themes: creation of a resource and information centre, institutional cooperation, inclusive legislation, and boosting the motivation of refugees.

Resource and information centre

1. A centralised, independent and reliable information centre to provide information for refugees and asylum seekers from the primary sources. This information centre could support and provide counselling to refugees and asylum seekers on the following topics:

  • Access to higher education
  • Administrative
  • Information about the university programmes and study offers
  • Recognition of former academic qualifications and professional experiences
  • Assess the eligibility of candidates to follow an academic program in the relevant university
  • Communication and cooperation with all actors involved in the higher education procedures
  • Consolidation and encouragement of refugees and asylum seekers, especially the minors, to pursue higher education

Participants of G-100 made additional proposals towards an efficient information delivery. At the very least:

  • Universities should be encouraged to improve the visibility of the support programmes already in place by providing the visitors of their websites with precise, systematic information concerning applications for prospective refugee students.
  • All the stakeholders working with refugees and asylum seekers should support and encourage those interested in and qualified for higher education on their way.

In addition, information about higher education opportunities must be delivered to all refugees through many different channels, including social integration classes, social assistants, and protection centres.

Institutional cooperation

2. The conflict in the interests of actors involved in assisting refugees should not prevent the latter from pursuing higher education. Actors in charge of integration, especially the Social Welfare and Employment Services, should instead closely cooperate with each other, and improve their policies to make them more refugee-friendly.

3. As refugees are forced to join the labour market as soon as possible, there are often many restrictions preventing them from returning to higher education institutions at a later stage. Participants to the G-100 recommend that the government should monitor such kind of pressure and ensure that refugees freely choose whether to work or enrol in higher institutions.

4. Considering the situation of refugees and the legal restrictions that they face, the universities should change their requirements with regard to required admission documents. Refugees should not in any case be requested to complete any action that would risk their asylum status.

Inclusive legislation

5. Given that the majority of refugees are financially constrained, it is important to give them access to financial support in order to promote their education. The laws that restrict financial allowance to be provided to refugees and asylum seekers based on their time of residence in the country needs to be eased and simplified.

6. The examples, good practices, and lessons learnt from the Norwegian and German initiatives on the access to higher education for the refugees and asylum seekers can help the Belgian policy makers to apply it in a harmonized way in all regions of Belgium.

7. There should be an option for highly motivated and qualified asylum seekers to pursue higher education while waiting for the result of their asylum application in the protection centres.

8. The government should allow for a status change (from refugee protection to study residence visa) in case an asylum application is rejected but the person has been already enrolled in a university programme and is successfully pursuing higher education studies.

9. Refugees should be granted student mobility as any other citizens. If a refugee is accepted to a higher education program in another country, the legislation should support and facilitate enrolment.

Motivation

10. Refugees, especially minors, often assume that they do not have the sufficient background to study in Europe. Sharing information about positive examples of those who study and achieve successful results, thus giving individuals the opportunity to meet and talk to those refugees will help to change this perception.

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Democratic participation

About 20% of residents in Belgium are non-nationals, with higher peaks of foreigner’s representation in the capital region of Brussels, where around one third of residents are Belgian citizens.

Refugees who are legal residents of Belgium and of the European Union have only limited possibilities to participate in the democratic life of the society in which they live. In Belgium, they can vote for local elections after five years of permanent residence and they can vote for regional elections with the same criteria only in the Region of Wallonia. However, they are not allowed to vote for national and European elections.

This creates a situation in which a high number of non-nationals, who feel part of the community they live in, are de facto excluded from the possibility to have their voices heard by policy makers. Therefore, policies do not necessarily take into account or reflect their needs.

Obstacles and Barriers 

There are a number of obstacles and barriers for what concerns democratic participation for refugees that were discussed and outlined by the participants of the G-100 initiative.

Short term

Refugees often do not know how to participate in the democracy of the host countries. They lack information, because – at present – there are no channels providing for information about their rights and obligations. Integration programs simply do not cover or focus on information regarding democratic participation of refugees. 

Refugees and asylum seekers feel that authorities and institutions are not available to respond to their questions, starting from bureaucratic procedures until the issue of democratic participation.

Refugees and asylum seekers often receive contradicting information from different institutional actors (for example: regarding certificates or legal documents).

Refugees and asylum seekers believe that they cannot openly state their opinions, because of the fear they have of the immigration office. Their freedom of expression is limited. They lack the possibility to challenge the authorities and the way authorities exercise their power, contesting the rules and decisions affecting the refugee community. 

Medium-long term

In the host countries, refugees and asylum seekers’ voices are not heard. They have no possibility of influencing policies concerning them directly. Authorities do not involve them, and this results in a lack of understanding of the priorities and needs of the refugee population.

Refugees do not have the right to vote in national and European elections in the countries where they live, study, work, pay taxes, and build their future. In Belgium, access to regional and local elections is open to refugees everywhere at local levels and only in the Region of Wallonia for regional elections, with the conditions that refugees are allowed to vote only after five years of residence.

There are discriminating and racist behaviours towards refugees and asylum seekers by local citizens and administrations. These, together with the extremely burdensome bureaucracy and the high costs of applications and certificates, are elements that discourage refugees’ participation in the European society and democracy. 

The long waiting periods to access the labour market do not make people feel welcomed or encouraged to participate and contribute to the society and its democratic process but put them in a limbo of inactivity.

These obstacles do not allow refugees and asylum seekers to make a positive contribution and the feeling of being a stranger in the community they live in is reinforced. 

Consequences

All the restrictions and lack of information on democratic and civic participation for refugees cause numerous problems and result in slower integration.

Short term

At the beginning, refugees and asylum seekers mainly focus on their basic needs (food, housing, health).

As long as refugees are not aware of their rights and they don’t receive appropriate information from the authorities, they will not see themselves as democratic actors and won’t even think that they could have a role to play in the political life of the country where they live. The lack of awareness of their rights and the legal obligations in the host country is a serious concern for refugees and asylum seekers, especially for those who are detained or are sheltered in closed centres (for example: right to have a lawyer, etc.).

Medium-long term

There is no expectation for refugees and asylum seekers to participate in democracy or in the political life. On one hand, a growing feeling of frustration can emerge if and when a person that contributes to the society, through work, attending school, paying taxes, consuming goods, and respect one’s duties there, is denied participation in the democratic processes or the ability to fully exercise his/her rights. On the other hand, the country hosting refugees is also losing by not recognising refugees as potential contributors to the development of the country and by not empowering them to be active actors of the economic, social and democratic life.

Frustration and feelings of estrangement can bring communities to a state of separation and disconnection, creating sub-groups by language/nationalities and not mixing with local communities. It reinforces taboos and raises barriers among refugee and local communities.

10 Recommendations

Short term

1. Facilitate and provide refugees and asylum seekers with clear and precise information on their rights and obligations. This should be done, first and foremost, in the integration courses, that should include a chapter on citizenship. Refugees could then hear about how to access and participate in a democratic and political life of the country they live in and of the European Union. Integration courses need to be improved, where currently the staff in the protection centres do not necessarily have or share the needed information. Moreover, integration is a long term process, so the support should not stop at the end of the course.

2. Creation of a user-friendly website (in multiple languages) and/or establishment of a physical help desk that would allow refugees and asylum seekers to easily access information about democratic participation at any time. Information and education on the democratic processes and how to assert one’s rights should be at the core of these tools. Refugees and asylum seekers should be informed about the political life of the country (political parties, candidates, etc.) and the different options on how to use their rights. There is a real need for raising awareness about rights for refugees and asylum seekers, so that they will become empowered and will know how to use these rights, especially in order to protect themselves from discrimination. 

3. Efficient coordination among the different institutions and authorities is needed to simplify and make procedures more accessible for refugees. The centralisation of information into a 1-stop-shop (physical /online) database where all information is gathered about the different initiatives, NGOs, service providers (including lawyers, doctors…). There are a lot of local and grass-root initiatives and organisations, but there is not communication among them. There needs to be more efficient coordination and coherence. Therefore, a mapping of the existing groups (refugee led or not) clarifying their functions and goals would be important. Institutions need to encourage the culture of self-help and mutual support among refugees. Civil society organisations need to see refugees and asylum seekers as active actors and involve them in the local community. Newcomers have rights and they must receive information about their legal, human, political and social rights. These rights have to be guaranteed inside the refugee centres in accordance with human and international law. For this reason, it is important that refugees and asylum seekers receive information about their rights at arrival and in any case as early as possible. Mechanisms to report violations and abuses must be established if and where they are not in place yet and refugees and asylum seekers need to be able to voice their concerns without fearing repercussions. This is why the creation of a special ombudsman for refugees and asylum seekers would be a solution.

4. Institutions need to take into account life perspectives and trajectories of refugees and asylum seekers. While encouraging and empowering refugees to participate in the economy, they should also encourage young people to continue their education. Education for refugees must be prioritised at the same level as jobs for a positive integration and for an enhanced contribution to Belgian and European society. Refugees and asylum seekers need to be empowered. Refugees who have firsthand experience of these issues need to be involved, by contributing their expertise in order to assist other newcomers. Mutual support needs to be encouraged and the barriers to refugees’ participation in the economy reduced. EU and its member states’ political institutions, offices, associations, and other organisations should be more inclusive towards refugee job seekers who would like to start a career and know more about the political and democratic life in the European Union.

5. Facilitation of intercultural programs and activities is important, because culture plays an important role in what is considered to be good, bad, acceptable, respect etc. within a given society. Without a proper support, there could be frictions or misinterpretation of what is the correct way to implement democracy and rights in a given country. Institutions should support the creation of occasions for refugees and locals to mix and make this information easily accessible, a sort of couch surfing for social events.

Medium-long term

6. Refugees are active members of the society and they have the right to be considered as such and for their voices to be heard. A platform could be established within the centralised information services described above to transmit the problems and challenges faced by refugees to the authorities and other institutions. This would improve the feeling among refugees that authorities and institutions are available to listen and provide answers—that there is an open dialogue.

7. The most important way to increase democratic participation would be to allow refugees to vote and stand as candidates in local elections. There are examples of this being done in some European countries, such as Sweden where non-EU citizens who have resided in the country for three consecutive years are allowed to vote in municipal and county elections, and Belgium in Wallonia after 5 years of residence refugees are allowed to vote for local elections.

8. Allowing refugees to vote in the European elections would be an important signal on the part of the European Union towards this community. 

9. If they cannot vote and participate in formal political processes, refugees can make their voice heard by positively influencing decision making processes at the local, national and European levels in other ways, supporting the adoption of policies concerning them and helping governments in resolving issues addressing refugees directly. For improving the democratic participation of refugees, institutions could:

  • Allow refugees to take part in the democratic life of the municipality (for example, inviting them to attend the city/communal council) and involve them in local events/activities.
  • Authorise a representative of the refugee community to participate in city council as an official member with voting rights.
  • Consult refugees to give an opinion on issues affecting them directly (via an online platform or by mail).
  • Support the creation of refugees’ associations, co-chaired by a refugee and a local member of the municipality. This association could act as the intermediary between the refugee community and the local authorities.
  • Establish a consultative organ gathering refugees, authorities and NGOs working with refugees to discuss policies and provide input for the creation and implementation of measures regarding newcomers. This could be done at the local, national and European level. It would also be important to connect cities across Europe to better implement policies and empower refugees.

10. The role of political parties is also crucial for increasing the democratic participation of refugees. Political parties need to be open to refugees and involve them in their political life. This would allow refugees to have a channel where to express their voice and be more involved in the life of the country where they live.