My op-ed about tech education initiatives for refugees and how we talk about refugees’ economic and social contributions was originally published in Our World on January 16, 2019. The hyperlinks/citations in my original submission didn’t make it into the final publication, so I’ve reproduced the article below with the hyperlinks added.
I recently spent an academic year as a Fulbright Scholar learning about vocational education and job training programs intended to promote refugees’ labor market integration in Germany and Sweden. My interviews with government officials, representatives from private industry, and direct service providers revealed how a strong emphasis on formal qualifications in both countries often presented hurdles for refugees seeking skilled employment; some refugees possessed university degrees or undertook vocational training before arriving in Europe, but lacked documentation to certify their qualifications. Meanwhile, some refugees struggled to gain proficiency in their host country’s language, or had educational backgrounds or skills that didn’t match their local labor markets. Lengthy and low-paying apprenticeships, vocational education and training (VET) programs, and other long-standing, highly structured employment initiatives in both countries sometimes failed to meet the needs of refugees supporting dependents, or those seeking to send money to their families back home.
Most of my interviewees working in government or in the skilled trades sector (e.g., engineering, construction, manufacturing) discussed the “traditional” education and training pathways mentioned above, and the complexities involved in recertifying refugees’ qualifications. Certainly, examining how refugees have adapted to these pathways and filled labor shortages in certain industries are important to understanding how Europe has responded to the 2015 “refugee crisis.” However, I instead want to turn to educational initiatives emerging from the tech sector that seek to challenge rigid notions of what being “educated” or “qualified” look like.
A recent Migration Policy Institute Europe report assessed the potential of coding schools across Europe and the United States, including CodeYourFuture (United Kingdom), HackYourFuture (Netherlands), ReDI School of Digital Integration (Germany), and the Refugee Coding Project (U.S.), in preparing refugees for software development jobs (disclosure: I was a Visiting Fellow at MPI Europe and interviewed the author of the report in Berlin during my Fulbright year). The report noted that coding schools can provide a pathway for refugees to gain in-demand skills in the IT sector within a relatively short period of time, while bypassing some of the formal qualification barriers that often prohibit refugees from entering other occupations. Moreover, the programs suit a variety of learning styles: some are self-guided, while some are more structured and feature substantial contact hours between students and teachers.
Online learning platforms can also facilitate nontraditional pathways to earning “traditional” qualifications. Kiron, a non-profit launched in Germany in 2015, aims to facilitate refugees’ access to higher education institutions in their host countries by providing free online courses in business, economics, computer science, mechanical engineering, social work, or political science. After two years of online study, refugees can then transfer to one of Kiron’s partner universities to continue studying for a bachelor’s degree.
New tech initiatives, like the ones mentioned above, can help mitigate barriers to education and work for refugees. However, given concerns surrounding the “innovation turn” in the humanitarian industry, we should be similarly wary of viewing tech solutions and the market as sources of “liberation” for refugees. Tech projects are sometimes developed without input from refugees, and consequently, don’t always meet their needs. Even when they do, such projects often end up disproportionately benefiting the already highly educated or digitally proficient, thereby deepening existing inequalities among refugees.
More fundamentally, for refugees, self-reliance and social inclusion encompass much more than economic security. While we can certainly support skill-acquisition programs or nontraditional forms of vocational education developed by the private sector – and challenge traditional ideas of what it means to be “educated” – we shouldn’t let governments off the hook in addressing issues of broader social concern for refugees. After all, tech can’t eliminate systemic racial and ethnic discrimination in the labor market, replace the importance of supporting refugees as they learn the language of their host country, or mitigate the challenges they may face while navigating the housing market.
In October, I began graduate studies at the University of Oxford, where my family’s history and my academic study of forced migration now intersect. My father was granted protection in the U.S. after Laos fell to Communist forces in 1975. He told me that he never could have dreamed of one day raising a child who would not only earn an undergraduate degree, but also a graduate degree. Some of my well-meaning friends point to my academic record, or to my father’s societal contributions as a translator and interpreter for newly arrived Laotian refugees in Portland, Oregon, as reasons to welcome refugees and their children to America.
We should certainly recognize refugees’ educational accomplishments and economic contributions, including those of my father and those of the millions of refugees who have arrived in Europe over the past few years. But we should also critique the respectability politics that governs so many conversations and policy debates surrounding migration. Recent efforts to prepare refugees for the digital economy may indeed provide an avenue for some to achieve a level of economic security. But we must also remember to affirm the inherent dignity of refugees, for whom full humanity is so often denied, and whose worth is so often assessed through market criteria.
Narintohn Luangrath was based in Brussels, Belgium as a 2016-2017 Fulbright-Schuman Grantee. She is currently a Clarendon Fund Scholar and graduate student at the Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford.