A study of refugee education and employment focused mainly on the Horn of Africa

I joined WUS after a decade of work as a University teacher and researcher in both East and West Africa; I had reluctantly returned because of illness. I moved into a University for three years as researcher in race relations in UK. I realised that I was missing Africa and development work and was to see a job advertised with WUS in 1983, which combined my interests in research, migration and education, and would enable me to work in the Horn of Africa, where I had previously worked. I got the job which gave me my first experiences in Sudan, Ethiopia and Egypt, all countries I have worked in subsequently. It also enabled return, briefly, to West Africa where I had previously worked in Nigeria. 

WUS UK was my first encounter with an International NGO and I later discovered it was not a typical example. A triumvirate, the Troika, led the organisation collectively and worked with a flat staff structure; joint decision making led to long staff meetings to thrash out issues of both internal organisation and programming. These could be very interesting, usually time consuming and sometimes deeply frustrating. Shared decision-making was a complex path to take and highly unusual in international development agencies, but one that I certainly learned a lot from and which proved far more engaging than some of my subsequent experiences in the aid sector.  

Undoubtedly working in WUS encouraged me to continue focusing on development work, but based in the UK once I knew I could not return to Africa after my father’s death and starting my own family. Once I left I worked full time in the UK INGO sector for many years and subsequently as a consultant to INGOs as well as teaching development and gender studies at University.  

I made lifelong friends at WUS, especially Sarah Hayward who was my boss and someone I remained very close to throughout her life; we had many plans of what to do together after retirement, sadly cut short by her death. Nigel, also partly my boss, died much earlier and was a real loss to the organisation and me. John, the third member of the leadership who was involved in Latin and Central America, areas seen to be the leading areas of progressive thinking, was more removed from my work but we became firm friends later. We have spent many argumentative and enjoyable times in Sarah’s house since WUS times, looking back and also engaging with the urgent political crises facing the world, especially human rights, gender equality and always refugees and marginalised people. I worked closely with Sarah Buxton who was a great support and we still meet up here in Oxford. 

Sarah Hayward and Tina Wallace WUS UK

It was Sarah Hayward’s vision that created the job I was employed to do, and she secured the funding for it: three years to undertake research into refugees from Ethiopia and Eritrea who had received WUS scholarships over many years, to see how they had fared post higher education. Such research is almost unheard of now in INGOs. The need for the research was very clear. Firstly, there were almost no studies following up refugees who had received a wide range of educational and employment support inputs, even by WUS itself, and very few studies done by other agencies and these were not publically available. Second, there was a growing dislike by donors for providing University education to refugees. It was seen as costly and elitist and did not lead to employment, the primary goal of education provision for refugees at that time. Third, there was almost no research around how refugees moved from education into employment; was higher education or the barriers to employment in different country contexts the real issue facing refugees who did not find jobs? 

The research project included refugees who had studied or were based in the UK, Ethiopia, Sudan, Kenya and Egypt funded by WUS and a few were also included from Nigeria and Senegal where refugees had found work. In addition to the 248 WUS students, refugees funded by other agencies joined the research in Africa voluntarily, as they needed information, support and advice and wanted their experiences to be heard. The lack of follow-up from their donors quickly emerged as a core challenge for refugees once they graduated and many of them felt isolated. It was hard to navigate the legal, policy and attitudinal challenges they faced when seeking for jobs. Refugees are the most seriously disadvantaged group in labour markets everywhere but little/no attention was being paid to supporting them into work. 

The donor trends were to cut funding for education, especially at tertiary level. However, the refugees themselves clearly saw education as key to improving their lives in future, whether they can return home or not. And it was clear from the study, which included exploring the range of educational provisions for refugees in the countries studied, that educational provision was poor and the scholarships were a real lifeline for many refugees. The study showed that educated refugees in fact benefitted greatly from their education and used their skills and knowledge to improve their lives and those in their families and communities. Many did get into employment, 66% of those traced had jobs at the time of the study (over half of these in continuous employment), many in the UK and almost a third in Africa, in countries where they had settled and were contributing to development. Many of those who were unemployed had returned to further studies. Over time many in fact returned to their homes In Ethiopia and I met several WUS graduates working at high levels when I went there to study girls’ education many years later. 

The research challenged many of the assumptions about the value of higher education for displaced people and provided evidence that many refugees use their education fully. Many are still employed and giving back to their communities in the UK in a wide range of jobs, many related to improving the conditions and position of refugees here. It highlighted the multiple and complex challenges facing refugees in different countries in Africa and UK and focused in on legal and policy decisions as the major contribution to refugee unemployment. These were being largely overlooked by agencies supporting education and were the primary reasons preventing some getting jobs. 

Other issues were identified during the research, which was an attempt at learning about all the education provision for refugees across the countries in the Horn of Africa, the key education and employment laws and policies, and the different employment landscapes. One was the disruptive nature of the resettlement schemes to USA, which distracted refugees especially in Egypt and Sudan. Few were taken and the disappointment was demoralising for many who had set their sights on America as the answer to their problems. The scheme removed some of the brightest and best from the community and the continent. Another was the lack of employment offered by the many international NGOs working in these countries, where preference was always given the expatriates rather than offering jobs to nationals or well qualified refugees. 

It also became very clear from the research that very few women were offered scholarships at University level. The reasons for this were myriad, including the costs of childcare and often not being able to bring children to the UK if they got a place to study. Fewer women refugees qualified for higher education and for many travel away from their wider family was felt to be too hard. The urgent needs of women refugees for better and higher education and proper support emerged strongly. 

This research was a privilege for me and I met an incredible range of people and some very inspiring organisations – including government agencies – employing refugees. It was a very difficult project requiring several trips because there had been almost no contact with the students, by any agency, post study and tracing them was hard. The search led me into many encounters and diverse places where refugees gather, some of these were depressing and some full of laughter when we broke the ‘rules’ placed on refugees by some hostels, donors or government policies and smoked, drank beer or went into town together. The world of refugees attracts many different people to work alongside them and much was an eye-opener – both good and bad – into the world of philanthropy and development agencies for me. I still carry a lot of memories and emotions from that time, of sadness and trauma, as well as of stimulating discussions, new ideas and inspiring people. It was very intense and I felt that there was often little overt acknowledgement of the trauma of refugees by agencies working with them then, and too little recognition of the support they need to progress when facing immigration rules, prejudice and a lack of networks.  

I was pregnant on my final trip to refugee camps in Sudan, where conditions were appalling, and the final report “Displaced Labour: a study of employment among educated refugees from the Horn of Africa’ (1986) was finished after my daughter was born. WUS (and my family) enabled me to work around the pregnancy and birth to complete the report and run the final dissemination seminars. WUS took up many of the recommendations and continued pushing for tertiary level scholarships and set up pathways to support refugees from education into work in UK and Kenya. In Sudan they took up the issue of women refugees and their need for education, training and jobs. I went on to work primarily with women and on gender equality and rights and am now again closely involved with immigration and refugees.

Author profile
Tina Wallace

From 1983 to 1986 Tina Wallace undertook a research project for WUS UK to investigate the outcomes for students from Ethiopia and Eritrea who had received WUS scholarships for study not only in the UK but in other African countries. Successes and problems were investigated, including barriers for women to enter higher education. WUS work led her to focus on women and gender equality and rights, especially immigrant and refugee women.