This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders — from around the world and all parts of society — address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.
Midway through 2022, forced displacement of people affected by war, climate change, and political violence is on an unprecedented upward trend. Just last month, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported that as many as 95 million people are now displaced, up from an estimated 84 million one year ago. Seeing 100 million people forced to migrate from their home countries once represented an unimaginable threshold. We’re now on the brink of crossing over.
This moment demands a comprehensive response that encompasses not just bare-bones resettlement services, but proven tools and strategies. The goal is to support the development of refugee-inclusive economies while also providing affected individuals with the tools they need to navigate a new environment. Oftentimes, this means providing them with credible documentation of their skills and accomplishments.
World Education Services (WES) is a non-profit, global social enterprise dedicated to helping people learn, work and thrive in new places, and helping society recognise the value of people’s education and experience. Refugees, immigrants and international students are at the heart of this mission. To drive systemic change, WES conducts research, engages in policy advocacy and provides technical assistance, philanthropic supports and programming.
We also support individuals by providing them with needed documents—specifically academic credential evaluations—to make their own way in new countries. We are experts in this work. Over 48 years, we have provided some 3.5 million individuals—representing more than 200 countries and jurisdictions from over 40,000 educational institutions—with credential evaluation reports that translate their studies into their Canadian and United States equivalents. We believe this work transforms individual lives as well as local and national economies.
In 2016, the scale of the humanitarian crisis sparked by the civil war in Syria spurred WES to act. As a respected non-profit organisation focused on the economic inclusion of refugees and immigrants, and as the largest provider of credential evaluation services in North America, WES recognised both an obligation and an opportunity to help. Because the influx of asylees and refugees in Canada was so substantial (in the tens of thousands), we focused our efforts there. The work began in a measured way, with a pilot project to issue credential evaluation reports to 337 refugees from Syria. To find eligible participants, WES worked through trusted referral partners who could screen participants, explain the purpose of an assessment and guide them through the process.
Once we had identified participants, we obtained any documentation they had available (in some cases complete but unofficial; in others, incomplete) and used it to either inform delivery of a trusted credential evaluation or, when needed, reconstruct their academic histories. Two enabling conditions made this approach possible. The first was the homogeneity of the Syrian higher education system, which meant that evidence of completion of advanced level engineering degrees implied successful completion of earlier requirements. The second was our extensive database of educational records, compiled over more than four decades, which included thousands of samples of degrees earned and coursework completed by Syrian students. Throughout the pilot project, WES consulted with Canadian colleges, universities, regulatory bodies, employers and settlement agencies on both the methodology and format of the credential evaluation reports we planned to issue to pilot participants.
In the end, we found that we could successfully reconstruct applicants’ credentials with a high degree of credibility. We also found that applicants were able to put these reports to use to obtain admission to academic programmes, professional licensure or certification, and employment. Beyond this, the pilot showed us just how transformative a simple credential evaluation report could be: “Now I have something in my hand that I can use to fight for myself”, said one participant; “This report gave my clients back their dignity”, a community referral partner told us.
This pilot, although small in scope, has since sparked more sweeping impact. In 2019, we built on our findings to launch the WES Gateway Program. The Gateway Program now operates in the United States and Canada, and has provided more than 2,300 applicants from seven countries (Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Ukraine and Venezuela) with trusted proof of academic achievement. The pilot has also begun to inform international efforts to provide refugees with access to the documentation they need to become self-sufficient and to begin pursuing professional or educational goals in their new communities. In November 2021 at the annual Groningen Declaration Network meeting, the South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA) and WES signed a partnership agreement. This agreement, which focuses on the development of a one-year pilot programme, will help to address the significant needs of refugees and other displaced people in South Africa who often face steep challenges in meeting SAQA’s criteria for recognition of academic qualifications.
Amid the growing crescendo of need among displaced people from Ukraine, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Myanmar and other points around the globe, the international community faces an urgent call to act: we must find ways to scale practical solutions that allow refugees to put their skills and education to use. In 2021, UNHCR and the OECD released the study Safe Pathways for Refugees II, which highlighted the fact that “documentation requirements, among other barriers, continue to prevent…talented and skilled refugees from accessing opportunities”. This finding emphasises the long-established commitments among those of us in the international education community to uphold existing principles to fairly evaluate credentials from other countries: the Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications concerning Higher Education in the European Region (Lisbon Recognition Convention) commits nations to developing procedures for refugees’ credential assessment even when documents are incomplete; the UNESCO Global Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications concerning Higher Education is based on the even broader principle that individuals have the right to have their qualifications fairly assessed.
As CEO and Executive Director of a global social enterprise, I am driven by the desire to see best practices that have the potential to answer this need proliferate. I also have a personal stake in this fight: I am an immigrant from a war-torn country. What I learned from my own experience is that the biggest changes often start small. WES’ initiative began with a limited-scope pilot project. Now we are supporting displaced people from seven countries in both the United States and Canada, and working alongside South African educational authorities to recognise the qualifications of displaced migrants in that country. Others can and must expand on this work. Practical steps, such as adopting the methodology developed by WES through its pilot and Gateway programmes, practices derived from the UNESCO Qualifications Passport, and procedures adapted from the Norwegian Agency for Quality Assurance in Education (NOKUT) and others can move us all forward in a meaningful way.
Read the OECD report Rights and Support for Ukrainian Refugees in Receiving Countries for information on entry and stay conditions, available reception support and integration measures
Find more about why recovery efforts need to address structural obstacles to migrant integration in the OECD International Migration Outlook 2021