Credit Where Credit Is Due: Tools to Support the Economic Inclusion of Displaced People

A photo of children reading school books in a refugee camp in Lagkadikia, Greece. [1]

Children gather outside a building in the Lagkadikia refugee camp in Greece to study.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published [2] on the OECD Forum Network in May 2022.

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 recognize 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 U.S. 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 organization focused on the economic inclusion of refugees and immigrants and as the largest provider of credential evaluation services in North America, WES recognized 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 [3] 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.

Key Insights from the WES Pilot Project

The 2016 WES pilot program on recognizing the credentials of displaced Syrian asylees and refugees gave us insight into what we believe are a few factors that enable success. Others can use these insights to replicate and develop practical strategies that address the needs of millions of displaced people struggling to obtain credential recognition in new countries:

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 programs, 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 [4]. The Gateway Program now operates in the U.S. 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 [5] (SAQA) and WES signed a partnership agreement. This agreement, which focuses on the development of a one-year pilot program, 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 [6], which highlighted the fact that “documentation requirements, among other barriers, continue to prevent … talented and skilled refugees from accessing opportunities.” This finding emphasizes 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 U.S. and Canada, and working alongside South African educational authorities to recognize 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 programs, practices derived from the UNESCO Qualifications Passport [7], and procedures adapted from the Norwegian Agency for Quality Assurance in Education [8] (NOKUT) and others can move us all forward in a meaningful way.