Immigrants and refugees’ skills and qualifications are being wasted

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A sub-Saharan migrant shows injuries he sustained while trying to scale the Ceuta fence, at Ouled Ziane camp in Casablanca, Morocco, Thursday, Dec. 6, 2018. As Morocco prepares to host the signing of a landmark global migration agreement next week, hundreds of migrants are languishing in a Casablanca camp rife with hunger, misery and unsanitary conditions. These sub-Saharan Africans who dream of going to Europe are a symbol of the problems world dignitaries are trying to address with the U.N.'s first migration compact. (AP Photo/Mosa'ab Elshamy)

Released on International Migrants’ Day, a new paper produced by UNESCO’s Global Education Monitoring Report, the Education Above All Foundation and UNHCR, entitled “What a waste: Ensure the recognition of migrants and refugees qualification and prior learning”, shows that over a third of highly educated immigrants are overqualified for their jobs, compared to a quarter of non-migrants.

The majority of sub-Saharan Africans migrate within the region, but struggle to have their qualifications recognized. The 2014 Addis Convention would establish ways to recognize migrants’ studies, certificates, diplomas degrees and other academic qualifications but needs ten countries to sign up for it to come into force.  As of December 2018, only six countries have ratified: Congo, Djibouti, Gambia, Mauritius, Senegal and Togo. At the regional ministerial meeting this month in Addis Ababa hosted by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a call was made to countries to commit “as a basis for recognition of refugee and returnees’ qualifications”

Such conventions and recognition procedures are hugely important for migrants. Over 4 million migrants from sub-Saharan Africa live in Europe. There, one in eight of all immigrants said that not having qualifications recognized is the biggest challenge they face, placed well above inadequate language skills, discrimination, or even visa restrictions.

“Stories of immigrant doctors or teachers who are taxi drivers bring to light how much potential is being wasted the world over. Some migrants and refugees find the procedures for getting their qualifications recognized so complex that they cannot find work at all.” said Ita Sheehy, Senior Education Advisor at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). “Imagine how much better society could be if these people were in jobs that matched their skills”.

New estimates show that less than 15% of immigrants in rich countries with university degrees gained outside of Europe and North America said their level of education matched their jobs.

Particular note is made of the United States, where there are an estimated 1.22 million sub-Saharan migrants. There, nearly one in four of all immigrants with post-secondary degrees end up in low-skilled jobs or unemployed. This results in an annual cost of US$39 billion in foregone wages and US$10.2 billion in lost taxes.

As with the Addis Convention, there are multiple conventions and laws in other regions to address the issue, but most face challenges.  ASEAN in South-East Asia has multiple agreements, but only seven engineers had benefited from the system by 2017. The Lisbon Recognition Convention from 1997 lists steps to recognize refugees’ qualifications, but over two-thirds of signatories had taken few or no such steps by 2016.

National systems are also often fragmented: Canada’s has no fewer than 400 regulatory bodies associated with its systems. They are also not effectively advertised, reducing their up-take: Poland set up a process to assess migrants’ qualifications, but had no cases in the first year.

According to Manos Antoninis, Director of the Global Education Monitoring Report, refugees are even less likely to have proof of qualifications in their possession. When fleeing a conflict, packing a diploma is likely not to be top of your mind. Systems need to be simpler and reduce the administrative hoops that refugees are being asked to jump through.

Some countries are taking positive steps. Germany has a website on qualifications’ recognition, accessible in 9 languages, which receives 1 million visitors a year. In Flanders, Belgium, fees for recognition are waived for displaced people. Several countries including Norway have worked with the Council of Europe to develop a European Qualifications Passport for Refugees, which is currently being rolled out in Greece, Italy, Norway and the United Kingdom and has potential for broader global application.

Children and students also face challenges being placed in appropriate school levels without official paperwork. Positive initiatives are seen in Costa Rica, Iraq, Lebanon, South Africa, Sweden and Turkey, including sitting placement or general knowledge tests, doing interviews, or bridging programmes. Sweden’s Education Act lets unaccompanied minors be assessed and placed at the appropriate level within two months of arrival.

According to Dr Mary Joy Pigozzi, Executive Director of Education Above All’s programme, Educate A Child, a new Global Convention on the Recognition of Higher Education Qualifications drafted by UNESCO is tabled for adoption next year. But while a lot of emphasis is being placed on perfecting our instruments for higher education, we should not forget the recognition challenges at the primary and secondary education level as expressed in our recently published policy paper entitled “What a waste: Ensure the recognition of migrants and refugees qualification and prior learning”


Manos Antoninis is a monitoring and evaluation specialist who has supported numerous education projects with his expertise. The holder of degrees from the Athens University of Economics and Business, and the University of Oxford, he has been the Director of UNESCO’s Global Education Monitoring Report since 2017.