Responding to the Needs of Eritrean Refugees in Ethiopia

The Ethiopian free higher education program has enabled 1,600 Eritrean refugees to pursue their studies at various public universities across the country. Around 85 % of the Eritrean refugees are estimated to complete their studies successfully. 

January 21, 2018

The refugee crisis around the world has been repeatedly described as one of the worst challenges the human race has confronted since the end of World War II. According to 2016 UNHCR data, 65.6 million people are forcibly displaced globally because of persecution, conflict, violence, or human rights violations. While more than 40 million of these are internally displaced, 22.5 million are identified as refugees.

Contrary to common expectations, eighty-four percent of the world’s refugees or 14.5 million people are accommodated in developing countries. The five top countries that host the highest number of refugees are Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Islamic Republic of Iran, and Ethiopia, in that order. Currently, Ethiopia hosts more than 850,000 people—the largest in Africa-—from South Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea and the Sudan. The Eritrean refugees account for 160, 000 or 19 % of the total.

As a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, the 1969 OAU Refugee Convention, the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and many other international legal instruments Ethiopia is obliged to provide the necessary support to the refugees it hosts.

In general, knowledge about refugee higher education is scant across the world, suggesting an important line of inquiry that is yet evolving. This article examines Ethiopia’s approach towards providing higher education for refugees and draws on a larger study made on the subject.

Initiatives and Opportunities

One of the refugee schemes Ethiopia has adopted since 2010 is known as the out-of-camp scheme. It allows refugees to live and move freely across the country, opening opportunities for pursuing their education and engaging in gainful employment. As a result of this scheme alone, around 17,345 refugees live in Addis Ababa. Another scheme created for refugees, especially of Eritrean origin, is the provision of free university scholarships at Ethiopian public higher institutions.

While the average figure for higher education enrollment at global level exceeds 30 percent, only 1 percent of refugees worldwide are said to have access to higher education. Even in countries like Afghanistan, afflicted with long-term conflict, the rate is around 9 percent.

There are a variety of globally supported initiatives—in some cases country specific—from national and international organizations to help refugees attain their higher education aspirations, though the rate is far below demand. For instance, the demand for UNHCR’s global scholarship program is said to be so competitive that for every successful opportunity between 10 to 30 applicants are rejected.

The Ethiopian free higher education scheme has so far enabled 1,600 Eritrean refugees to pursue their studies at various public universities across the country. While 1,300 of these students are sponsored by the Ethiopian government, the remaining 300 are supported by UNHCR’s scholarship program known as DAFI.

There are also self-sponsored Eritrean refugees who attend HEIs, with medical science being the most popular program for this group. With these degrees, the refugees hope to secure better employment opportunities if they can migrate to the west. Self-sponsored students cover their college fees mainly through financial assistance from family members who likely reside abroad, often in Europe and North America.

Barriers and Challenges

Despite the new opportunities, the educational aspirations of Eritrean refugees are challenged by barriers they encounter before and after joining HEIs in Ethiopia.

One of the challenges encountered is the lack of academic transcripts needed to gain admission to Ethiopian HEIs. Most of the refugees do not possess these documents due to Eritrean rules that restrict issuance of original school certificates or diplomas to any citizen who cannot present evidence of having completed national service or having been exempted. Those who already have college diplomas also face the challenge of getting recognition by the Higher Education Relevance and Quality Agency in Ethiopia because of the difference in the educational systems of the two countries. This challenge is mitigated by a placement examination for refugees coordinated by the Administration for Refugee and Returnee Affairs (ARRA) and the Ministry of Education. On the basis of their scores, refugees are issued a letter of cooperation they can use to register at a particular HEI of their choice.

The major challenges faced by refugees after joining HEIs are academic, psychological and socio-cultural. The academic challenges are caused by disruptions to prior schooling, a lack of academic skills, poor language proficiency, a hesitancy to participate in class, and differences in school ethos.

The most common psychological challenges faced by refugees are related to the traumatic experiences of fleeing their country; safety concerns; low self- esteem; and anxiety about future success due to the cumbersome resettlement processes of the UNHCR.

The socio-cultural challenges are complicated by communication problems caused by poor knowledge of Amharic, Ethiopia’s official language. On a positive note, refugees appreciate the advantages they garner as a result of the similarity between the Eritrean and Ethiopian cultures.

The final challenge is related to the absence of support given the plethora of challenges the refugees face. The lack of academic and psychological support is a glaring gap. The exceptions are those interventions from ARRA in terms of arranging placements at HEIs and helping the refugees gain treatment equal to Ethiopians.

Despite the aforementioned challenges, around 85 % of the Eritrean refugees are estimated to complete their studies successfully. The major reason for discontinuing their studies is attributed to resettlement opportunities in Europe or other western countries. The transient nature of their stay in Ethiopia has a significant influence both on their academic performance and their readiness to stay after graduation.


Schemes such as out-of-camp living, providing education and employment opportunities are immense challenges in a country like Ethiopia that has its own burgeoning youth population demanding similar benefits. In a situation where assistance may not be forthcoming from outside, resources that could be used to alleviate the problems of native citizens are shared with refugees.

Notwithstanding the various hurdles, Ethiopia’s commitment to free higher education for refugees is defended by the government. In addition to helping improve the lives of refugees, success might also be seen as an indication of what can be done to address a growing global humanitarian crisis, even in countries with meager resources.

The initiative has been welcomed by donors and international partners as an exemplary practice that may be emulated by similar contexts elsewhere. However, there are also people, within the local and refugee community, who take the measure as a political gimmick.

Whatever the political dimensions, the pedagogical implications of providing higher education to refugees demand not only creating opportunities but also providing various forms of academic and non-academic support to help refugee students realize their aspirations.


Wondwosen Tamrat is an associate professor and the founding president of St. Mary's University, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. 

Samuel Dermas is an assistant professor at Kotebe Metropolitan University and an Eritrean refugee in Ethiopia.

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