What a waste: Ensure migrants and refugees’ qualifications and prior learning are recognized

Presented at the Global Education Meeting in Brussels, a new paper produced by our Report in collaboration with Education Above All and UNHCR shows that over a third of highly educated immigrants were overqualified for their jobs, compared to a quarter of non-migrants. It shows the extent to which this is an important issue for those concerned: new analysis from Europe shows that one in eight immigrants said that not having qualifications recognized is the biggest challenge they face, placed well above inadequate language skills, discrimination, or visa restrictions.


Stories in the news of immigrant doctors and teachers who work as cab drivers occasionally draw attention to the amount of potential being wasted the world over. But more needs to be done to raise awareness of this issue. Imagine how much better society could be if these people were in jobs that match their skills.

Entitled “What a waste”, our paper estimates that only 30% of those with higher 2education degrees in OECD Countries gained outside of Europe and North America work in high-skilled occupations. Less than 15% said their level of education matched their jobs.

Particular note is made of the United States, where nearly one in four 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.

There are multiple regional conventions or agreements created to improve the recognition of migrants and refugees’ qualifications, some of which are successful, but most of which face challenges.

4Positive examples are seen in the Caribbean Community, where 16,000 regional skills certificates have been issued over 10 years. But the Report shows that many conventions face significant implementation problems. Although the Lisbon Recognition Convention called on signatories to take steps to recognize refugee qualifications that cannot be fully documented, over two-thirds of signatories had taken few or no such measures by 2016 prompting a new Recommendation in November 2017. ASEAN has recognition agreements covering seven occupations, but only seven engineers had gone through the system by 2017. Systems urgently need to be simpler and more flexible to migrants and refugees’ needs.

Some countries have introduced legislation to improve recognition procedures. Germany has a law protecting foreign nationals’ ability to gain recognition of their qualifications regardless of residence status or citizenship, and has a website, accessible in 9 languages, which receives 1 million visitors a year.

But many national recognition systems are fragmented, or not effectively advertised, reducing their value: Canada’s has no fewer than 400 regulatory bodies associated with its systems. Poland set up a process to interview those who lack proof of their qualifications, but had no cases in the first year.

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. Their contact with home institutions may also be constrained, since the latter may also be affected by conflict or may refuse to provide documents.

3Some countries are taking positive steps to overcome this issue. In Flanders, Belgium, for example, fees for recognition procedures are waived for displaced people, and an adapted procedure is offered when they have no evidence of qualifications. Italy has set up a network of experts to help evaluate refugees’ qualifications. Norway has developed a new European Qualifications Passport, which refugees and migrants receive after an interview, and is currently being rolled out in Greece, Italy, Norway and the United Kingdom.

The paper also shows that learning that comes without a piece of paper is even harder to assess. In Europe, out of 36 countries in 2016, only four had implemented a single approach to recognize prior learning covering all sectors.  And, although a small number of countries have positive practices specifically assessing prior learning of migrants and refugees, including a system in Norway introduced in 2017 to electronically map the skills of adults in asylum reception centres, most do not. Only one third of 36 European countries had projects to validate prior learning that were targeted specifically at immigrants. France, for example, does not target immigrants in its system to recognize prior learning launched in 2002.

5Central to this discussion is the challenge that children and students also face being placed in the appropriate school level without official paperwork. Our new paper highlights positive 6initiatives taking place in Costa Rica, Iraq, Lebanon, South Africa, Sweden and Turkey to tackle this, 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.

The plethora of different initiatives and agreements demonstrate the desire to solve this issue. There is also new momentum on the subject what with it featuring prominently in the two Global Compacts on Migration and Refugees to be signed this month. In addition, a new Global Convention on the Recognition of Higher Education Qualifications drafted by UNESCO is tabled for adoption next year, which would enshrine the right of people without proper documentation to apply for the recognition of their qualifications.

Our recommendations for capitalizing on this movement and reducing brain waste among migrants and refugees call on recognition mechanisms to:

  1. include provisions targeted at migrants and refugees
  2. be simpler, more flexible and with reduced costs
  3. create clear, transparent and coherent frameworks to recognize prior learning
  4. raise awareness of existing recognition procedures
  5. be combined with services to help with the transition to work
  6. assess the knowledge and skills of children and place them in appropriate grades within, at most, weeks of their arrival
  7. use technology where relevant


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