When Janahan Sivanathan arrived in London aged 17, fleeing Sri Lanka because of his family’s involvement in the Tamil Tigers, he lived in a car garage for two years. Discovered by the authorities after a suicide attempt, he spent the following years in home office limbo, desperately trying to secure refugee status. Eight years later, he’s studying to become a lawyer and hoping to help asylum seekers facing similar plights – and he didn’t need refugee status to do it. The Guardian reports.
Sivanathan received two lucky breaks: first, a fellow Sri Lankan offered him room and board, and second, he was introduced to the Compass Project, which gave him the chance to start his university education without refugee status.
The Compass Project is run by Birkbeck, University of London, and fully funds 20 asylum seekers to complete a foundation year, giving them the qualifications they need to access an undergraduate course elsewhere.
It fills an important gap: while refugees are able to study for GCSEs or A-levels, enabling them to meet university entry requirements, most asylum seekers lack any proof of prior attainment. Equally, refugees have full access to UK student loans, whereas asylum seekers are required to pay high international student fees – an impossibility for most.
The Compass Project’s first 20 asylum seeker students are graduating this week after a fully-funded foundation year. Sivanathan is continuing to study law at Birkbeck, and having secured his refugee status since starting the course, he’s now eligible for student finance.
“This opportunity means everything,” he says. “I never had a chance, there was always a barrier. Being an asylum seeker you have no right to work or education. You have no rights at all: you’re treated like an animal.”
The main challenge the three-year project has faced is getting through to asylum seekers, a notoriously difficult-to-reach community. “One of the big things is students not knowing what it means to study in the UK and how higher education works here,” explains Naureen Abubacker, who runs the project. To help with this, the team ran campus tours, facilitated introductions with students, and ran sessions on how to write a strong application.
Caroline McDonald, Birkbeck’s head of widening access says there needs to be more collaboration between universities on these projects. Rather than individual universities offering “ big pots of money that aren’t terribly meaningful”, there should be a more joined-up approach to breaking down the barriers to higher education for asylum seekers and refugees.
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