Barriers to Access to Higher Education for Refugees in Ireland:

Updated: Mar 27

pre-pandemic times and during the Covid-19 pandemic

I would say for me, I’d say going to uni means more than just going to college and advancing myself and you know. It means I get to have a sense of community. I would say that is the only time I get a sense of community, a place whereby I don’t have to feel like an asylum seeker. It is the only place where I get to be a student. (Priscilla)[1]

In this blogpost, I will illustrate the barriers refugee students face in accessing higher education in Ireland, both before the pandemic and during the pandemic. My analysis stems from 51 problem-centred and narrative interviews which were conducted between spring and winter 2020, and therefore provide an account of both pre-pandemic and in-pandemic hurdles. The four instruments used for the problem-centred interview are a short questionnaire, interview guidelines, tape recordings and a postscript. Interviews were transcribed and analysed in a systematic way. Coding, categorizing and interpreting the data used Braun and Clarke’s Thematic Analysis[2]. The transcribed material was used to create the script for a Forum Theatre Play (Augusto Boal). The process of playwriting was collaborative amongst the researcher and volunteers from the research participants. The play will be staged on campus as soon as Covid-19 restrictions allow for rehearsals. It reflects the themes which emerged from the interview analysis. For refugee students in Ireland, there are the following obstacles to a hazard-free study experience.

1. Distance between accommodation and universities; cost and duration of travel

Refugee students who were able to secure a “University of Sanctuary Scholarship” or other funds, had their fees covered by the scholarship and were given an additional transport bursary. However, the transport allowance allocated, never covers the actual costs of travelling between the accommodation centre (“direct provision”) and the university. There is also no enforceable right to transfer accommodation for educational reasons, in order to be nearer to college. This left many participants in a situation of using their general living allowance to pay for transport, or to miss out on classes. Students in the West of Ireland have to travel to the East and vice versa, causing logistical distress for both groups, and not allowing them to swap accommodation.

It is a challenge to get to anywhere from Rathmore, Ashford. (Gabriella).

So that’s the other thing I have to travel from Dublin, from Kerry to Dublin at my own expense as well. (Michelle).

2. Unsuitability of living conditions in direct provision for a student or prospective student

The system of direct provision which had been set up in the year 2000 was originally designed as short-term accommodation for pending cases in the asylum process. However, it is now known that many international protection applicants spend several years in direct provision, and for children this can cover a large part of their childhood. This form of accommodation is totally unsuitable for anyone with a flight narrative, but for students in particular: room-sharing (often with 3-5 people), a lack of privacy, no study spaces or quiet rooms, make studying very onerous. This is the case both in pre-pandemic time and during the pandemic. An additional burden on students during the Covid-19 crisis exists because students often don’t have laptops, but pre-paid phones only. Following six or even eight hours of classes online on a phone with no designated study space has put another strain on students. Unstable WiFi in hostels adds to that.

I believe the system of direct provision was made to break people. (Immaculate).

After 11 years in direct provision, you don’t feel anything anymore. (Alphonse).

3. Limitations concerning paid work

Despite a Supreme Court judgment in 2017[3], which was supposed to ease the work restrictions on asylum seekers, it still remains difficult for applicants in the international protection process to find paid work. When students have prior qualifications, and would like to support themselves, they face hurdles in their home qualification being recognised in Ireland. For so-called low-skilled work, employers are hesitant to hire people whose status decision is pending, as they do not want to invest in training people where it is uncertain whether they will be allowed to stay in the country or not. Students have reported that the lack of job options brings about identity crises and low self-esteem.

The confidence that you get when you’re working, like the feeling that you have purpose in life, because being in asylum strips that away from you. You feel like you are a charity case most of the time which is demeaning. (Ruby).

4. Studying with post-traumatic stress / anxiety / depression

A profound dilemma lies in studying with or despite post-traumatic stress, anxiety and depression. Students have faced severe forms of oppression and abuse, in their country of origin, during their flight, and in direct provision. There are central services at all Irish universities which offer counselling for students but there is not enough staff to work with students densely and deeply. The lack of diversity amongst university staff also brings about complications. Many refugee students come from cultural backgrounds where mental health issues are prone to stigmatisation. Students find it enormously difficult to avail of these services, in particular when counsellors are exclusively white. During the pandemic, when services were offered online, refugee students could practically not attend any sessions as there is no room in direct provision where they would have the privacy to talk to a counsellor.

I came…you know like I would not go through that process because it is something I don’t want to remember again it brings back my stress you know.

I feel like I’m dead. I keep trying, keep trying. I cried, I do whatever, I pull myself, it is not working. After seeing a therapy doctor, I still come back to my shadows you know. (Time).

5. Lack of information about financial implications of accepting a university place

Many students who are offered a scholarship by a university are pleasantly encouraged about being a student – until they realise the financial and logistic implications. Grantees often come to a point where they realise that they cannot take up their student place as it is impossible to manage the cost implications. Some universities have addressed this by running finance clinics for students. It is advisable that all universities run such clinics, ideally before students enrol.

So it (the money) comes once it was in bulk and therefore, it is upon you now to make sure that you manage that so I believe because currently this year they offer the what do you call, the finance clinic, maybe a lot of people went to seek for supplementary from them saying that I'm stuck… (Mandela).

And the cost of living as well. You can’t, you know, you can’t survive on minimum wage. (Michelle).

6. Waiting in limbo; legal representation

More than ten years ago, the United Nations´ Refugee Agency (UNHCR) described the duration of state decisions whilst living in direct provision as putting residents in a state of limbo. The Irish asylum system is seen as one of the cruellest in the European Union, and as an instrument to deter asylum seekers. Boredom, uncertainty, losing what interviewees describe as the “best years of one´s life”, are huge issues which contribute to depression and a loss of self-esteem. When students are assigned a lawyer by legal aid, the mandate only comprises the international protection process, but not any educational aspects, such as, for instance, requesting a hostel transfer for educational reasons. Students are left on their own unless they can afford a lawyer privately which is rarely the case. The pandemic has extended the period of waiting for status decisions even more, which leaves students completely in the dark about their educational and personal future.

Unfortunately my solicitor didn’t turn up. (Anthony).

I have been assigned a lawyer by legal aid but due to the pandemic I have not met him. (Indira).

There is one assigned to me by Legal Aid. Yeah there is one I think. But it is specifically for my international protection case, nothing more, it’s specifically for that. So for any other issues that I may bump in they are not available for that. (Thei Dikondo).

7. Friendships, socialising and family ties

Most students love campus life and have spent every free minute on campus. The refugee identity which is one of exclusion and uncertainty has been replaced or at least complemented by a student identity which is positive and restores self-esteem. These students suffered immensely during the national and regional lockdowns in Ireland, starting on March13, 2020. Trapped in direct provision, room-sharing with no possibility for social distancing and a lack of hygienic measures, students wished to be back on campus, to get involved in student societies, social clubs, nights out and the buzzing campus life. In particular during lockdowns, interviewees missed their family members and were dependent on phones to connect with family and friends back home, but also with their peers from universities.

My husband and my third daughter are not with us and that hurts (Anna, mother of three).

My mother… me and her we are close, really close. We were really close together so she cannot, sometimes yeah. I don’t want to think about these things now. (Saeed).

We had, I had classmates from India, from China, from almost, America, so it was really diverse and we had a lot of extra curricular programmes within the department itself. We had Guinness night even within our class we went out for drinks on a few occasions and I remember last year at the end of the first trimester the whole class decided to go out at the end of the exams for a night out so I made a lot of friends. We still keep in touch. We have a WhatsApp group and at the end of this, last semester we decided to do a spreadsheet where we shared our contacts and our personal emails so we can keep in touch in our different lives, if we engage in different projects we can reach out to ourselves. (Nano).

8. Bullying, discrimination and racism

The large majority of interviewees had not experienced any discrimination or racism on campus. If racism occurred, it was mainly reported to have happened in residential areas when going to shops, using the bus, etc. This can be explained by the fact that universities are a microcosm where – by and large – there is more openness and awareness of equality, diversity and inclusion. Missing out on the face to face study experience for more than 15 months now, has caused distress and despair for refugee students.

…when people hear that you’re in direct provision they judge you, they start talking rubbish about you, they’ll start saying ah these people they left their country, they came here to finish our government money but…(Arturo)

9. Is there anything else positive to be said about how Ireland treats its refugee students? Yes. A large majority of respondents have reported that the support they received from university staff (both academic and administrative), from volunteers and from charities, has been tremendous. This is not to be taken for granted, it is a sign of an engaging and awake civil society and academic community. It does however not free the state from its duties to improve the situation for refugee students sustainably.

This charity helped me to enrol into college (Simba).

The uni staff helps me. When I´m feeling down, the encourage me. (Arturo).

Well before Covid I think campus was one of my favourite places to be. (Nano).

10. Is there any take home message for academic and administrative staff at universities, for the voluntary sector and for fellow students how to support students with a background in asylum and international protection?

Yes. As the Irish universities prepare to open again with the roll-out of the vaccine programme:


- Ask

- Follow Up

- Offer support

Whatever your role on and off campus and in every situation which indicates to do so.

About Author:

Dr Nina Lueck a Marie Sklodowska Curie Fellow at Sutherland School of Law, University College Dublin, Ireland. Her project was funded by the EU’s Horizon 2020 Programme under project no. 786148. Her doctoral research focussed on charity law and best practices in non-profit organisations. Her post-doctoral research interests include comparative charity law, the right to education, participation, and clinical legal education. She has worked at law faculties in Germany, England and Ireland, is a FHEA, and a solicitor

References: [1] All research participants have chosen stage names in order to protect their anonymity. [2] Bra vn, Victoria and Clarke, Victoria (2006). Using thematic analysis in psychology. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 3(2), 77-101. [3] N.H.V -v- Minister for Justice & Equality and others [2017] IESC 35; Carolan, Mary: Asylum Seekers´ work ban unconstitutional, says Supreme Court, in: Irish Times, 30.05.2017, accessible under: (last accessed on 21.05.2021)v