From Borders to Classrooms

“Welcoming, protecting, promoting and integrating” refugee students in Tertiary Education: an example from Portugal
Good Practices

From Borders to Classrooms

“Welcoming, protecting, promoting and integrating” refugee students in Tertiary Education: an example from Portugal
A woman giving a speech on a stage, with the pope also speaking next to her

"When I heard that the Catholic University was giving this opportunity to refugees, I was very surprised and very happy. And, of course, I prayed every day to have the opportunity to study at Católica, because that's my dream: to study journalism, to have the opportunity to be a good person in the future."

- Norina Sohail, Afghan student

The project in brief

The project is implemented by Universidade Católica Portuguesa (UCP) in Portugal. It began in October 2017 and is currently ongoing.

Since the application procedure each candidate and then student is viewed as a unique person. There is a central coordinator who accompanies the students, articulates with the services inside the university and connects students with organizations from the civil society. The students are welcomed as “international students” and at the same time they are invited to share their experience as refugees if they are comfortable with it.

The project's goal is to allow refugee students to pursue or resume their university education. In times of emergency, studying may be considered just a privilege, but it is important to think ahead and understand the huge positive impact of Education in the students’ lives as well as in societies (both the welcoming society and back in the country of origin).

Main activities of the Good Practice

We propose 7 pillars of good practice:

  1. Access and Inclusivity: Ensure that higher education is accessible to a diverse range of refugees, including different age groups, genders, and backgrounds. Remove barriers to application, such as language proficiency or legal status, to promote inclusivity. Consider the unique circumstances of refugees and be flexible with eligibility criteria, considering factors like displacement, trauma, or interrupted education.
  2. Equity: Justice is a goal reached through the understanding of the context of each student.
  3. Empowerment: Focus on empowering refugees not just as beneficiaries but as active participants in their education and community.
  4. Partnerships: Collaborate with educational institutions, NGOs, and local businesses to expand opportunities and resources for refugees.
  5. Simplification: Use “bureaucracy at the service of Good” as it may make a positive difference in the students’ application and recognition of previous studies and competences.
  6. Communication: Communicate clearly, face to face – it builds a crucial confidence connection – but confirm information in written form: this will allow the student to read, re-read, translate. Be prepared to be questioned more than once on the same topic. Respect and understand the cultural backgrounds and needs of the refugee population, ensuring that the program is culturally sensitive.
  7. Financial Support: Provide financial assistance covering tuition fees and help look for institutional partners who can support other students’ needs.

Elements which helped facilitate the implementation of the good practice

The first step towards the implementation of this good practice was a leadership decision to make this goal a priority, inspired by Pope Francis’s appeals to “welcome, protect, promote and integrate” refugees.

At the University, since the admissions process of candidates, there is an effort to creatively apply the law, making the access to university more flexible.

In addition to the centralized decision, there is an institutional and financial commitment on the part of the academic units that receive refugee students.

Finally, one of the key elements of this good practice is the personal involvement of staff, faculty and Rector's office.

"The support of Católica was an opportunity to resume the path that the war interrupted and opened a door to enter the future well prepared"

- Syrian student Ouwais Sadeq

Partners involved

What challenges were encountered in delivering the project and how were they overcome?


The main challenges are related to the specific situation of each student, namely the legal status in Portugal (the State doesn't always provide answers in a timely manner); the lack of income for living expenses; the family situation (whether the student is alone in Portugal, with their family, whether the family is being well integrated, whether family members have been left behind at the homeland or are in another European country, etc.). Learning the Portuguese language is also a challenge and trying to keep the pace of most national students may be hard when someone has been away from a classroom for a long time. Another challenge is to make the academic community (fellow students, staff, and teachers, mainly) understand the importance of giving refugee students opportunity to integrate fully in their courses.

How they were overcome

Being a university student is not just about academic opportunity. It is also to rediscover one’s vital identity and go beyond the refugee condition. It is about having the opportunity to invest time and dedication into something that, while not immediately important in a present emergency adaptation, is essential for a fulfilling future and integration. We are aware of the difficulties; we accompany our students in their struggles and accomplishments, respecting hesitations, and decisions:

  • Creating a safe and personal environment to listen to each student about their real feelings
  • Respecting the student's decision even if it does not fit our proposal
  • Giving time and not pushing the students to unrealistic goals
  • Activating informal networks of support
  • Contacting State offices and partners of the University
  • Working in internal advocacy to make the community understand that refugee students can and should be supported with exceptional measures to enable them to complete their studies.

"Studying is not a luxury, because it means thinking about the future of people and society. Most of the students on UCP courses were already studying in their home countries"

- Inês Espada Vieira, coordinator of the Initiative for Students at Risk

Results of the Good Practice

As an ongoing program, there are no final results to be shared. However, we can happily share what our students say:

  • "I thank the Portuguese people for welcoming me and my family, and the Catholic University for allowing me to study and change my life" (Artem, Microbiology, Ukraine)
  • "Catholic University saved me from darkness” (Ouwais, Communication Sciences, Syria)
  • “I feel proud to be here studying, while trying to spread the love, hope and faith that this University has given me unconditionally” (Mahoor, Dentistry, Iran)

The host community environment becomes richer with refugee students' experiences. It is a privilege to grow together in empathy and academic efficiency.

In what way does the good practice meet one or more of the four objectives of the Global Compact on Refugees?

Objective 1: Ease the pressures on host countries

By welcoming and integrating refugees from an academic perspective, the university is participating in and easing the national effort.

Objective 2: Enhance refugee self-reliance

Accompanying students is a challenge - while on the one hand the university supports them to improve their situation, building tools for a more prosperous and fulfilled future, on the other hand students need to be cope in an autonomous way.

Adding to the above-mentioned objectives, Universidade Católica Portuguesa welcomes these students committed to the Sustainable Development Goals, namely numbers 4 - Quality Education, 5 - Gender equality, 10 - Reduced inequalities, 16 - Peace, justice, and strong institutions and 17 - Partnership for the goals. Also, as part of the global effort of 15 by 30, presented by UNHCR, so that by 2030, 15% of refugees, that is 500 000 men and women, can be studying in higher education.

Next steps

Universidade Católica Portuguesa will keep this project, aiming for continuous improvement in the way we work, and keeping the focus on each student’s needs and challenges. Again, with a strong institutional presence but always fostering the student’s autonomy.

All students are invited to participate in regular academic activities of each campus and in International Students specific activities. Also, other conferences, meetings, and visits are organized during the year (in 2022-2023, for example, there was a visit to the Universidade Católica Portuguesa campus in the city of Viseu, a colloquium with refugee girls about education for the International Women’s Day, a visit to the Portuguese Parliament, the meeting with the Pope, etc.).

Are there areas in which support would be required to continue and/or scale up your good practice?

More funding and human resources are necessary to be able to reach more refugees. It is also important to train the students who receive the refugees and the refugees to establish intercultural dialogues better. Facilitating access to cultural and sports activities as well as health care is also essential.

Submitted by

Inês Espada Vieira, Coordinator of the Initiative for Students and Researchers at Risk, Universidade Católica Portuguesa - [email protected]; Rita Paiva e Pona, Advisor to the Rector's Office for Social Responsibility and Coordinator of the Social Responsibility Office, Universidade Católica Portuguesa - [email protected]

Contact the project

[email protected]