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Study abroad : Destination Guides

Birkbeck University of London provides ‘life-changing’ education for asylum-seeking students

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Each year, Birkbeck, University of London offers 20 forced migrants’ access into higher education in the UK with their award-winning scheme, the Compass Project.


Birkbeck student Janahan Sivanathan, 26, began his studies with the Compass Project in 2017, starting with a law foundation course and progressing onto an LLB Law degree in 2018.


Janahan arrived in the UK in 2010 after fleeing from Sri Lanka, his home country, and was later detained in a UK immigration centre for a year.


Janahan said this was a difficult time for him and that he was poorly represented by his solicitors, which in turn motivated him to study law.


“When I raised my voice about what is happening, no one listened because I do not have the qualifications.


“So, I thought I want to become a solicitor to represent people rightly and to challenge the system.”


Head of History of Art at Birkbeck, Professor Leslie Topp, who initiated the scheme, said: “The main aim of the project is to open doors for people who are countering really high barriers into higher education and could really benefit in order to transform their lives in Britain.”


Despite Janahan’s passion and motivation to learn, many colleges were inaccessible to him because he didn’t have a formal visa and had never studied English.


Leslie said: “Birkbeck acknowledges that a lot of people may not have evidence with them because of the situation that existed at the time they had to leave their countries.


“The Compass Project is a huge change in students’ lives because they have been existing in limbo in the asylum process, which usually means they can’t work, and they won’t have been able to access the school system the way that children over here would and so they have really been stuck.”


According to the UN Refugee Agency, only 1% of refugee students enroll at universities and colleges.


Janahan said: “The project recognised my potential, they gave alternative entry requirements where I did not need to give any certificates, they understood that I would not have anything with me to prove anything.


“The staff didn’t make me feel like a refugee, a person who doesn’t have a status. They made me feel like a student, as a normal human being. It’s been a life-changing opportunity.”


Janahan taught himself English by watching YouTube and Facebook videos in addition to observing how people interact in public.


Through Birkbeck, Janahan was offered an internship at a law firm and regularly speaks about immigration detention at different meetings, including an upcoming talk at a parliamentary event.


“I also gave evidence against detention at the Home Office last year,” he said.


Janahan also strongly felt that entry requirements need to be based on the individual.


He added: “Do you think that a person fleeing from war would carry all of their qualifications and degrees? It means so much to have the status of a student and a place to belong -  something to do which breaks that memory and cycle.  As one of my friends said: ‘What harm can you do by letting someone study'?”


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