Why many refugees fleeing to Europe are highly educated

The idea of a better life elsewhere is much more influential in pushing people to migrate than “absolute need”, says one expert.

Refugees board a train heading to the border with Serbia, near the Macedonian town of Gevgelija, on September 13, 2015. Georgi Licovski/EPA
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PARIS // Mohammed, Fayiq, Zyad and Bilal are just four of the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have fled their homes to make the long and dangerous journey to Europe.

But it wasn’t always this way. In their former lives, three of the men worked as an engineer, an accountant and a cardiologist, while the fourth was a high school student.

Far from having backgrounds of extreme poverty, many of the desperate people inching their way through the continent studied at university or worked in good jobs before disaster hit.

And according to immigration authorities, refugees and those who work with them, this is particularly true for Syrians, whose country used to have one of the best education systems in the region before it plunged into war and chaos in 2011.

“Syrians ... are looking for somewhere where they can have the quality of life that they had before the conflict,” says Arezo Malakooti, head of migration research at Altai Consulting, which has done work for the International Organization for Migration and the United Nations.

“Syria was very much like a European country before the war, with relatively good standards of living, a relatively educated population.”

Mohammed Al Taweel, a computer engineer from downtown Damascus, landed on the Greek island of Lesbos this week.

“There was nothing I could do in my country for myself or for my future,” he said on the beach, drying off in the sun before setting off on the gruelling 60-kilometre walk to the main town.

The 24-year-old said he wanted to continue working as an engineer, but acknowledged that he may need more diplomas wherever he ended up.

Data collected in Germany between January 2013 and September 2014 shows that 78 per cent of Syrians who arrived in the country came from middle or upper class sections of society and had a good education, according to the country’s Federal Office for Migration and Refugees.

Many Afghans also make the trip through Greece into Europe, and while their country suffers from poverty and low literacy rates, those who leave are not always the worst off, says Ms Malakooti.

In Lesbos, Fayiq Abubakar, an 18-year-old from Mazar-e-Sharif in Afghanistan, is headed to Germany where his uncle lives.

He wants to study international trade and finance after going to one of the “top three schools” in his area.

Through her research, Ms Malakooti says she has found that the idea of a better life elsewhere is much more influential in pushing people to migrate than “absolute need”.

But after surviving dangerous sea crossings, hostile populations and security forces, Fayiq, Mohammed and others may end up sorely disappointed when they finally reach their country of choice.

“The struggle isn’t over just because you get the refugee status,” said Fatiha Mlati, head of integration at France Terre d’Asile, an association that works with asylum seekers and refugees.

“It’s very difficult to have access to health services, to social rights, to have your diploma recognised.”

In France, many of those who arrive as engineers or accountants end up washing dishes in restaurants, delivering pizzas or job-hunting.

Bilal is from Aleppo in Syria, where he worked as an accountant. Just like many Syrians trekking through Europe today, he fled the regime in 2013 and made it to France where he now lives outside Paris.

“I got refugee status a year ago,” he said. “But I still don’t have a job, due to language difficulties.”

Another Syrian named Mohammed, who studied electrical engineering in Aleppo, is working as a cook in a restaurant.

But far from complaining, he is enthusiastic.

“Europe for us was a dream that was completely inaccessible under the dictatorship of Bashar [Al Assad). This dream is becoming reality,” he said.

* Agence France-Presse