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UEL celebrates 20 years of refugee studies in the ‘refugee heart of Europe’

Refugee camp

UEL was a pioneer in teaching about the experiences of refugees

The lives and and experiences of refugees took centre stage at University of East London (UEL) on Wednesday at the University as celebrated the 20th anniversary of its refugee studies master’s programme.

When the course started in 1997, UEL and Oxford University were the only two higher education institutions in the UK that looked at the lived experiences of refugees in a serious, multi-disciplinary way.

UEL Professor Emeritus Phil Marfleet, one of the three principal founders of the programme, commented: “UEL’s location in east London is what I call the ‘the refugee capital of Europe’.

“For hundreds of years, east London has been a sanctuary for Huguenots, Jews expelled from Russia, victims of Nazism, people fleeing the Spanish Civil War and, more recently, those displaced in conflicts in the Balkans, Africa and the Middle East. This makes our focus on refugees even more poignant.”

The anniversary celebration included panel discussions about the past, present and future of refugee studies, short student presentations about their involvement with UEL’s refugee outreach work, and a look at how art and photography are helping to tell refugees’ stories.

Since the programme began, UEL has produced approximately 400 refugee studies graduates, many of whom are now working in NGOs, charities and as academics. 

Among the guests at the event was Nuria Targarona Rifa, an MA Refugee Studies student from Barcelona, who said, “I chose UEL because the programme was really  and that looked very interesting to me. 

“The best thing about the programme is the fact that the students come from very different background in terms of nationality, culture, educational and academic background and life trajectories. 

“That makes classroom discussions very rich and valuable, and the professors are very supportive. You can tell how much they care about students because they make you feel they are always there to help.”

UEL’s commitment to refugee studies made the national press in 2016 when it became the first and only UK university to offer an accredited educational ‘life stories’ course in the Calais ‘jungle’ for asylum seekers and refugees.

The course won UEL a Guardian Higher Education Award this year and a book of Calais ‘jungle’ life stories has since been published by Pluto Press.   

Refugee studies staff and students are now running a pioneering, EU-funded course for registered refugees and asylum seekers. Delivered in partnership with universities in Austria and Hungry, the ‘OLIve’ course gives students the skills they need to start a foundation course at a British university, and ultimately a degree.   

Refugee studies at UEL is now offered as two postgraduate degree programmes – MA Refugee Studies and MA Conflict, Displacement, and Human Security