Op-Ed: Trinity is becoming a University of Sanctuary after years of work, with many more still to come

How universities respond to global displacement and third level access is vital

We live in a world marred by the highest number of forcibly displaced people ever recorded. All over the globe people are forced into movement by wars, human rights violations, deprivation of human needs and climate change, amongst other reasons. When people find themselves on the move or seeking refuge, access to education at any level is compromised. Third level access is decimated. Only 1% of the world’s refugees are in university, according to the UNHCR.

How universities and colleges respond to this reality is vitally important. Education is a basic right and a vital way forward for people who are displaced. How a university’s research and teaching help to understand the dynamics of forced displacement is equally important in creating ethical responses to this global challenge.

Across Trinity’s students, teachers, researchers and activists, many people have been responding to these issues. As a consequence, on February 19, the Trinity community will celebrate becoming a University of Sanctuary. On that day, we will officially be joining the University of Sanctuary Ireland network – a vibrant network of universities and colleges who are recognised as places of Sanctuary for asylum seekers, refugees and migrants.

As a University of Sanctuary we must demonstrate that three key principles are at work in our community: learning, welcoming and sharing. Learning implies being a place that encourages understanding of the global and local dynamics that force people to move and the responses they encounter. Welcoming means being a community that actively brings in people from asylum-seeking or refugee situations and makes them welcome. Sharing is being part of wider community networks and sharing good relationships and practice.

In recent times there have been many initiatives around Trinity that embody these principles. We have the “Learning to Build New Lives” Equality Fund project, which consulted with asylum seekers and refugees to determine what people with these experiences need from an institution like Trinity. We saw the creation of the Asylum Seeker Access Provision (ASAP) scholarships for young people in Direct Provision unable to access third level due to being designated as international students after the Leaving Cert.

Student groups have highlighted issues with Direct Provision, especially the successful campaign to keep Aramark, a food supplier to Direct Provision centres, off campus. Additionally, a Trinity Education elective module on “Displacement: Exploring the Human Experience of Forced Migration” was created. As someone who has tried to keep track of all the different Sanctuary-related initiatives in our community, I know there is a wealth of others and many more I have missed.

Being recognised as a University of Sanctuary is testimony to all this exciting, important work that already exists. However, it is also only a beginning and a crucial issue now is to extend, sustain and deepen the work. Although we are able to show that Trinity is a place of learning, welcome and sharing, we know these principles need more work. 

Conversations at Sanctuary-related events teach me that not all students find Trinity welcoming. The challenge of creating a more inclusive curriculum is important to develop the learning principle. How we build alliances beyond our walls with people in situations of refuge or asylum needs more work. Sanctuary will be an ongoing process, not a final award. Joining the UoS Ireland network will be of great help in this respect, learning from other institutions’ experiences and giving us a collective voice to press for reforms at policy level.

Before this next phase of being a University of Sanctuary begins, we will make time to celebrate. The launch on February 19 at 11am will be marked by our Provost and the chair of Places of Sanctuary Ireland. We will also celebrate some of the Sanctuary work done to date around College, including the “launch within the launch” of a short film “Flight” made by Dr Michelle D’Arcy and colleagues with support from the Trinity Visual and Performing Arts Fund. We hope that the community will join in the online celebration, and that new participants feel welcomed to engage with the Sanctuary Advisory Group in the work of being a University of Sanctuary.