With 70 million fellow citizens displaced, and 25 million of them refugees, our help is urgently needed, writes Dr Sarah Singer, a senior lecturer at the School of Advanced Study’s Refugee Law Initiative research centre.

In today’s world, refugees are never far from global news. A staggering 70 million people are currently displaced from their homes on account of persecution, conflict, violence or human rights violations. Of these, approximately 25 million are refugees, which means these conditions have forced them to leave their home country in search of safety elsewhere. A far larger number of people are displaced within their own country (internally displaced) or displaced for reasons which go beyond persecution and conflict, including drought, hunger, environmental disasters and the effects of climate change.

With such large numbers of people on the move in search of safety and security, comes ever-greater challenges to national and global systems designed to protect and support them. Indeed, while a large amount of the world’s refugees hail from a relatively small number of countries, the refugee issue is a truly global phenomena: refugees come from, and are hosted in, all continents across the globe. In this context, World Refugee Day takes on ever-greater importance as a point in the year to remember, learn more about and explore ways of addressing the situation of refugees and other forcibly displaced persons.

The Refugee Law Initiative, one of the leading institutions working on refugee protection and forced migration studies, specialise in research, training and teaching on refugee law, policy and practice. Based at the School of Advanced Study, University of London, it has recently launched a freely-accessible online short course (MOOC) on ‘Refugees in the 21st Century’, delivered via the Coursera platform. 

The course has been designed not only as an outreach tool for those who want to acquire a deeper understanding of refugees globally in the 21st century, but also those who wish to build transferable skills in analysis and evaluation in the context of practical challenges. Taking a global perspective, it guides learners through the fundamentals of who ‘refugees’ are, where they come from and where they go, as well as delving into the features of the global system for refugee protection and ‘solutions’ for those who have been forcibly displaced. The course is free and does not require any previous knowledge of the area; as such it is for everyone. 

Since launching in January 2020 we have seen over a thousand learners progress through the course. This is proving to be a really valuable public education tool through which anyone – wherever they are based in the world and whatever previous knowledge they have – can learn more about and engage with these issues of global importance in a free and accessible way. 

The course also provides a taster for the Refugee Law Initiative’s award-winning online Master’s programme in Refugee Protection and Forced Migration Studies.

A further key development for 2020 is the University of London’s newly formed Refugee Law Clinic that provides pro bono legal advice for asylum seeker clients in London. Facilitated by the Refugee Law Initiative, this project brings together 10 of the University of London member institutions as an inter-collegiate project. The clinic is based on a model of Clinical Legal Education for its diverse student body, enabling law students from across member institutions to put their learning into practice by supporting asylum seeker clients, overseen by the clinic’s supervising lawyer. Delivered in partnership with two law firms, the Refugee Law Clinic also provides the opportunity for lawyers to undertake pro bono work within the clinic.  

Due to launch later this year, the clinic’s main legal focus will be advising on and preparing fresh claims for asylum, an area identified as underserviced in the current legal landscape and aims to complement the work of existing law firms and other service providers in London. This high-impact and innovative project will contribute much-needed pro bono legal services to asylum seekers in London and has the potential to develop substantially in future.