A group of refugee students, some at secondary education and others at tertiary, used to came together from time to time to discuss the challenges they faced while trying to obtain an education. At that time most refugees faced problems in registering to begin their studies as they were told to register as international students in South Africa and pay upfront money, often in one instalment. Many experienced financial hardship and consequently dropped out from university. Others successfully completed their studies but were unable to graduate and obtain their certificates for years and go on to further their studies or to seek employment.
In spite of the lack of means, each time refugee students or prospective students approached different sources of funding and applied for any kind of financial aid their applications were rejected due to their refugee status or because, they were told, they could not be supported as individuals because they were supposed to be part of a larger recognized vulnerable category.

In December 2004 the second global consultation of the Inter-agency Network for Education in Emergencies (INEE) was held in Cape Town. INEE brings together non-governmental organizations, UN agencies, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), donors, practitioners and beneficiaries whose main objective is promoting access to education for individuals affected by crisis situations. A few refugee students from the University of the Western Cape (UWC) and Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) took part in the event. There they were encouraged by representatives of several nongovernmental organizations to come together and organize tertiary refugee students in Cape Town with the aim of addressing their problems collectively and seeking solutions and partners to work with to make those solutions come to life.

At the beginning of 2005, a first meeting was held at the Cape Town Refugee Centre (CTRC), with over 30 refugee students. On that occasion an Executive Committee was formed and students named the association Unity for Tertiary Refugee Students (UTRS).

The UTRS seeks to empower refugees and asylum seekers at tertiary education or wishing to further their education or resume in South Africa the tertiary studies they were forced to interrupt due to adverse circumstances in their countries of origin. Another crucial objective for the UTRS is to promote social cohesion, integrate communities and educate the refugees’ host communities about who are refugees, why they are in South Africa and what are their rights. The organization also seeks to support refugees and asylum seekers at tertiary education by identifying or creating funding opportunities from which the most needy and deserving among them could benefit.
Since 2005, the UTRS has been an advocate on behalf of refugee and asylum seeker students. Among these, its main targets have been refugee students who have dropped out from university, those who are at risk of dropping out due to financial problems and those it calls “ghost students”, students who are not able to pay outstanding fees and continue to attend university without being officially registered. It has also tried to assist students who due to outstanding fees, in spite of having succeeded in all exams and submitted their thesis, have been unable to graduate for years and go on to further their studies or to seek employment.

Some of the organization’s achievements so far, include managing to reintegrate in the university system some refugees who had dropped out from their studies and prevent study abandonment of dozens of refugees and asylum seekers by negotiating on a case by case basis with their respective institutions. It also lobbied the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to raise the age limit set to qualify for the DAFI bursary programme, which caters each year for an average of 14 refugees in South Africa. The age limit was raised from 25 to 28 and in 2008 several refugees over 30 years old were also assisted. In 2008 the UTRS managed to obtain the once-off payment of the outstanding fees of 33 refugee students in their final year, thereby allowing them to graduate and move on with their lives. As a result of UTRS advocacy efforts the number of bursaries provided to refugees by UNHCR in South Africa in the framework of the DAFI bursary programme was also increased from an average of 14 bursaries per year being awarded to 73 awarded in 2008 and more than 100 in the subsequent years.

The UTRS has been supported in its efforts by the Cape Town Refugee Centre (CTRC) and cooperated with the UCT Law Clinic. It has also been recognized by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office in Pretoria with which it has been working since 2006. In April 2009 a dialogue has also began with the UNHCR office in Geneva.

The biggest limit to the organization’ objectives and scope have been how to ensure continuity, efficiency and quality while relying on financial means which are close to nothing. The Executive Committee of the organization has often gone out of its way to find solutions to students’ problems, investing time and resources for daily needs such as communications and transport to materials and more. These resources have now been stretched to the limit and if they were barely enough before, they are simply gone now. The lack of long term donors is a strong limitation which the UTRS hopes to overcome by establishing meaningful partnerships in the near future.