About us

A place of sanctuary

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How we're helping refugees

Essex has a proud and radical tradition of providing sanctuary for academics and young people, and is committed to making the University a welcoming and safe place for refugees and asylum seekers.

We are an official University of Sanctuary, after being awarded the status in December 2020. This recognises our commitment to promoting a culture of welcome, safety and inclusion across our campuses and their wider communities. 

Universities of Sanctuary are part of the UK's City of Sanctuary initiative to ensure our nation is a welcoming place of safety for all.

students embracing at colchester campus
"The Essex Student Action for Refugees group has transformed the lives of some of our most vulnerable and isolated women." 
Maria Wilby  Case Worker  refugee action colchester
"This Sanctuary scholarship has made all the difference and it allows me to continue to pursue my academic goals. Thank you not only for the financial support but also for the gift of your heart and the human spirit."
Temesgen Beriso Shire International Human Rights Law LLM

Discover the many ways we're helping refugees in our local communities and beyond

Supporting Refugee Action Colchester 

For the staff at Refugee Action Colchester (RAC) each day is spent providing practical support to clients, such as help with immigration applications, housing and benefits, job and education applications.

Maria Wilby, case worker for RAC, said: "As we get to know clients, and they learn to trust us. We often identify mental health issues or isolation. Knowing that appropriate mental health support can take up to six months to access is frustrating. The Essex Student Action for Refugees (STAR) group has transformed the lives of some of our most vulnerable and isolated women. For two ladies in particular these group sessions are the first time they have been out of their homes for nearly five years for a social gathering. Even during the COVID-19 lockdown there is an active WhatsApp group where they share day-to-day things and offer support.

"The University has become a resource that we regularly turn to for support for our clients. Many lecturers and students have gone out of their way to assist clients and support us in applications for funding, giving us chances to spread information, and in placing students on placements with us. Law Centre students gave more than 60 hours of support in case work in early 2020."


Providing free English language classes

Teaching by staff in our departments 

Dr Neophytos Mitsigkas from our Department of Language and Linguistics and his language teaching students provide free English classes as part of a programme supporting dependants of international students and staff, as well as students at the University from Refugee Action Colchester (RAC). Classes run in autumn and spring terms, four times a week, every week, for two hours. Sessions help participants learn a language at a level that suits them: beginner, intermediate, or advanced, plus there are sessions to help with academic writing.

Dr Mitsigkas also attends weekly RAC meetings to inform the group about the many ways the University can help, as well as encouraging them to attend his English language classes. He said: "Thanks to the frequency of the lessons, there is plenty of exposure, and it's a good opportunity for further practice and development, but importantly, it gives the chance to refugees to feel socially included, where they meet with other people, and share experiences and information."


Teaching by student volunteers in the Students' Union V-Team 

Some 80 volunteers from the Essex Students’ Union V-Team  refugee teaching programme help more than 15 refugees every week, during the spring and autumn terms, to improve their English and help them integrate into their new living environments. Teaching takes the format of three sessions that last for four hours, totalling some 500 volunteering hours each academic year. In addition, since 2011 students have been volunteering weekly to teach English to refugees, through other initiatives including by students on our Teaching English as a Foreign Language course. 

Giving free advice through Essex Law Clinic

Essex Law Clinic benefits the local community by offering free initial advice about legal problems while giving our students the chance to work alongside practising lawyers to advise real clients. Work with refugees, asylum seekers and destitute migrants is taking place in collaboration with Refugee Action Colchester and the Red Cross.

Hosting the Refugee Care conference 

Essex academics Dr Zibiah Loakthar and Professor Renos Papadopoulos, from our Centre for Trauma, Asylum and Refugees, hosted the Refugee Care Conference and Refugee Week Celebration, in collaboration with a range of refugee agencies, which took place at the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust, London in June 2019. This included a session facilitated by Dr Loakthar titled: 'Refugee Care: Where Now?'

Sharing knowledge at the ESRC Festival of Social Science

The University is a major participant in the nationwide Economic and Social Research Council's Festival of Social Science held in London annually, and we host a broad programme of our own events as part of the festival, which has the overall purpose of reaching audiences outside of academia, through talks, lectures and other events.

University staff and student volunteers make an important contribution, workshops in partnership with refugee charities, on themes such as people seeking asylum and the voluntary sector workplace and the detention of asylum seekers while awaiting status decisions.

Focusing on issues in our THINK! debate series

The University of Essex's award-winning THINK! debate series is a cornerstone of the Essex Education for our students; debates engage with the critical issues of the day we have held three so far that relate to the subject of refugees and immigration, supported by Colchester Refugee Action. 

17 February 2016
Debate: "The Syrian Refugee Crisis: What to do?"
Speakers: Maurice Wren, Maria Wilby and Abdul Razouk
Convenor: Carlos Gigoux


25 January 2017
Debate: “Refugees”
Speakers: The Refugee Women’s Strategy Group, Nina Murray from The Scottish Council and refugee speaker Rahaf Sallouta
Convenor: Matt Lodder          


17 October 2018
Debate: “Out-Trumping Trump? Immigration and detention in the UK” 
Speakers: Yasmine Chafai, Rahaf Sallouta and Flora Wanyu 
Convenor: Ellisif Wasmuth

This THINK! series debate put the spotlight on the UK and questioned how we treat our own refugees in the UK. The event publicity said: "While Trump's plans to build a wall on the Mexican border have sparked outrage, the construction of a Calais barrier since 2016, funded by Britain, has gone by with little public scrutiny. There are allegedly more walls to prevent migration in Europe now than there was in 1989, before the fall of the Berlin Wall. We’re inviting speakers to talk about their experience of coming to the UK as a refugee. They will tell us what the UK detention system feels like from the inside. We will also be joined by a representative from the Detained Voices who work to reveal the stories of people held in UK detention centres."

'Charities, humanitarian action and big data: friend or foe?' event

During the autumn term of 2016 the University hosted a series of free events under the umbrella theme of Big Data, Big Questions, to explore how big data was starting to shape the society and what its likely impacts would be.

One of the sessions, Charities, humanitarian action and big data: friend or foe? focused on how charities are using big data, both at home and abroad, from verifying human rights violations to predicting humanitarian disasters - demonstrating the University's longer-term commitment to exploring technology and its role within the context of human rights and society.

Speakers included Wendy Betts, Director of eyeWitness to Atrocities, Joanne Mariner, Senior Crisis Response Advisor at Amnesty International, and Duncan Ross, Director, at DataKind, an organisation that seeks to harness the power of data science to serve humanitarian causes. A Q&A session followed.

This event was co-devised by the Administrative Data Research Network, the ESRC Business and Local Government Data Research Centre and the Human Rights, Big Data and Technology project, all of which are based at the University of Essex. 

'Building Bridges Between Cultures' event 

In December 2018 the refugee teaching project team from Essex Students' Union's V-Team organised a cultural bridge-building event alongside students from the Amnesty International Human Rights Society, at the University's Colchester Campus.

The event was promoted as being "powered by students who are passionate about cultural relativism" and it was devised to create a friendly social atmosphere to help increase awareness about refugees in our local communities through celebrating cultural openness and diversity, through videos, talks from key speakers including Dr. Carlos Gigoux Gramegna and Edward Campbell, General Manager of Essex Integration, followed by music, workshops and food stalls. 

A helping hand at 'Craft and Conversation' sessions 

Hosted at Refugee Action Colchester's city centre headquarters, and supported by volunteers from Essex Student Action for Refugees (Essex STAR), Craft and Conversation is a group for women refugees, asylum seekers and vulnerable migrants that provides a sociable and calm space for clients to get involved with craft activities while RAC staff help them with immigration and other issues. 

The group's members include more vulnerable refugee clients of RAC, some of whom have experienced trauma in their home countries and in the UK. The group meets every Tuesday morning for two hours, and the women make friendship bracelets, do knitting, painting and more, and receive important contact with helpers and peers. Essex STAR organise the sessions, and funding is part supported by the Lottery.

Dayani, who is from Sri Lanka, said: "I loved that it gave all us ladies an opportunity to get together, from all around the globe. It brought us an opportunity to do arts and crafts which most of us have no time usually to do with children around. Going to the group meeting was like a dedicated 'me' time but enjoyed with a lovely group of ladies. I miss the chats, the laugh, the  jokes, sharing of recipes and experiences but most of all being around like-minded sisters."

Essex Student Action for Refugees (STAR)

Formed in late 2019,  the Essex Student Action for Refugees (Essex STAR) group is a student-run society, one of more than 50 of its kind that operate within universities, to make the UK a more welcoming place for refugees. The group focuses on educating and volunteering to promote the welfare of refugees, and students host discussions, campaigns and awareness-raising events, including to help asylum seekers and refugees see the opportunities to study at Essex.

In just a few months Essex STAR had received strong support from student community and grown to become a group of inspired and enthusiastic members.

Their first volunteering project in October 2019 involved hosting a pop-up cafe in the Firstsite art gallery in Colchester, which was a great success. Ana-Maria Dutu, welfare officer and volunteer coordinator of Essex STAR, said: "It didn't feel like work at all thanks to the cheerful atmosphere in the kitchen and how lovely everyone involved was. The Syrian and Sudanese food was incredibly tasty and seeing how it is made was fascinating.

"Getting to meet a few amazing refugee women, to interact with them, and to learn a little bit about their stories, was invaluable. We felt more motivated than ever about our society’s purpose, and it was rewarding and inspiring to contribute to the raising of funds for the amazing community Refugee Action Colchester cares for." 

Using art to tell refugees' stories

In 2019 our Centre for Migration Studies was involved with a number of community arts projects that saw more than 350 people mark Refugee Week.

One project was led by artist Maria Anastassiou, who made filmic response to the historic point of entry for immigrants coming into the UK – Tilbury in Essex. Set against the transient landscape of the Thames Estuary and laden with traces of the ever-shifting global narratives of commerce and migrations, Anastassiou spent the previous year connecting with Tilbury-based refugee and migrant groups, including Romanian workers, Nigerian women asylum seekers and Filipino seafarers. 

Over 18 months Maria worked closely with these groups, often arranging art workshops and events for them. Once she had gained their trust, she also helped them out by inviting lawyers to advise the Nigerian women on their asylum claims, or the Romanian workers on how to be best prepared for Brexit.
Maria worked with Dr Renee Luthra and Dr Carlos Gigoux Gramegna, from the Centre for Migration Studies. They gave her valuable information and guidance during the early research and development stage of her project; they have since continued to stay in touch.

Hosting and participating in talks and open seminars

PHAP webinar on the ethics of forced migration research 

PHAP, the International Association of Professionals in Humanitarian Assistance and Protection, hosted a webinar on 10 December 2020 with more than 600 people attending.  Geoff Gilbert, Professor of International Human Rights & Humanitarian Law, Essex Law School and Human Rights Centre at the University of Essex, and Chair of the Global Academic Interdisciplinary Network of the Global Compact on Refugees was one of the event's keynote speakers.

The event discussed ethical challenges faced in researching situations of forced migration, and how these relate to the application in practice of the principle of “do no harm” and the IASFM Code of Ethics. Alongside Geoff's participation, the event included contributions from researchers, a refugee post-graduate student, as well as a camp manager, who shared their experiences and views. A recording of the event is now online. 


Gulwali Passarlay talk

At the age of 12, Gulwali Passarlay set off from his home country of Afghanistan,on a journey to seek safety from persecution. Now an adult, Gulwali was invited to talk at at open seminar organised by our Department of Psychosocial and Psychoanalytic Studies, hosted by Dr Zibiah Alfred Loakthar and Dr Renos Papadopoulo to share his reflections about his personal experiences.

Gulwali has written about his experiences in a book titled: The Lightless Sky: An Afghan Refugee Boy’s Journey of Escape to a New Life in Britain, and a couple of years ago Gulwali, together with Nola Ellen, set up the not-for-profit organisation My Bright Kite, to leverage genuine human connections to foster a culture of welcome and advocating for the wellbeing and inclusion of young refugees living in the UK, using storytelling to build compassion and empathy for the experiences of young refugees.


Capturing testimony of the contemporary migrant crisis

This open seminar hosted by the UK Data Service took place on 20 November 2019 at our Colchester Campus. Using migration research as a case study, the seminar brought together various stakeholders to discuss the complexities and opportunities of sharing, archiving and reusing qualitative data in an interactive way.

Based on views and experiences shared by researchers, research participants, migrants and their representatives and spokespeople, group discussions aimed to develop practical guidelines for sharing and archiving qualitative data for future reuse. The seminar was organised by the UK Data Service and funded by the Global Challenges Research Fund.



Organising a range of fundraising activities 

ISER staff raise more than £8,000 by living off refugee rations

Since September 2020 Amy Sheridan and Jay James, who work within ISER at the University of Essex, have managed to raise more than £8,000 in donations by responding to a challenge to live off rations of rice and lentils for a week: the same food rations as a Syrian refugee would have to live off in a camp in Jordan.

Read more about Amy and Jay’s challenge in this article from 24 September 2020 in the Colchester Gazette. Donations are still open for continuing support of Amy and Jay’s ration challenge

Swimming the channel 

Dr Zeina Alsharkas, who completed her Masters at Essex and is a lecturer in our Department of Economics, swam across the English Channel to raise awareness and highlight the plight of refugees fleeing her war-torn home country of Syria, and to raise money for Sawa for Development & Aid to support children in refugee camps in Lebanon.

Societies' fundraising

Our two Students' Union societies, Amnesty International Essex and the Essex Human Rights Society organise regular fundraising activities and awareness campaigns. 

Departments' fundraising

Many staff and students from departments, schools and centres across the University hold small-scale events and activities to raise funds for refugee charities. These include the UK Data Archive, whose staff raised more than £600 for Refugee Action, one of the many charities they support in their twice-yearly fundraising calendar. Also, our School of Philosophy and Art History and Interdisciplinary Studies Centre  organise bake sales, including a fundraiser for Syrian refugees that raised more than £500.

Charity consultations

Members of our academic staff, including Dr Zibiah Alfred Loakthar and Professor Renos Papadopoulos, also share their expertise, advice, and best practice to a number of refugee and asylum seeker charities and other institutions. For example, in 2020 Dr Loakthar ran a session on practical advice and tips regarding refugee care at Goldsmiths University to a group of social work students.

Inclusion Conference 

The inaugural Inclusion Conference hosted at the University of Essex aims help academic staff in supporting both their students and fellow students and staff, by providing them with practical information and best practice examples on refugee care.

This conference was planned for March 2020 but has been postponed. 

"I am incredibly proud to be a part of the University of Sanctuary. My Masters programme on International Humanitarian Law is of great importance to my career. After successfully completing my course, I would like to take part in international projects to share the knowledge and experience I have gained."
Fatma Ozdemir LLM International Humanitarian Law student
audience and contributors at the Think debate
Our award-winning THINK! debate series is a cornerstone of the Essex Education, debating critical issues of the day - three events have focused on refugees and immigration. 

Our research

Our researchers are highlighting the challenges faced by asylum seekers and refugees through their academic work, and they are involved in activities and initiatives in many different areas.  

Read our research case study about how we're helping to improve the lives of refugees around the world. 

Our teaching

Our teaching addresses issues relating to migration and sanctuary seekers at all levels, in both courses and modules.

  • MSc Migration Studies uniquely explores the study of migration through a sociological perspective and uses a scientific approach to investigate the key challenges that will shape policy agendas and the impact that this could have around the world.
  • MA Migration Studies explores the study of migration through a sociological perspective, investigating how these challenges shape policy agendas with particular attention to issues surrounding social integration, rights and multiculturalism
  • MA Refugee Care brings together people from diverse walks of life and parts of the globe to explore how we can care for refugees more effectively. Delivered in partnership with the therapeutic provision of the Tavistock Clinic in London, we offers four modules and the opportunity for students to attend placements and volunteer in the community at charities such as the Red Cross, CTAR, Refugee Action Colchester, Colchester Institute teaching English to refugees and Freedom from Torture. Through this placement students gain real experience in refugee care and provide support for vulnerable people in the community.
  • BA Teaching English as a Foreign Language includes focus on issues to do with the teaching and learning of English as a Second, Foreign and an Additional Language, and includes our students providing English language classes to local refugees.
  • Essex Law School students have the opportunity to work in our Law Clinic, work with refugees, asylum  seekers  and  destitute  migrants  through  collaborations with  Refugee Action and the Red Cross in Essex.

Studying at Essex

The University of Essex is committed to inclusivity and prides itself on offering a transformative education to people from a diverse range of different backgrounds and countries. We want as many applicants as possible to have the opportunity to study with us and recognise that many forced migrants may not have access to qualification documentation to evidence their previous academic or English language qualifications. If you are in this position and you do not have access to some or all of your qualification documents, please contact the relevant Admissions Office to discuss how we can support you to make an application to the University of Essex.

Postgraduate Admissions Office: pgadmit@essex.ac.uk
Undergraduate Admissions Office: admit@essex.ac.uk

Refugee bursary

Students with UK refugee status, or dependants of UK refugees, may be eligible for a refugee bursary of up to £1,500 if studying full time, or up to £750 if studying part time.

Sanctuary Scholarships

We are offering the University of Sanctuary Scholarship to new Postgraduate Taught (PGT) Masters students taking up a place to study in 2023-24, who have UK Asylum status or Discretionary/Limited Leave to Remain as a result of an asylum application, and those with Humanitarian Protection, as result of an asylum application or through a dependants claim.

External Funding Opportunities

Schwab & Westheimer Trust Scholarships

Please see links below to externally funded awards for students who are asylum seekers. The closing date is the 9 June 2023.

Students' wellbeing support

The University’s student wellbeing and inclusivity service provides a professional and proactive guidance service, within a healthy and inclusive environment, to help our students to fulfil their potential. The team's accessibility and wellbeing manager, is a dedicated member of staff and the main point of contact for sanctuary students.

More information

If you would like to get in touch and find out more about our financial and wellbeing support for refugee students please email: diversity@essex.ac.uk

Students' stories

Rahaf's story 

Rahaf Sabha Alghalyoun is from Syria and in her third year of studying for an LLB in Law at Essex

"I left Syria in 2015 when the war started. Initially I started a Media and PR degree in Jordan, but my studies were interrupted by events there, so I had to leave. I worked for the UN with children for two years, and this is when I heard about the resettlement scheme, and successful applied for a five-year visa with refugee status to the UK.

"When I arrived in Colchester I first worked with Refugee Action Colchester (RAC), as a volunteer caseworker and interpreter, as I have good English. There, I met RAC’s Maria Wilby and Dr Carlos Gigoux Gramegna from the University, who both encouraged me to apply for a scholarship, which provided some financial support for my Law foundation year.

"Settling into full-time study was difficult at first – especially with two young children – but by my second year I had made more friends through the University of Essex Islamic Society, my English language had improved, and I am enjoying my studies. While there have been struggles along the way, I see my degree as an investment I’m making to help other refugees in the future.

"I still volunteer, to help other refugees with legal issues they may have, offering advice and help with application forms, for example. I would say to anyone in similar circumstances to not give up. You shouldn’t let anything stop you from reaching your dream."

Yara's story

Yara Issa is from Syria, and is currently studying for a PhD within the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex. 

"I was in my final year in 2011 within the Department of Law in Syria when the war started. I met my ex-partner who had to come to the UK to pursue a PhD degree in Finance at Essex, and we left Syria on 8 November 2011. I briefly returned in February 2012 to do my final exam, but the situation became worse and I had to fly back to the UK as fast as I could. I left the county without completing my exam and therefore failed to get my degree. Since then I haven't returned, and I haven't seen my family. 

"The war, the danger, the horror I witnessed in Syria during my stay put me into a severe depression. Added to this, I wasn't able to speak English, and had no friends around me. I joined the International Academy at the University of Essex, on a programme to help PhD students’ dependants and partners with their English and integration into life here. This was my first step towards meet people and learning the language - and after six months I was able to speak fluently and had too many friends! Then, to help myself financially, I worked at a school as a teaching assistant, taking an NVQ3 in teaching assistance and a SEN2. I started to feel at home here at Essex.

"When I was working and doing the other degrees, I started feel the difference between my culture and others; especially when I started to make international friends. Especially issues related to women and children. I was motivated to know more about these differences, and why women are more or less appreciated in different cultures. Also, I was interested in the education system here in the UK, and how it is completely different in structure from Syria's.  

"One day I met with my ex-partner’s supervisor and I shared these thoughts with him; he encouraged me to study within the Department of Sociology at Essex, as it is one of top departments of its kind. I had an offer to study Sociology and Social Psychology and I was over the moon. I was very organised and always had a plan: my English started to improve and mentally I was doing well. 

"I had my son in 2014 then I started my BA in 2015. After I finished my BA with a first, I applied for scholarship at Essex for a Masters degree - I was accepted and did my Master in Survey Methods within ISER, finishing with very good grades, and also doing a placement within ISER for six weeks, I was delighted with this opportunity as I found ISER a great place to learn - its staff are friendly and incredibly smart! Also, I have a big interest in research methods and statistics, so I wished to continue my study journey and applied for a PhD. I started my PhD last month and I think I am doing well so far.

"The University of Essex is like a home to me. It's a place where I felt proud of myself, where I dramatically improved, and found help when I needed it. There are people who I like and love here. When I was suffering from depression, I got effective help from my teachers, especially Renee and Carlos. They were very supportive. Being student at Essex helped me rethink my life and my career, and I gained unique experience from an academically challenging environment. As a refugee, I got huge support from my department, emotionally and academically.  

"Essex also helped me financially thanks to the Refugee Bursary, which supports students affected by war and political unrest; it gave me a lot of security, and made me feel I'm not alone, there is always someone here to help if I needed it. I would not be where I am now without the help and the support I've had from my teachers and friends at Essex. I am very grateful for this opportunity, and I'm very proud to be a student at Essex." 

Jean-Nicolas' story

Jean-Nicholas Beuze works for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, as their representative to Yemen. He graduated in 1998 from the School of Law, with an LLM (Master of Laws) in International Human Rights Law.

"I recently joined the UN Refugee Agency in Yemen to lead our protection and assistance response to some 280,000 refugees – mainly from Somalia; Yemen hosts the second largest Somali refugee population globally – and more than 3.7 million internally-displaced people. 

"Yemen currently ranks fourth in the number of nationals displaced within their own country by a conflict globally, as it entered its sixth year of conflict. It has a very sad record when it comes to humanitarian needs, from risks of cholera and famine to being at the bottom of the Human Development Index.

"In Yemen, UNHCR runs its fifth largest cash programme. While, with respect to refugees, my agency is responsible for all aspects of their wellbeing – from being recognised as refugees or providing specialized services to survivors of sexual and gender-based violence, to health, education or livelihoods – our internally-displaced peoples’ response focuses on protection of civilians, emergency shelters and hosting sites’ management while other humanitarian partners focus on other aspects of their needs.

"At Essex, my primary interest was in international humanitarian law, which led me, for example, to coach the Essex team at the Jean Pictet Competition for international law students that year, on the suggestion from Francoise Hampson, now Emeritus Professor in the School of Law. But ultimately, the late Sir Nigel Rodley gave me the opportunity to become his assistant on the torture mandate at the United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner.  

"Thanks to interaction with other students, who were already experienced human rights or humanitarian practitioners, Essex gave me a sense of the realities of field work. The Essex LLM postgraduate programme truly combined the theory with the practice. Essex also allowed me to establish an extended network of friends, on whom I continue to rely to this day for advice and support, and the last Essex friend I made is Christa Rottenstein, who works for the International Organization for Migration’s operation in Yemen."

students embracing
Get in touch 
If you're involved with a University project that's supporting refugees, please get in touch. 
group of people taking part in refugee week events
In 2019 our Centre for Migration Studies was involved with a number of community arts projects that saw more than 350 people mark Refugee Week.