In 2009 Palms Australia began a partnership with the Australian Catholic University (ACU). The role was to assist with the English tutoring of refugee and migrant students from camps on the Thai/Myanmar border. Residents in these border camps have access to primary and secondary education but no access to higher education. ACU is committed to offering long-term higher education opportunities, and alongside Palms tutors, are enabling students to become leaders in their communities with internationally recognised qualifications leading to meaningful employment or entry into international degree programs. Completing ACU’s program has enabled students to find employment with community based organisations working in the poverty, education, human rights, women’s and social sectors which brings long term benefits to the local community.

Refugee camps on the Thai/Myanmar Border

The situation of refugees, forced migrants and internally displaced people is one of the greatest humanitarian challenges facing humankind. This is especially true of what the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) calls ‘protracted refugee situations’ where the refugees have lived for many years in a state of limbo with no resolution to their problem in sight. This is the case with the nine camps along the Thai-Myanmar border – the result of the world’s longest running civil war.

In the camps, primary and secondary education are all provided by the UNHCR and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) but there is no opportunity for young, bright Karen and other various ethnic groups to have access to recognized qualifications in higher education. In April 2005, a joint report by UNHCR and CCSDPT (Committee for the Coordination of Services to Displaced Persons in Thailand) stated that refugee skills should be improved and more higher education opportunities offered. The lack of higher educational opportunities is regarded as one of the main reasons for an increase in social problems among adolescents in the camps.

The Australian Catholic University Program

Since 2003, The Australian Catholic University has been providing a tertiary education program to young refugees who have fled persecution in Myanmar to end up living in refugee camps in Thailand. From 2009 the Diploma of Liberal Studies has taught through a mix of online tutoring, use of distance learning materials and face-to-face tutoring. 

During the Palms 2009 annual general meeting keynote speaker Duncan McLaren, said that Higher Education “is not just about acquiring knowledge or getting a job but a vital element in restoring hope and dignity to people who have been driven from their homes by the vilest of regimes which sought to destroy not just their bodies, but their cultural identities and their personhood.”

In an important way, ACU’s tertiary education program contributes not only to education and human rights but the dignity of an entire marginalised community, empowering them to shape their own future.

Strengthening Academic English and Study Skills, 2009 – 2012

The Australian Catholic University approached Palms requesting the assistance of an Academic English and Study Skills Tutor who could also act as an integral liaison with online lecturers in Australia and the USA. In 2009, Frank Morgan [Palms participant who had previously volunteered with Palms in Nepal 2000] a secondary school teacher accepted the position.

Duncan MacLaren [Coordinator] gives feedback about the partnership with Palms and vital role Frank played in the program’s success:

“Frank Morgan is, in the opinion of both online lecturers and students alike, doing a wonderful job in improving the students’ written and spoken English and acting as a link between the online lecturer and the students. He reads all the material for a particular unit and is thus able to explain concepts and assist with written expression…Under his tutelage, many of the students have made great progress with their English and their understanding of their units. ACU is grateful to PALMS for their cooperation and to Frank for his dedication.”

Duncan MacLaren, Coordinator ACU Refugee Program
Frank and some ACU students

Furthering Academic English for the Diploma in Liberal Studies, 2013-2020

Coming to the realisation that it would not be possible for the program to succeed without a resident tutor, ACU requested a replacement tutor at the end of Frank’s assignment to build on the progress he had made. In 2013, Palms recruited Professor Rosaleen Smyth who had previously participated in Palms program in Tanzania [University of Iringa, 2008-2011].  Rosaleen’s role included:

  • improving the students’ English to an academic level;
  • to act as the liaison person between the students and the online lectures in Australia or Canada and
  • to assist in organising group work and explaining concepts.

Many refugees and migrants have not only triumphed over many obstacles to enrol in the ACU study program but have completed and graduated from the 18 month Diploma in Liberal Studies, with 38 graduating in 2019 alone. Rosaleen commented on the diverse mix of subjects being offered to the students to broaden their world view:

“English Communication Skills and Fundamentals of Management were combined with liberal arts subjects providing students with a global perspective on the rapidly changing world. Global History gave them the long view, while other subjects surveyed this moment in time from the perspectives of International Development, Health, Human Rights, International Education and Development, and International Relations.”

Mr William Shwe [former ACU Program Coordinator, RIP], graduated students and Professor Rosaleen Smyth

Rosaleen continued to facilitate the education of refugees on a global scale through online computer technology.

Rosaleen highlights the achievements of former students as they play crucial roles in the development of their communities in non-government or community-based welfare organisations like World Vision, Association for Aid and Relief Japan, Finn Church AID, the Karen Human Rights Group, Life Impact International, Help Without Frontiers, the Mae Tao Clinic and the Children’s Development Centre.

“Prof Rosaleen Smyth in her role as tutor has been an essential participant in the success of the ACU Diploma program. Without her supportive presence, the students would not have been able to achieve the successes that they have. Rosaleen has established relationships with other agencies in the education field such as Thabyay , Prospect Burma and universities such as Hong Kong Institute of Education  – specifically in relation to the scholarship application process.”  

[Partner evaluation]

Testimonials from the students

The Future

The position of English tutor, by nature, cannot be easily localised as it requires a native English speaker to transfer skills to refugee and migrant students.  Unfortunately Rosaleen was repatriated back to Australia due to COVID-19.

The online Diploma of Liberal Studies continues now under the tutelage of another ACU tutor who also has connection with the Chaing Mai University; a partnership between Universities that will continue to enhance the educational opportunities for refugees and forced migrants on the Thai/Myanmar border.

We look forward to working with ACU in the future as the team identify new challenges which we can help them address.