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This article underlines the challenges refugees experience in accessing higher education in both first-asylum and resettlement countries. It focuses specifically on Turkey’s higher education system, and the policies and practices in place to respond to the educational requirements of Syrian refugees. Our analysis reveals that accommodating the influx of Syrian higher education students into the Turkish system presents a huge challenge for policy makers and higher education institutions. The case study conducted at Istanbul University further emphasizes the common barriers that refugees face when trying to access higher education in host countries – financial hardship, language issues, non-recognition of prior learning and a lack of information or guidance. Restrictive regulations and legal precarity, on the other hand, tend to be less of a challenge when it comes to accessing higher education. Our findings support that central regulating body’s immediate action and its commitment to provide higher education for refugees are crucial to prevent a short-term crisis. However, we also argue that despite the flexibility introduced for refugees in the legal and regulatory framework, implementation depends on institutional policies and practices that are mainly constrained by their capacity and resources.