Copyright: Malcolm Chapman

Is Europe doing enough for refugee scientists?

Young scientists take a fresh look at what could be a crisis of confidence, failing to harbour solidarity

The refugee situation in Europe is escalating, with distressing scenes at borders and the latest troubles from refugee camps dominating the news. Migration issues are high on the political agenda. They may even threaten the unity of the European Union. Aid agencies and NGOs state that Europe’s “unconscionable” response to the refugee crisis is courting humanitarian disaster.

“Fresh Eyes” workshop

In autumn 2015, the presidents of the European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC) and of IAP, the global network of science academies, challenged an international network of young scientists, the Global Young Academy (GYA), to look at the refugee crisis. Two months later, in partnership with the Dutch Young Academy and the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, the GYA convened a two-day workshop. It led to the publication of a report and a video on 29th February 2016.

The meeting looked at refugees issues with fresh eyes, exploring how the research community can make an evidence-based contribution to this highly politicised agenda.

Over 20 excellent, selected young academic experts and practitioners took part in the meeting. They hailed from disciplines ranging from human rights to history and from public health to urban design, and came from European and non-European countries, including (former) conflict areas. A wider community of young scientists and refugee scientists were able to contribute their views through an online survey prior to the meeting.

The participants concluded that models of integration which respect diversity, democracy and values of human dignity, freedom, equality, solidarity and human rights pose a challenge for the EU and its Member States. They also concluded that Europe could do more to absorb the growing tide of refugees and–in several aspects–benefit from it.

Areas requiring further attention

The workshop participants identified four distinct areas to which the global research community can contribute. First, understanding the problem. That is, identifying areas where conceptual theory, empirical evidence and better data are required to support policy making. This includes a better understanding of cultural values within communities and of the fundamental European principle of solidarity.

Second, it is clear that practical actions and interventions are needed, that build on and scale up good practice. Examples include job market integration, community-led non-formal education schemes and trust-based social networks such as mentoring schemes for refugee scientists.

Third, there is a need to reframe the refugee debate. This requires developing more intelligent and innovative media strategies to help inform the public objectively, influence public opinion and ultimately public policy.

Finally, it is essential to address the root causes. Namely, by understanding and then reducing the need for people to flee their countries through more concerted and coordinated international effort.


The report includes a set of recommendations primarily targeted at the European Commission. We note that at its first meeting in January the High Level Group of Scientific Advisers to the EU identified migration as a priority for future attention. But there are also recommendations for the OECD, the UN, and the global research community to help mitigate and better manage forced migration more widely. After all, Europe is only part of the picture.

Some of these recommendations are long-term oriented and complex, others more immediately practicable. Among the more practical solutions, is the need to developing mentoring or networking schemes for refugee scientists. National and young science academies and associations are particularly well-placed to host these; they could complement the European Commission’s new Science4Refugees programme.

In addition, the report recommends building on innovative mobile education formats for refugees, by adapting existing solutions such as MakerLabs, Hackerspaces and Fab Labs. This means relying on community-led initiatives designed to facilitate acquisition of skills within refugee camps; InnoCampus is one such model.

Finally, there is also a need to work with local, national and international journalists to inform intelligent reporting of refugee issues in an engaging way, as exemplified by the video.

Fresh Eyes on the Refugee Crisis from GYA on Vimeo.

We are now actively disseminating these recommendations to user communities. We hope that the report will inspire policy makers and funding agencies in Europe and beyond to fund new initiatives. We also hope to inspire research communities to get more involved. As scholars, we have both an opportunity and a responsibility to contribute to solutions to public policy challenges. In this instance, we hope we can have some modest impact on the way the world perceives and treats refugees.

Since the release of the report and video, we have been building relations with key policy leads in the European Commission. They have welcomed our cross-disciplinary perspective, the constructive way in which we have framed the issue and early evidence of putting words into action. The Scottish Young Academy has recently changed its membership policy to reserve four places each year for the next three years for at-risk academics and refugee scholars. We anticipate other young academies will follow suit.

Eva Alisic, co-chair of the Global Young Academy

Tracey Elliott, freelance consultant in international science policy

Featured image credit: Malcolm Chapman via Shutterstock

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