Sign listing some notable refugees

Is the European science community open to help refugees?

Helping scientists in times of turmoil is invaluable in preserving their life work for the benefits of us all

They come from Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and various Middle Eastern and North African countries. They are the refugees we see on our TV screens. They face never-ending challenges (see box below). Aware of their plight, many universities in Europe offer scholarships and special study opportunities for refugees. However, most measures already in place mainly cater for students. Furthermore, they may not be sufficient to accommodate the growing demand from professional scientists at various stages in their careers.

In this article, EuroScientist looks at the existing and emerging solutions available to support these scientists, as well as their endeavour to rebuild their career in host countries. This piece explores how to reconcile the many extraordinary hurdles they need to overcome the regular demands of what remains a highly competitive activity. Welcoming scientist refugees into European labs is a unique test. It will reflect the ability of the European science community to revisit the hospitality principles underpinning traditional international research collaborations. As history teaches us, failing to accommodate them could be our loss, not just theirs.

Emerging support

Today, there appears to be a lack of active support for the new wave of refugees in the overall scientific community. “From my experience there is little attention yet for refugees among scientists in Germany – this needs to be changed”, says Sybille De La Rosa, a political scientist at Ruprecht-Karls-University Heidelberg
 , Germany, and the spokesperson of an initiative called Transcultural Comparative Political Theory (DVPW), which looks at trans- and intercultural phenomena in political reasoning.

However, awareness of the plight of refugee scientists is slowly rising. And new forms of support–albeit limited– are emerging from among the ranks of academic institutions across Europe. For example, the University of Leipzig in Germany set up the homepage in September 2015, which is designed to help facilitate access for refugee scientists to German universities and colleagues of the same research field. “The main aims are to develop a scientific exchange and to give refugee scientists access to academic life,” says Carmen Bachmann, founder of Chance for Science, who is also professor in business administration University of Leipzig, Germany.

Other initiatives target greater integration of refugee scientists in existing academic structure too. For example, in France, this is the case for the “Refugees Welcome” initiative, that was launched in September 2015, by a group hailing from the Sorbonne University USPC, in Paris. Although it is still at early stage, it aims, among others, at raising awareness and finding solutions to support the integration of refugee students and scientists through national and international collaboration. In the same vein, two German institutions, Max-Planck-Institute and Fraunhofer Gesellschaft, are also planning a cooperation for a better integration of refugee scientists, as is Maastricht University, which has set-up a working group to that effect.

Addressing the need to rebuild support networks and fight isolation, is another emerging solution provided by an initiative called the Silent University. It is a self-described autonomous knowledge exchange platform by refugees, asylum seekers and migrants led by a group of lecturers, consultants and research fellows. Originally created with the support of charitable funding in 2012 in the UK, it then expanded to Sweden in 2013 and to Hamburg, Germany, in 2014 and in Amman, Jordan, since May 2015.

Tapping into traditional support

In the face of current refugee pressure in Europe, the organisations who have traditionally supported refugees are more active than ever. So how do these organisations help? For example, British organisation Cara (Council for at-Risk Academics) “facilitates university placements and offers support with visa and transfer costs, and provides fellowships of £12,000 [€16,000] to £30,000 [€40,000] per year. None of this would be possible without the support of the 108 members of the Cara UK Universities Network, who have been incredibly generous in their support,” says Ryan Mundy, deputy director of Cara.

Other organisations have a similar placement scheme for academics to spend a period of temporary sanctuary so they can continue their valuable work in safety. In return, scholars contribute to their host institutions through teaching, research, lectures and other activities. This is what the Foundation for Refugee Students UAF in the Netherlands does; following on its mission since its creation in 1948, after the student uprising in Prague. Indeed, UAF has developed a scheme called Scholars at Risk, as a joint initiative with the eponymous New York-based network (SAR).

Historical perspective

Looking back in history, helping fleeing scientists has been a key issue, at least since the 1930s, in what were different circumstances at the time. For instance, Cara was founded in 1933 in response to Nazi persecution of academics and scientists in central Europe. “Cara saved the lives and knowledge of thousands of academics in the 1930s and 40s, 16 of whom went on to become Nobel Laureates, 18 to be Knighted, and many more to become Fellows of The Royal Society and The British Academy,” says Mundy. To name only a few, the organisation supported scientists such as Max Born, Ernst Chain, Sir Ludwig Guttmann, Sir Hans Krebs, Marthe Vogt, Lise Meitner, Otto Loewi and many more. “All of whom went to make significant contributions to our intellectual fabric,” adds Mundy.

Clearly, there are many hurdles along the way of further integration of refugees into European laboratories. In any event, they would still need to be able to compete for resources like every other scientists. De La Rosa concludes “Science …is understood as a highly competitive endeavour, but what the refugee crisis is calling for is solidarity.”

Janna Degener

The never-ending challenges

Academic life is prone to many changes of residency, as researchers move to new countries, for the duration of a grant’s lifetime and as new job opportunities arise internationally. But the refugee scientists tend to be faced with constant relocation for political reasons with very little control over where they end up, making it more difficult to rebuild their lives and career.

For instance, due to the ongoing civil war in Syria, Adnan Kanbar and his family fled to Libya in 2013. A previous associate professor of agricultural plant science, agronomy and food science at the University of Damascus, Adnan Kanbar is now a refugee in Germany. While in Lybia, he almost received support from the Scholar Rescue Fund provided by the Washington DC-based Institute of International Education. But because of the outbreak of the Libyan war, his family was forced to leave the country again, so they came to Germany. There they are living in a refugee flat in a small village in Baden, waiting desperately for a job offer: “The Scholar Rescue Fund depends on a minimum of fee waiving from the University in Germany – but no German University is willing to pay this minimum amount of 25.000 dollar,” Kanbar says.

One of the key challenges for refugees are language requirements bestowed by academic institutions in the host country. Such issue affected Kanbar: “Before the war in Syria started, I used to work in India, Japan and Italy. I could always work in English and I was treated at eye level. Now after months of waiting for the possibility to work, German institutions want me to do a German course for one year.”

In addition, many refugees working as scientists struggle with visa problems when traveling to conferences. Masoumeh Mansouri, for example, is an Iranian PhD candidate at the Center for Applied Autonomous Sensor Systems, at Örebro University in Sweden, who escaped Iraq in 2009 from a sentence of ten years of imprisonment after being accused of anti-governmental activities in Tehran. He explains that there is no special visa program for refugee scientists in the country: “This visa process also makes you a ‘trouble maker’, since you have to provide many documents or letters to the embassies from your workplace.”

When it comes to dealing with administrative hurdles, the intervention of support association is key. This is what helped Muhammad and Joury, who do not use their real names for fear of retribution. They are both former lecturers at the University of Damascus, in Syria. As scientists, they were both targeted by the regime and Islamic extremists. Muhammad fled to Jordan and Joury gave birth to their son in Kuwait, were she had to leave after her tourist visa expired. They then went to Turkey where they contacted Cara. Cara facilitated a fee waiver from the University of Glasgow, UK and provided them with a Fellowship to continue studying. However, the UK Home Office denied them a student visa and questioned their credibility, even though the couple graduated from Exeter University in 2009. Eventually, Cara provided legal support to have the decision overturned, allowing them to study in Britain in safety.

Additional research: Constanze Böttcher, Germany, Senne Stackx, Belgium.

Featured image credit: CC BY-SA 2.0 by Takver

Janna Degener

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