Credit Henrique Bente Flickr

Streamlining immigration procedures for scientists

Just about every research institution wants to be international and attract researchers from overseas. If foreign researchers are coming to a country it shows that its research system is healthy, and is doing work worth participating in. International mobility, whether to attend conferences or for research visits, is considered important to smooth the exchange of information, and is essential to doing good science.

But while there is much universities and research institutions can do to encourage international mobility, some things outside their control can work to prevent it. Immigration policy is one example. Seemingly arbitrary and overly bureaucratic immigration procedures have prevented many researchers from working in Europe.

Fluctuating visa rules

Examples of researchers frustrated by immigration problems abound. These range from Nigerian linguistics researchers denied visas to enter Sweden, to an Algerian historian denied access to the UK. Just about anyone who has organised an international event will know the problems immigration policy presents. And they will certainly know of scientists who were unable to attend due to problems obtaining a visa. Most of these cases go unreported, and although there are statistics for visa refusal rates, these are not broken down to identify how many researchers may be affected.

Many have expressed concern at how toughening visa rules might work to prevent researchers from even making the effort to apply. This was the case in 2011 when France toughened its visa rules, and has recently been a concern to scientists in the UK. Such practices only work to harm the country in question, damaging their reputation internationally, and encouraging researchers to take their skills elsewhere.

Iranian scientists

Sometimes, it is more specific issues that prohibit immigration from particular groups. Researchers from Iran, for example, have recently been experiencing problems with Norway’s immigration authorities. Earlier this year, several researchers from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim had their residence permits refused. Meanwhile, others who had been hoping to start work in Norway were denied visas. The excuse given for these practices is international sanctions aimed at preventing the development of Iranian nuclear weapons systems.

Students and researchers are being prevented from studying and researching in fields considered sensitive. Although exactly what is defined as sensitive does appear rather broad, including, for example, reducing CO2 emissions in ferromanganese production.

The SEDAI campaign was launched in response to these events. The campaign works to raise awareness of the issue and to protest “education discrimination in Norway”. The campaign has resulted in a petition, signed by over 12,000 concerned citizens from Norway and across the world, being presented to Norwegian parliamentarians in August 2014. Amongst the signatories was MIT professor Noam Chomsky, who described this discrimination against Iranians as “completely unjust and unacceptable”.

This is not the first time Iranian students and researchers have been denied visas because of international sanctions. In 2012 the Dutch immigration authorities stopped processing visa applications and issuing residence permits for Iranians for the same reasons. And in 2008, France similarly picked out Iranian for extra scrutiny.

Rising anti-immigration sentiment

There is growing anti-immigration sentiment across Europe, as evidenced by this year’s elections and by the referendum in Switzerland. The harm the latter vote could do to its research community has been much discussed. While today some countries might want to single out Iranians, tomorrow it could be Ukrainians or scientists of some other nationality.

Given the importance of international mobility to a healthy, dynamic research environment, a reasonably open immigration policy, and straightforward immigration procedures, can be considered essential to the success of a country’s research system.

Researchers must be prepared to speak up for foreign researchers when immigration procedures work against them by, for example, supporting campaigns like SEDAI. This will contribute to ensuring that their country’s immigration policy works to the benefit of good research.

John Peacock

President of Eurodoc and doctoral candidate at the University of Antwerp

Featured image credit: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 by Henrique Bente

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One thought on “Streamlining immigration procedures for scientists”

  1. Thanks a lot John for such insightful piece of writing.

    If the countries mentioned in the article would just consider complying with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 26 “higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit” we would not need to go to a court of law to revive the right to education.

    it is not too much to expect the host to the Nobel peace prize not to violate basic human rights.