16 March 2017

Workshop’s goal: A new focus on refugees

How can policymakers and international organizations help asylum-seeking academics land on their feet? A new event is bringing together experts who hope find the answer.

Among the millions of refugees in the world are many scientists without a country. And this week’s workshop on refugee science is setting a course to help guide the policies that could stabilize the lives, and work, of countless dislocated researchers.

As violence in Syria, Yemen and other countries pushes millions of refugees into neighbouring countries and to countries around the world, organizations and governments concerned about refugee scientists don’t have a clear, universal set of guidelines on how to help them. But at a workshop co-sponsored by TWAS, experts with deep knowledge of migration issues are exploring current initiatives that are having a positive impact.

Karly Kehoe, a historian and a representative of the Young Academy of Scotland and the Global Young Academy (GYA), discussed how academies can take direct action to help refugee scientists in their communities. For the Young Academy of Scotland, that means  reserving membership spaces for refugee academics living in Scotland.

They changed their application process to be more accessible to candidates with limited English skills, and they successfully added four refugees to their membership ranks. They developed a buddy program with Scottish researchers to give each refugee a mentor who could guide them on issues of education and training.

For Kehoe, one story stood out: One of those new members, a refugee from Iraq, worried about family and friends in Mosul, had decided to return to Iraq for a time and help them rebuild.

“I asked him about the state of research in Mosul, and it was distressing,” Kehoe said. “One thing he flagged for me was the high rate of depression among existing researchers and among those who have left. And at the moment, everything is in a state of flux. So while research is incredibly important, there are mental health issues there for the existing research staff. How do they overcome that?”

The workshop, convened by TWAS and its partners, lasts from 13-17 March. The invitation-only meeting features several refugee scientists, along with policymakers and the leaders of scientific and refugee-support organisations. At the close of the workshop, participants are expected to release a formal statement of recommendations.

The workshop is among the first ever to assemble leaders from both North and South to discuss the challenges faced by refugee scientists and what can be done to assist them. It is co-organised by Istituto Nazionale di Oceanografia e di Geofisica Sperimentale (OGS), based in Trieste, Italy, and the Euro-Mediterranean University of PIran, Slovenia.

Radwan Ziadeh, a senior analyst for the Arab Center in Washington, D.C., detailed the intensity of the devastation experienced by refugees, including those fleeing his home country of Syria.

After the Arab Spring in Syria, he said, the regime of Bashar al-Assad used its air force, one the largest in the Middle East, to indiscriminately drop bombs onto its own civilians. Many survivors, rich or poor and regardless of their civilian profession, became refugees. But, said Ziadeh, they had no choice. “You’re inside your house,” he said, “and you don’t know if in the next day or even the next minute if you will be alive or dead.”

Another force driving Syrians out is Daesh, popularly known as Islamic State or ISIS. “In April 2013, ISIS took successful control of university in the Syrian city of Raqqa,” said Zaideh. “And for ISIS the first target was education. They targeted most of the schools. And then most of the scientists, most of the school teachers and professors, who were there in the university decided to leave.”

”Syrians are not leaving home because they want a better life or because they want a better education,” agreed EMUNI Presdient Abdelhamid El-Zoheiry. “They are fleeing from war and atrocity, and they are running from Daesh.”

Every one of Syria’s 8 million refugees has a personal story of loss and suffering, Ziadeh said. But for those who have escaped to Europe, there is a need to pay rent, go to school, and look for opportunities to thrive again. With Syria in a state of violent conflict and chaos, there are no opportunities at home.

If there are ever going to be opportunities in these nations again, these scientists will need support from the global community. Science and innovation are drivers of growth and development, noted El-Zoheiry. They need to keep training and keep working now and in the near future, he said, because someday their countries will need the help of scientists and engineers to rebuild universities, laboratories, and other institutions.

“Without establishing long-term operations in science and development, we are doing little to prevent future crises,” El-Zoheiry said.

There are some existing tools in the Global North to aid refugee scientists. Raffaella Greco Tonegutti, who is in charge of migration for the Directorate General for Research and Innovation of the European Commission, spoke on how the EU is trying to aid refugees with a scientific background. One example she said, is the Science4Refugees initiative, which connects refugees throughout Europe with potential research work. Events like the workshop, she noted, create guiding documents that support EU migration policies.

Refugees, including professionals, need to have opportunities to work in the countries they’re living in order to maintain and develop their skills. Helping them find work also aids the stability and the security in the Mediterranean region, said Mario Gomes, the diplomatic advisor for the Union for the Mediterranean in Barcelona, Spain. And, he said, it helps to assure that people get the right , and helps to build a future corps of experts for rebuilding the country after the conflicts end.

“We have to find the right balance between the risk of brain drain and the possibility of guaranteeing that the reconstruction of these countries will one day be possible,” Gomes said, “with the active contribution of the nationals of those countries who have sought refuge and maintained an active role in our institutions.”

Guido Ferraro Di Silvi e Castiglione of the European Commission's Joint Research Centre showed the international audience maps that illustrated the flow of migration from, say, North Africa to Europe and where migrants from different countries are living. Those datasets are part of a major effort to refine the migration profile for each country’s policymakers. But the ultimate goal, he said, is to help the refugees in a job environment that is extremely difficult for them.

“Refugee scientists are in competition with European scientists – basically the European scientists in general are younger and they are better networked in Europe,” he said. “And for the refugee scientists, it’s very important to complement their experience with working experience in Europe. That’s the open question we are working with: How do we bring refugees up to the same level with European scientists?”

But throughout the entire series of talks, an underlying issue rose to the top, perhaps the most important question of all: How do concerned scientists convince people in the West to fully support refugees through government policies? Without public support, hope for all efforts to help refugees – both scientists and others – will continue to be limited.

“From my perspective," Kehoe said, "two of the most important questions that a historian can ask are: In the past, what motivated people to take action to help migrants? And when did their good will stop?” I think that we need to know that now so we can figure out how to get around it.”

Sean Treacy

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