Refugee scientists: The way forward

A workshop co-organised by leading science organisations has produced a comprehensive set of recommendations for supporting refugee researchers fleeing from conflict and war.

Science organisations, universities and policymakers should undertake broad efforts to identify research professionals among millions of war refugees and assure that they can get back to work in their new countries, says a bold set of recommendations issued in Trieste, Italy.

The recommendations urge the creation of education and jobs programmes and other initiatives to support the social and professional integration of refugee scientists, engineers and doctors, as well as students in related fields. They also call for research to more fully understand the demographics and experience of refugee scientists and evaluate which programmes are most effective at supporting them. The proposal assigns key roles to science organisations, universities, refugee organisations, policymakers and other stakeholders.

The goal: Assure that the refugee scientists can quickly make contributions to research in their new countries – and, someday, use their skills and experience to help rebuild their home countries.

"There are...many benefits to assisting suitably qualified displaced scientists, engineers and medical personnel integrate into universities, research institutions [and] teaching hospitals," the recommendations say, "both in the short term in the host country, but also in the long term as they return to their home countries."

The recommendations are the product of a weeklong, high-level meeting with more than 50 participants from 12 nations, including policymakers; representatives of scientific and educational institutions and refugee agencies; and a half-dozen current or former refugee scientists. The meeting focused on refugees from Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.

Three international institutions organised the meeting: The World Academy of Sciences (TWAS) and the National Institute of Oceanography and Experimental Geophysics (OGS), both based in Trieste, and Euro-Mediterranean University (EMUNI), based in Piran, Slovenia. Each of the organisers has networks linking Europe and North America to the developing world, especially the Middle East and North Africa. The Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) provided key financial support. The TWAS Science Diplomacy office coordinated the meeting.

Among the recommendations developed at the event:

• Establish systems for identifying refugees with science-related backgrounds and guiding them to effective integration programmes;
• Accelerate review of visa and asylum applications for refugees in science-related fields or studies;
• Develop training and jobs programmes for refugee science students and researchers, with short-term jobs in the public or private sectors that can serve as a bridge to long-term employment in the host country's science system; and
• Initiate research to improve understanding of refugee scientists' immediate needs and their long-term integration, and also to assess the scientific, economic and social benefits of their work in their new countries.

After five days of presentations and discussions on refugee and at-risk scientists, the meeting produced a mixed picture.

Some excellent policies and programmes exist, and some refugee scientists are making a successful transition. But in other cases, government agencies make no effort to identify scientists among the refugees. Many struggle in their new countries. Programmes are scattered and fragmented, and vary widely from country to country. There is no mechanism for taking the lessons learned from one policy or programme and making them available more broadly.

"Many affected scientists experience high levels of unemployment and their skills are significantly underutilized," the recommendations say. "They are often underemployed in low-skilled and temporary or low-paying jobs. Thus, their chances of returning to professional careers often diminish the longer they are jobless in the new country of residence as they become de-skilled and lose self-esteem."

A holistic, long-term approach is essential, participants concluded.

"The movement of scientists, driven by conflict and war, cannot be treated as a temporary or emergency phenomenon," says the research agenda. "Rather, it is a permanent feature of globalisation and geopolitical instability."

One critically important long-term need is data: Who are the scientists? Where are they? What is their expertise? Databases that assemble information on refugee scientists and their skills are indispensible, said workshop participant Radwan Ziadeh, a refugee whose application for asylum is pending in the United States. Host countries can't effectively help refugee scientists find research work without a basic census system in place, said Ziadeh, a social scientist who now serves as a senior analyst at the Arab Center in Washington D.C.

The effort to aid refugee scientists must be carried out by many decision-makers together, said workshop participant James King, assistant director of the U.S.-based Institute of International Education-Scholar Rescue Fund.

"The scale of this crisis is massive – no single government, organization, or institution can resolve it," said King. "But if every higher education institution committed to offering at least one fellowship or scholarship to a displaced scientist or aspiring scientist, this would make a huge difference. It would help ensure that countries devastated by conflict have the experts to rebuild them and that the refugee population is given opportunities to succeed in their hosting countries."

At the same time, scientists who are refugees or at risk of displacement can take steps that improve their chances of success in a new country. For example, they should keep digital copies of their degrees and other records in the cloud, in case those documents are lost or left behind. On arrival in the host country, they should begin as soon as possible to seek connections in the science community.

"Hopefully, wars won't last forever," said Mounir Ghribi, in charge of the international cooperation and strategic partnerships at OGS. "We must see refugee scientists not as 'transnational resources' but as transitional, temporary resources for the hosting countries. And we must build an active network of influential scientists who could be instrumental in easing the refugees' return to their home."

EMUNI President Abdelhamid El-Zoheiry invited workshop attendees to think of refugees as a force that spreads not only knowledge, but also tolerance and intercultural understanding. The recommendations, he said, are an important step to helping host countries realize that an investment in refugee scientists can pay dividends.

“Refugees do not represent liability, but a wealth of resources,” El-Zoheiry said.

Interim TWAS Executive Director Mohamed Hassan expressed hope that the recommendations will generate new momentum for networking and research to build a system of support for the displaced researchers.

"Today we are most focused on scientists from the Arab region," Hassan said, "but this is really a worldwide phenomenon. These researchers, through their struggles, can play a unique role that contributes to science both in the North and the South. With so many science-related challenges confronting every nation, we must do all we can so that all scientists are able to do their best work, no matter where they are."

For more information:
Edward W. Lempinen
The World Academy of Sciences (TWAS)
[email protected]
+39 348 920 1915

Published: 22 May 2017

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