Supporting refugee researchers fleeing from conflict and war

22 May 2017

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 stem from a workshop co-organized by leading science organisations, including The World Academy of Sciences for the advancement of science in developing countries (TWAS), a UNESCO programme.

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 is to ensure 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.

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."

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.

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. Rather, it is a permanent feature of globalisation and geopolitical instability.

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."

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 the 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 TWAS Science Diplomacy office coordinated the meeting.

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