The plight of Arab refugee scientists in the diaspora

Arab scienctists suffering
Copyright: Panos

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  • Large-scale efforts needed to identify researchers among millions of war refugees
  • Many affected scientists suffer from unemployment, neglect, psychological pressures
  • Host countries can do more, and specialised institutions needed to support them

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Researchers fleeing conflict see their careers perish as countries and science institutions fail to give support.

[CAIRO / AMMAN / BAGHDAD] Many refugee scientists and researchers fleeing conflict in the Middle East and North Africa have been lost in the diaspora — neither continuing their research, nor being welcomed by the countries of forced exile.

‟Some countries do not give the right of permanent residence to those competent researchers,” says Taher al-Bakka, a former minister of higher education and scientific research in Iraq. He says these are mainly Arab, Muslim-majority and Asian countries.

‟Then they [the researchers] turn to working as construction workers or dustmen, facing threats of being expelled at any moment, which forces them to live in apprehension and instability.”

A meeting to discuss the challenges facing refugee scientists was co-organized in March in Trieste, Italy, by three international institutions: the World Academy of Sciences (TWAS), Italy’s National Institute of Oceanography and Experimental Geophysics, and the Euro-Mediterranean University of Slovenia.

More than 50 participants from 12 countries attended the meeting, including policymakers, representatives of scientific and educational institutions, refugee agencies, and some refugee scientists, particularly from Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya.

The participants stressed that refugee scientists do not get to use their skills while being unemployed, deprived of opportunities that match their qualifications, or working in low-skilled jobs that are either temporary or low-paid.

Recommendations to manage this “massive crisis”, as participants put it, were issued in a report late last May. They call for initiatives, such as programmes to create education and jobs, to support the social and professional integration of refugee scientists.

“The Arab world does not care about refugee scientists, and even if some get jobs, the pay will not be enough [to cover their needs].”

Mahmoud Al-Abbasi

Mohamed Hassan, interim executive director of the World Academy of Sciences, hopes the meeting’s recommendations will generate a new impetus for networking to create a support system for refugee researchers.

The fact that the meeting comes years after the problem emerged could be seen as a sign of how refugee scientists in the diaspora have been neglected. It was organised by institutions linking Europe and the developing world, particularly the Middle East and North Africa, and some also consider this problematic.

Some of the participants saw it as a failure of the host countries to recognise the scientists’ value, while others saw larger forces at play. According to the report: ‟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.”

‟No single government, organization or institution can solve the crisis, due to its numerous and complex aspects,” according to Peter McGrath, coordinator of Science Diplomacy/Policy Program at the World Academy of Sciences, and one of the participants.

A treasure to be found

To find a solution, McGrath sees an urgent need to collect data — first to determine who the refugee scientists and researchers are, where they are, and what expertise they have. It is also necessary to identify host countries and institutions where they can continue their work, he says.

‟Double [the] effort should be urgently exerted and coordinated between different national and regional bodies in this regard,” McGrath told SciDev.Net. “We need available resources on the internet that could be used by refugee scientists to record their data, and also by research institutions in host countries that have opportunities and grants to host those scientists.”

Abdelhamid Zuhairi, chairman of the Euro-Mediterranean University, said: ‟We should consider those scientists a treasure. … [They] are a wealth of resources, and investing in them can pay off. This is a fact that host countries should realise.”

Stephen Wordsworth, executive director of the Council for At-Risk Academics (CARA), one of the initiatives working on this challenge, said: ‟We should also realise a very significant fact: that some of the refugee scientists intend to return to their country of origin whenever possible.”

Because of this, Wordsworth believes that initiatives that offer support to asylum-seekers or refugees can be a problem in themselves, when they force them onto a specific path they may not wish to take. ‟They should not be pressed and pushed to a path. Their knowledge and skills will be necessary when they return to their home countries,” he said.

Wordsworth also pointed out that many asylum seekers come from countries where the quality of academic systems and research methodologies is low. Their English skills may also be poor, and sometimes non-existent, compared to many of their counterparts in the international academic community.

‟Those scientists need programmes and initiatives that reflect on their usefulness and value to their home countries in the future, and thus offer opportunities to continue what they have achieved, besides developing their skills and building the networks they will need when they return to their home countries for reconstruction," Wordsworth told SciDev.net.

Pooling resources

McGrath agrees, seeing an urgent need to move beyond “wonderful” individual initiatives to something more inclusive and better funded. This could be achieved by combining work between the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), academic institutions, and science funding institutions, he said.

On this point, Hayyan Dukhan, a Syrian refugee and visiting researcher at the School of International Relations at St Andrews University in Scotland, made a proposal in an interview with SciDev.Net. He suggested allocating a budget for refugee researchers to carry out scientific studies related to their countries of origin, with attention on how they can make use of those studies after the war. He also recommended that research is carried out on how to integrate refugees into the labour market in the host country.

But Mahmoud Al-Abbasi, an Iraqi refugee to Jordan who holds a doctorate in Semitic languages from the Sorbonne University in Paris, France, believes there are significant obstacles to making this work in an Arab country: ‟The Arab world does not care about refugee scientists, and even if some get jobs, the pay will not be enough [to cover their needs].”

This is the reality for Riad al-Mustafa, a Syrian paediatrician and a refugee in Jordan, who is working to feed a family of nine.

Stalled careers and suffering

‟Syrian doctors are not allowed to practise medicine,” says Al-Mustafa, who lives in Russayfah, an area in the eastern part of the Jordanian capital.

Al-Mustafa works for a medical association in the al-Zaatari refugee camp. There he sees a large number of patients, which leaves no time to participate in or keep abreast of research, except through his own initiative, for example by reading scientific papers.

‟The dreams of developing and advancing my career are fading, with my mind now focused on continuing work to ensure a small income that meets the needs of my family,” said Al-Mustafa.

He believes a body should be created to embrace Arab scientists from war-torn countries, to help develop their skills and to host them.

Faleh Abdul-Jabbar, a professor of political sociology at the University of London, UK, believes the only real solution is to resolve the conflict. “But this can take up to the lifetime of a whole generation,” he says. “So, it is possible to put present and medium-term programmes in place, to accommodate at-risk scientists and academics in the internationally financed programmes of neighbouring countries.”

These countries can include the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Jordan, Egypt, and even Lebanon, says Abdul-Jabbar. "Hosting at risk scientists in these countries’ institutions may be a better alternative than immigration to the West," he added.

Dukhan, at St Andrews University in Scotland, speaks about the psychological toll of being a refugee scientist.

"The biggest problem we face on the personal level is a psychological one, since following news about the war brings depression and sadness, as well as the guilt and helplessness of not being able to help our people who are caught in the middle of the war,” he said. "This is in addition to the looks of sympathy I get for being a refugee."

Dukhan points out that most British universities offer moral and material support to refugee researchers. However, they do not have the infrastructure to support people coming from war and conflict zones. He suggests that host countries should develop psychosocial support programmes for refugee researchers.

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Middle East & North Africa desk.