How many winners? Aiding scientists among the refugees

The number of people forced to leave their homes has never been higher and currently stands at 65.6 million globally. Of those, the UN refugee agency reports, 22.5 million had to flee from their own countries. Picturing individuals behind those numbers can be difficult, including their educational and professional backgrounds and aspirations. It is commonplace that gathering official statistics of refugees is challenging and the media rarely portrays their detailed personal profiles. If anything, there has been a lingering misconception that among those affected by war, political, social or environmental unrest are poorly educated, low-skilled people. Although, to be sure – the EU labour markets actually need these most to fill the gaps in the demand for jobs that the unemployed EU nationals do not want to take.

A fraction of refugees are also scientists or academics. Even if their numbers are not exactly known, they are not marginal. One of the strongest science and technology sectors in the MENA region was that of Iraq prior to 2003, after which a large number of Iraqi scientists, doctors and engineers are believed to have left the country and its deteriorating infrastructure and diminishing financial resources. Syrians have traditionally been well educated and had promising scientists among them, operating in a generally stifled scientific research sector, controlled by the regime.

Scientific backgrounds and capacities of refugees are features that host countries and the EU (or other destinations) should pay attention to. The target group is even bigger when considering the potential of the individuals, once they are provided with proper research infrastructure and funding and the assurance of freedom of thought.

This is not to suggest that the occupation should give grounds to any differential treatment from that which complies with standards that apply for all refugees on humanitarian grounds. It is also not to diminish the urgency of the governments to provide all the refugees with the ability to work and to perceive the work permits as “win-win-win” for refugees, host countries, and the international community.

But devoting particular attention to those among refugees with careers devoted to advancing knowledge and considering them a specific group makes perfect sense. First, scientists of all disciplinary backgrounds present an opportunity in terms of skills and diversity of knowledge that enrich host societies. The EU recognises the opportunity of those in the context of the determination to better manage migration flows into Europe and openly fast-tracks the talented and highly skilled, e.g. via the EU Blue Card framework, which is the subject of further improvements.

The second reason for attending to “science refugees” is that interruptions of careers can be particularly challenging to scientists’ skills as well as their self-esteem. In addition to fulfilling the economic needs of these individuals and their families, working with and for scientific advancement provides a significant tool for accomplishing personal satisfaction. Unemployment and under-utilisation of skills by scientists are likely to lead to them being de-skilled and demotivated. Each year, if not month, counts in retaining these professionals in their productive jobs.

Finally, the integration of scientists fleeing their countries is wise for another reason: they represent a resource that is essential for the reconstruction of affected countries after the conflicts end. Knowledgeable, creative and determined brain are likely to play an important role in the return to normality of their countries. The investment into the maintenance of individuals’ scientific careers is thus an investment into a smoother transition to post-conflict realities.

The EU’s sensitivity to the needs of the scientists affected by war and conflict seems to have increased with the outbreak of the Syrian war. In part, this is probably because of the sheer number of refugees has increased and in part probably also because the average Syrians are well educated and literate. Many are also proverbially entrepreneurial, hardworking and proactive in creating their own opportunities.

Yet, the initial response to the arrival of refugee scientists and researchers (but also students) was predominately ad-hoc. The earliest initiatives enhancing the employability and skills of refugees as well as offering them research positions were launched by individual institutions, individual countries and on times private companies which sought to accommodate limited numbers of mostly Syrian, Iraqi and Afghan refugees into their existing schemes.

In 2017, the EU is seeking ways of tying these separate efforts together and scaling them up, using the central EU portal for professional researchers (Euraxess) with the aim to run schemes at the pan-European level in the future to benefit the Europe's research system. In parallel with the formal EU attempts, scientific community itself has sought to issue recommendations for improving the scope and quality of integration of refugee scientists. A recent policy report gives a number of suggestions to different target groups – from refugee scientists, diaspora communities, receiving countries, the scientific community in host countries, research funding agencies, the media, international organisations and NGOs and the private sector – as to their potential contribution to retaining the scientists in scientific careers, even when they are displaced.

These are encouraging signs of the recognition of the need for a systemic approach to the issue of “science refugees”. It is difficult to envisage there will ever be too many such commitments.

These measures could well be labelled “science diplomacy” – describing the use of policy (including foreign policy) tools in support of science. While they enhance the role of science in societies, these policies go beyond being about “diplomacy for science”. Supporting the continuation of careers of individual scientists will eventually have an impact back onto investing polities and international relations. Enhanced individual careers and established transnational scientific networks will yield positive personal images of the EU, the national governments or institutions, and lead international cooperation along more rational and peaceful lines. Highlighting the human capital of the refugees might also make a step towards better societal acceptance of the newcomers in some hosting communities.

As such, these policies could be described as “diplomacy for science for diplomacy”. But to save the awkwardness, they are simply – smart actions.

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This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 693799.

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