Science in exile


Many universities in Europe are trying to help refugee academics. By Julia Richter

(From "Horizons" no. 112 March 2017)​​​

They worked in the labs of Aleppo and in the research centres of Kabul; they had careers as mathematicians, biologists and philosophers. They suffered persecution, lost their jobs and were compelled to flee. What happens to academics when war and persecution force them to leave their universities, their cities and their countries, leading them all the way to Europe?

'Scholar at risk' – because of a signature


"In Istanbul, every day is a little adventure", says Ayse Dayi. She misses her native city – and yet she can't stay there anymore. Dayi had an assistant professorship in the Department of Psychology at Mayıs University in Istanbul, where she worked in the fields of gender studies and women's health.

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Universities in different European countries are increasingly concerned with offering opportunities to refugee academics. In this regard, Germany has taken on a pioneering role. Different programmes there are trying to provide exiled academics with access to research facilities. For example, the German Research Foundation launched a package of measures in 2015 to support scientists who had fled their native countries. The Humboldt Foundation's Philipp Schwartz Initiative is also offering financial support to scientists who are in danger.

Knowledge is lost

Other initiatives aim at establishing possibilities for interaction and at integrating refugee scientists in Germany. One example of this is the platform 'Chance-for-Science' in Leipzig, which offers refugees the opportunity to come into contact with scientists at German universities. Carmen Bachmann is a professor in business taxation at Leipzig University and the platform's initiator. She is convinced that such interactions are of great significance: "For scientists in exile, enduring a long phase of inactivity isn't just a human catastrophe. Such a situation also represents a loss of knowledge over time – because if knowledge isn't applied, you lose it". A similar approach is adopted by Academic Experience Worldwide, an initiative that enables students at the University of Frankfurt am Main to help integrate refugees in an academic environment. There, for example, refugee scientists are able to present their research topics to the Frankfurt public within the framework of a lecture series entitled 'Opening Academia'.

When paradise turns to hell


Guilain Mathé's academic career is not like other people's. He has spent much of it on the run. His commitment to human rights and his research into civilian massacres during the civil wars that have devastated the Democratic Republic of the Congo since 1996 made him into a persona non grata in the eyes of the Congolese government. In 2008, he left his homeland. "I was getting constant death threats because of my research", he says.

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Compared to Germany, assistance for refugee academics in Switzerland is less well developed. Martina Weiss, Secretary General of 'swissuniversities', the new Rectors' Conference of Swiss Higher Education Institutions, believes that this is primarily because of the lower numbers of refugees in Switzerland. Walter Leimgruber is a professor of cultural anthropology at the University of Basel and President of the Federal Commission on Migration (FCM). He too confirms that the topic of refugees has not reached the same degree of attention in Switzerland as has been the case in Germany.

Nevertheless, measures have also been taken here to help persecuted scientists to get established at a university. There are eleven Swiss universities in the network 'Scholars at Risk', which was founded in Chicago in 1999 with the aim of protecting imperilled scientists, preserving academic freedom and upholding human rights. This network has over 400 member universities across the world that are working to realise its goals in different ways. For example, a member of the network can offer jobs to scientists who are in danger, or it can organise events and conferences to help spread information about the problem. The universities of Lausanne and Lucerne have already appointed refugee scientists to their staff. Other universities, such as Bern and Zurich, have thus far restricted their activities to propagating information and raising people's awareness.

Modest career perspectives

Out of the inferno, but without his family


The images from Aleppo are devastating. It is almost unimaginable that the city had a functioning university system until only recently. Mohamed Ali Mohamed can tell all about it. Until September 2015 he worked as a lecturer in cartography at the Geographical Institute of the University of Aleppo. He lived in the Syrian city with his wife and three children until their apartment was completely destroyed in a bombing raid. But he did not want to interrupt his work at the university – after all, he had to provide for his family. But the civil war meant he lost his job. He also feared that he would be called up into compulsory military service.

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Despite these initiatives, opportunities are limited for refugee scientists to get a post at a Swiss university. Why is this? "Academic posts are often scarce, and competition for them is fierce. This certainly doesn't make things easier", says Christin Achermann, a professor in migration, law and society at the University of Neuchâtel and the project leader at the National Center of Competence in Research 'On the Move'. Martin Reichlin, the Deputy Head of Information and Communication at the State Secretariat for Migration, says that there are also practical aspects to the problem. For example, when people flee they are sometimes unable to take their degree certificates with them to their new host countries. Walter Leimgruber of FCM also acknowledges that there are language problems. And he sees a further problem in the significant professional and qualitative differences in training and education that exist in the various homelands of these refugee academics. "In order to integrate successfully, academics need the means to pursue further training. They have to be able to take appropriate language courses and acquire additional qualifications". And it is not the universities, but the cantons that are responsible for this. Leimgruber is critical of the cantons' attitude: "For them, a handful of academics is simply an irrelevance". This is why he proposes adapting integration services specifically to suit academics.

There are more opportunities for academic integration when it comes to students who have arrived as refugees in Switzerland. The Association of Swiss Student Bodies (VSS) has set up a project entitled 'Perspectives – studies to integrate refugee students into the Swiss university system'. Martina von Arx is in charge of it, and she is delighted at how much students are getting involved: "The big demand and the positive feedback about our current projects show that we are on the right path". At various universities – such as in Basel and Geneva – projects have meanwhile been established that allow refugees to attend lectures as guests. One disadvantage, however, is that these programmes thus far do not enable anyone to progress to a recognised degree, and they are also only available to a restricted number of students.

So, there are still several obstacles to be surmounted before refugee researchers can be integrated successfully in Switzerland. Just how important it is to set up specific support for refugee academics is proven by the historical experience gained from scientists who fled from the Nazi regime. They did not just escape with their lives; they also brought fresh knowledge and innovations to their new host countries. And academic migrants sometimes also bring fame and honour with them. Of the 21 Swiss recipients of a Nobel Prize in the natural sciences, ten of them were born in other countries.

Julia Richter is a journalist in Bern.

Many different programmes, especially in Germany

  • The Philipp-Schwartz-Initiative der Deutschen Humboldt-Stiftung, run by the German Humboldt Foundation, helps imperilled scientists.
  • Chance for Science provides contact with researchers at German universities.
  • The Council for Assisting Refugee Academics (Cara) does what its name says. It was founded in 1933 in reaction to increasing discrimination in Nazi Germany.
  • Scholars at Risk campaigns for research freedom and human rights.
  • Science4refugees, an initiative of the European Commission, facilitates integration at European universities.
  • Academic Experience Worldwide promotes the academic integration of refugees.
  • The Scholars Rescue Fund offers financial support to scientists who are in danger.
  • The Initiative der Deutschen Forschungsgemeinschaft enables projects to apply for additional funding in order to appoint exiled scientists.