News & Analysis Physics World  July 2017
(Ahmed Al-Tabbakh / Al-Nahrain University)

Refugee scientists under the spotlight

Thousands of people are forced to flee war-torn regions every year, but the struggles of scientists who have to leave their homeland often goes under the radar. Andy Extance reports on initiatives to help

The final months of a postdoctoral research contract is a stressful time, but for Syrian climatologist Shifa Mathbout from the University of Barcelona, the stakes are higher. Her European Erasmus Mundus funding for studying Mediterranean rainfall trends runs out at the end of this month but she cannot return to Syria, admitting to having a “very big fear” about the prospect. “It’s very dangerous for me,” she stresses.

Mathbout mainly left Syria in 2013 because her brother is a member of the Syrian National Coalition, which opposes current president Bashar Al-Assad. She says she was “lucky” to get Erasmus funding, which is intended to support global co-operation. And while Mathbout can stay in Spain until 2021, she is clear what displaced scientists need. “The most important thing for us is to have work, to help us and our families back in Syria,” she told Physics World.

The trouble facing refugee scientists often goes unnoticed but recently has been examined by The World Academy of Sciences (TWAS), which is based at the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) in Trieste, Italy. It published a report in May – Refugee Scientists: Transnational Resources – that was based on conclusions drawn up at a workshop in March at the ICTP. At the workshop, where scientists, governments, educational institutions and other national and international organizations discussed the fate of scientists caught in the ongoing refugee crisis. Displaced scientists deserve relevant employment, the report concludes – and institutions must come together to ensure they get it.

“Scientists and science institutions in destination countries can do a great deal now to help identify displaced researchers and help them continue their work or studies,” says TWAS executive director Mohamed Hassan, who adds that some displaced people are highly qualified and so can benefit their destination countries. Finding them relevant work also helps maintain and enhance their knowledge, which can help rebuild their home countries once it is safe to return. The TWAS report notes that Iraq had,500 researchers per million population in 2008. “Countries such as Syria and Iraq previously had quite strong scientific communities – well-educated, published, respected,” says Hassan.

There are now four million Iraqi refugees around the world, with more than 65 million displaced persons globally at the end of 2015. However, there are no comprehensive figures of how many scientists are among this number, and the lack of detailed information is a central issue, according to Hassan. “How do you develop policy and programmatic responses when you don’t know the magnitude of the need?” he notes. Meanwhile, countries have been tackling the sudden recent surge of conflict-driven migration individually, but are now looking further afield. “We’re seeing strong interest in greater knowledge-sharing and co-ordination,” says Hassan. “Countries and programmes want to learn from each other’s experience.”

A work in progress

The UK’s Council for at-Risk Academics (CARA) and the Institute of International Education Scholar Rescue Fund in the US are good examples of how to support affected scientists. These organizations are “well-established and very effective at identifying scientists and other scholars in need and giving them crucial support”, Hassan says. Other efforts include the Philipp Schwartz Initiative, which was recently set up by Germany’s Humboldt Foundation to help universities and research institutions in Germany host “threatened foreign researchers” for a two-year period. Mathbout, for example, is currently applying for support from both CARA and the Philipp Schwartz Initiative.

CARA executive director Stephen Wordsworth stresses that the scientists his organization helps are not refugees, who are defined as people who have been granted asylum. Instead, they are scientists seeking temporary sanctuary who are eligible to enter the UK through the country’s visa system without claiming asylum. More than 110 UK universities, and others elsewhere in the world, help them continue their work until they can safely return home.

With the help of donations, CARA supports 260 displaced academics, up from just 50 in 2013. “In many cases their education has cost the British taxpayer not a penny so far and UK universities are getting the benefit,” says Wordsworth. However, CARA could not afford to support the increased numbers on its own and so relies on universities to provide funding for their research, living costs and accommodation. University contributions have increased from £600,000 in 2013 to £4.2m in 2016 with the money coming in some cases through fundraising directly from alumni.

Given that there is currently no organization similar to CARA in countries such as France and Italy, Wordsworth supports the TWAS call for better co-ordination. While institutional efforts are lagging behind, in other countries there are some grass-roots initiatives. For example, ICTP statistical physicist Matteo Marsili is collaborating with refugee camps near Trieste to offer internships for asylum seekers at ICTP or TWAS. “There is a need to support asylum seekers who have academic backgrounds or ambitions,” says Marsili. “In the time they spend travelling and in the camps this becomes a low priority issue to the point that they abandon their academic career because of more pressing needs.”

However, very few of the residents of the camps near Trieste, who are typically around 25 years old and from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Africa, have an academic background. “Scientists generally have more possibilities to find their way to northern Europe and they typically do so,” says Marsili. Thanks to the contacts established at the TWAS workshop, he is exploring how ICTP could help such physicists in danger. “I realized that helping is not so easy as one would naively think,” adds Marsili. “It’s still a work in progress.”

Limited choices

Ahmed Al-Tabbakh, a physicist at Al-Nahrain University in Baghdad, Iraq, exemplifies the benefit of international support. From 2002 to 2009 – during the worst years of war in Iraq – Al-Tabbakh worked at Pune University in India, gaining his PhD. Though he has not sought asylum, he admits he thought about it several times. “I always believed that my qualifications are my best means to overcome life challenges. As a researcher and a teacher in a country defying and fighting against terrorism on its land, I face many challenges and suffer many problems,” he says. “But I hope I do not get into a situation where I have to be an asylum seeker. I wish for my country to be safe and prosperous.”

Yet Al-Tabbakh, who works on nanomaterials for energy storage and conversion applications, faces difficult living conditions and a lack of research funding in Iraq. Since 2014 scientists have received no financial support to run their laboratories or even take part in international conferences and workshops. “Generally speaking Iraqi scientists live in hardship of resources,” he says. “Despite the circumstances, we are lively and productive.” As a TWAS Young Affiliate, Al-Tabbakh gets some support to attend international meetings and build collaborations. However, less fortunate scientists have fled to neighbouring countries as a result of the difficulties they face, even though it is also not easy to go elsewhere. “Choices are few sometimes,” he adds.

In a situation with similarly limited choices, Mathbout is counting the days until the end of her fellowship. As Physics World went to press, she was due to hear from the Philipp Schwartz Initiative, while her CARA application was held up on a technicality. To work in the UK, she needs documentary proof of having worked as a paid lecturer or researcher in Syria. However, Mathbout says that she was being paid in cash when working in that position, so cannot just refer to her banking details. Consequently, she is waiting to hear from the management of the university she worked at.

I have been five years without seeing my parents and my home country, my history, my memories, my books, everything

“Communications in Syria are very bad, so I’ve been waiting for more than a month,” Mathbout says. “When I think about this matter I feel like I just want to cry, because I have been five years without seeing my parents and my home country, my history, my memories, my books, everything. But I’m still OK. Let’s cross our fingers that this will be good. I hope so, really.”