15 March 2017

Leaders urge support for refugee scientists

Among millions of refugees who have fled countries such as Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan, an untold number are professionals who work in science-related fields. They need strong support – and can provide strong skills to their new nations.

Key leaders from science, diplomacy and education today provided a strong endorsement for programmes to aid refugee scientists, engineers, medical workers who have been forced to flee from violence in their home countries.

At the opening of a week-long workshop co-organised by TWAS, the leaders said Europe and other countries have  much to gain by welcoming the researchers and science students. Not least, they said, scientists who get training and jobs in Europe today will be better able to help rebuild their home countries after the violence ends.

Enrico Padula, a counselor in the General Directorate for the Promotion of the Country System in the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, said that disruptions of scientific research pose significant risks both in the scientist's home country, and the new country. "If scientists  wait one year and they stop researching and stop studying," Padula said, "it's a big loss. It's a loss for the people who lost their knowledge. It's a loss for the society."

Annapaola Porzio, the prefect of Trieste, was not able to attend the meeting, but in remarks read by Vice Prefect Rinaldo Argentieri, she explored the economic, ethical and political dimensions of the refugees' arrival. 

Porzio wrote: "Such a global and momentous phenomenon, whose development will affect the destiny of millions of human beings escaping from starvation, poverty and wars, cannot but represent a 'global moral duty' to be practically implemented through international cooperation between and among States by means of their Institutions, which should be the governing and driving factors of the relevant policies."

Other leaders at the opening event struck a similar message, urging that Europe respond in a constructive way.

“Refugees are not a liability, they are not an eminent danger as sometimes pictured by politicians or the news media," said Abdelhamid El-Zoheiry, president of Euro-Mediterranean University (EMUNI). "Refugees are a wealth of resources. And refugee scientists should be harbored and should be given all the resources they need to transmit their science.”

Maria Cristina Pedicchio, president of the Istituto Nazionale di Oceanografia e di Geofisica Sperimentale (OGS), urged host countries to embrace "the value of integration". She added: "Investing in talents through development of skills, exchange of know-how and access to research infrastructures will help create necessary conditions for dialogue and cooperation." 

The World Academy of Science (TWAS) recognizes that countries in conflict are suffering severe human and infrastructure damage, said Peter McGrath, coordinator of the Academy's Science Diplomacy programme. But the lack of a strong, active diaspora will compound the long-term damage caused by conflict.  

"For nations in crisis ... to have no scientific or medical diaspora to bring back once conditions improve – that is something to be avoided at all costs," McGrath said. "The international scientific community, working together, can help to mitigate that risk."

TWAS and its partners are part of an emerging international network of programmes and institutions that are working to integrate the refugees and to preserve their scientific skills. That's the focus of "Refugee Scientists: Transnational Resources", an international workshop that opened 13 March 2017 in Trieste, Italy. The workshop has convened more than 50 participants from 17 countries in the Middle East-North Africa region; sub-Saharan Africa; Europe; and North America. Both UNESCO, and the European Commission and the Global Young Academy all sent representatives.

The workshop has been co-organised by OGS, based in Trieste, Italy; EMUNI, based in Piran, Slovenia; and the science diplomacy programme of The World Academy of Sciences (TWAS), also based in Trieste. The Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) has provided key support for the event.

From 13-17 March, the partners and participants will explore a range of issues related to refugee scientists, seen through the perspectives of several refugee scientists, plus policymakers and the leaders of scientific and refugee-support organisations. The workshop is among the first to assemble leaders from North and South to discuss the adversities faced by refugee scientists – and the potential contributions they could make to their new countries, with the proper support. 

Since the early part of this century, and especially in the past five years, millions of refugees have fled from instability and war in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and other areas of the Southern Mediterranean/Arab region. In Syria alone, a devastating civil conflict has displaced some 11 million people; by some estimates, more than a million have requested asylum in Europe.

Exactly how many scientists, engineers and medical personnel have fled conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa is not known. Estimates run into the thousands for Europe alone, while some have traveled as far as Malaysia, South Africa and Canada to rebuild their lives and careers. Others are essentially stuck in makeshift camps and communities that have developed in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.

Romain Murenzi directs UNESCO's Division of Science Policy and Capacity Building/Natural Sciences Sector, and he previously served as minister of education and science in Rwanda and executive director of TWAS. In his opening remarks, Murenzi stressed the need to provide sustained support to refugee researchers and students in science-related fields.

"The growing number of forced migrations of high-skilled scientists, among others, is particularly contributing to the creation of a diaspora of researchers and engineers with few opportunities to develop themselves scientifically and to reside in decent living conditions," Murenzi told the audience. "It is therefore critical that all possible support be provided to the work environment and initiatives of displaced scientific researchers, as they contribute to improve our understanding of factors involved in the survival and well-being of humankind as a whole."

Both the United Nations and UNESCO have signalled strong concern for migrants and refugees, and for refugee scientists, Murenzi said. 

Last September, the UN General Assembly hosted The World Humanitarian Summit and the United Nations Summit for Refugees and Migrants to address large movements of refugees and migrants, with the aim of bringing countries together behind a more humane and coordinated approach.

And UNESCO, under the leadership of Flavia Schlegel, the assistant director general for natural sciences, is finalizing a "science at risk initiative" to protect scientists and their knowledge in times of violent conflict and disaster. 

According to Murenzi, the initiative envisions that scientists who have been sheltered abroad could continue to develop their knowledge, and steps would be taken to protect local scientific infrastructure. Both are "essential assets for the reconstruction of the country," he said.

Padula, too, said that Italy is taking steps in response to the surge in refugees in recent years. Italy, he noted, has invested tremendous energy and resources to save thousands of migrants who have come to the country by boat.  And, he said, the effort extends to refugee scientists: Italy supports the European Commission ‘science4refugees’ initiative launched for asylum-seeking and refugee scientists and researchers.

Padula also cited the "Invest Your Talent in Italy" programme. It offers refugees the opportunity to develop their skills through a range of master's and postgraduate courses (taught in English) at prestigious Italian universities, plus scholarships and student support services. And even as participants complete their academic work, they can get on-the-job training at leading Italian companies. 

Others see Trieste as a key centre for supporting refugee scientists. There are significant refugee centres in the city and nearby in Gradisca d'Isonzo, and the city is globally known as a centre for North-South science collaboration.

Matteo Marsili, senior research scientist at the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics, has helped to coordinate an effort that brings refugees for internships at ICTP, TWAS and the Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World (OWSD). 

"I believe there is an untapped potential in Trieste to find innovative ways of how science can help tackle the refugee crisis," Marsili said. "Our scientific institutions have brought to Trieste scientists from every corner of the world, including developing countries and war zones. It seems natural to me that Trieste should play a leading role in addressing the global challenges our societies face."

Edward Lempinen
Cristina Serra and Sean Treacy contributed to this report

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