(The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Al-Fanar Media).
Armed conflicts, violence, human-rights violations, and natural disasters have displaced millions of people around the globe, including an unknown number of scientists, doctors, engineers, and others with advanced technical training. Unless more is done to support them, the world risks losing a generation of scholars and their expertise.
According to UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, more than 114 million people worldwide have been forced to flee their homes as of the end of September 2023, due to conflict, persecution and human rights violations. This is more than double the number of those displaced in 2013, which amounted to 51.2 million.
While we lack accurate estimates of the number of displaced scholars, they are likely to be in the thousands. Even when some of them get asylum, insecurity often persists due to their precarious situations.
The Toll on Science in Sudan
The situation in Sudan is one example of how conflict imperils science. According to the United Nations, military confrontations that first erupted in April have forced over one million people to leave the country, including young students, scholars, and researchers, and four million others have been displaced within the country.
More than 100 Sudanese universities have been damaged, looted or forced to close in the fighting, which also threatens the country’s museums and heritage sites.
“Cooperation between academic institutions in Arab countries beset by violent conflicts, such as Sudan, Syria, and Palestine, and international institutions would play a decisive role in re-establishing quality education and scientific research in the afflicted countries.”
In a recent article in the journal Nature, Mohamed H.A. Hassan, president of the Sudanese National Academy of Sciences, in Khartoum, described the continuing threat to education and research in Sudan. Seven months of armed clashes have left thousands of researchers and students unable to work after the destruction of their universities and scientific labs.
Hassan highlighted the role the Sudanese National Academy of Sciences was playing to support displaced Sudanese scientists by documenting their names to share with groups like the Science in Exile initiative, seeking to establish partnerships with international organisations, and organising events to enhance awareness of the crisis.
- Also see: Sudan’s War Disrupts Universities, Leaving More Students in Limbo
The article calls for supporting fellowship programs for displaced researchers and reconstructing damaged buildings. It also calls for establishing temporary fellowship programmes in safe universities, in Sudan or abroad, to enable researchers to continue their research.
“Displaced Sudanese researchers and students urgently need support from the global scientific community,” Hassan wrote.
Science in Exile
The Science in Exile initiative brings together at-risk, displaced and refugee scientists along with like-minded organisations who work together to strengthen systems that support, protect and integrate such scientists.
Science in Exile was founded in 2016 by a group of scholars, researchers and practitioners concerned with the global crisis of displaced scholars and refugees. Its founding partners include the World Academy of Sciences for the advancement of science in developing countries (Unesco-TWAS), the InterAcademy Partnership (IAP), and the International Science Council (ISC).
The group’s activities include:
- Advocating for more-inclusive policies and practices to support displaced and refugee scholars.
- Providing direct support to displaced and refugee scholars, including scholarships, training and mentoring.
- Building partnerships with other organisations working to support displaced and refugee scientists.
Better Futures for Refugee Scientists
Cooperation between academic institutions in Arab countries beset by violent conflicts, such as Sudan, Syria, and Palestine, and international institutions would play a decisive role in re-establishing quality education and scientific research in the afflicted countries.
Grants and programmes abroad must be short-term, lasting only one or two years, and provide opportunities for scholars to stay connected to their home country, so that they can help rebuild national academic institutions once stability is restored.
In Sudan, for example, reconstruction requires significant international aid, not only because of war’s immediate effects, but also because of the marked deterioration in the Sudanese higher-education system over recent decades of political instability, lack of resources, and inadequate infrastructure.
Currently, opportunities for displaced and refugee scientists remain few and are disconnected, mostly in Western countries, and have limited engagement with the scientific community. In addition, research on these issues is very sparse.
“The global crisis of displaced and refugee scholars poses significant challenges. The international scientific community can and should do more to support talented displaced researchers and ensure their continued contributions to their local communities and the world.”
According to an essay in the 2021 Unesco Science Report, “The integration of refugee and displaced scientists creates a win–win situation,” and the international community must ensure that the skills and expertise of these scientists are not wasted. These individuals represent invaluable assets to the entire global scientific community, and the loss of scientific knowledge, systems and data has serious implications for the national and international science environment.
In the end, the global crisis of displaced and refugee scholars poses significant challenges. The international scientific community can and should do more to support talented displaced researchers and ensure their continued contributions to their local communities and the world.
- Forum for Women in Science Urges Efforts to Help Refugees
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