Only 113 refugees applied to a European Commission initiative to help scientists and researchers escape from conflict zones, as the programme missed some of the lessons offered by established schemes in Europe.
Kassem Al-Sayed Mahmoud comes from Deir Ezzor, a city in the eastern part of ISIS-controlled Syria, which he escaped in 2012.
Today, he is in Belgium continuing his post-doctoral research in food processing at the Université Libre de Bruxelles.
But the journey was not easy. He had to deal with Belgium’s administrative complexities and was forced to apply for refugee status in France despite getting a scholarship from the University of Gent.
Above all, he had to leave his wife and three children in Turkey and his “motherland” with no swift return on the horizon: “Europe is good, but this is not our home.”
He is one of 4.8 million Syrians that have fled the country since 2011, a majority of them to Europe.
As part of the response to the massive influx experienced in 2015, the Commission launched in October 2015 the science4refugees initiative.
The goal was to match refugees and asylum seekers that have a scientific background with European research centres and universities.
By doing this, “the EU will gain a huge diversity of new insight for our research, science and innovation, while taking practical steps in providing meaningful opportunities for a vastly talented, but greatly underprivileged, community,” Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation Carlos Moedas said at the time.
The Portuguese commissioner prioritised the external dimension of its science portfolio (‘open to the world’) when he took over.
One year on, the programme has not taken off.
Scientists, experts, universities and officials consulted by euractiv.com pointed out numerous flaws to the original concept.
Until mid-December, around 383 research organisations advertised 2,889 vacancies that were available to refugee candidates.
But only 113 refugee researchers signed up for the plan, according to Commission figures. As a result, most of the vacancies of those taken (2,582) were filled by other candidates.
Moreover, not all the refugees in the Euraxess portal, the initiative’s online platform, were accepted by a university, the executive warned.
The institution did not provide an aggregate number of candidates that successfully completed the procedure as this information is decentralised, an official said.
Science4refugees is not the only programme supporting researchers and professors escaping from conflict zones.
Similar initiatives revealed valuable lessons that the Commission’s plan could have stood to learn form.
The most basic one is that researchers, professors and PhD candidates fleeing countries like Syria or Iraq do not want to be labelled as refugees.
“That is what they tell us,” said Stephen Wordsworth, executive director of the Council for At-Risk Academics (CARA), a longstanding British organisation in this field.
This institution plays an important role in supporting researchers in war-torn regions. CARA receives 15 to 20 applications per week (more than 1,000 per year) from scientists who want to come to one of the universities they cooperate with in the UK, Europe, Australia and Canada.
“Having the refugee status is not appealing to them,” he explained. The reason is that applicants perceive this status as a more permanent situation compared to a standard visa. Most of them are willing to return to their countries as soon as the situation improves.
The refugee label was such a deterrent that CARA renamed itself, without altering its initials. The 80-year old organisation that helped academics escape from the Nazi regime was previously named the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics.
Tailor-made assistance is also required to guarantee a successful match between the applicant and the centre.
CARA talks to each person, verifies their educational background and the reasons why they are escaping. Then, the centre finds the appropriate university according to the academic level and the experience of the person.
Limited research level
This may be of crucial importance given that the overall scientific research level in Syria is low.
The positions announced in the science4refugees portal include posts in molecular biology, advanced computing or even EU post-crisis legitimacy, which may be far from the original background of most of the candidates.
Syria lacks the proper environment to nurture scientific research, including intellectual freedom, research funding, private universities or private sector support.
President Bashar el-Assad’s regime has severely limited the scope of research topics. For example, scientists could not measure the pollution in the soil, air and water for their papers, Kassem Al-Sayed Mahmoud explained.
Apart from bright individual cases, the only centres with sufficient prestige were the Scientific Studies and Research Centre, in Damascus, mostly under strict control of the regime; and the International Centre for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas, an independent centre backed by international donors in Aleppo.
Still, around half of the applications received by CARA come from Syrians.
But Wordsworth explained that, since last autumn, in some weeks they have been outnumbered by applications from Turkish researchers.
The communication strategy could have had an impact on the poor results seen by Commission-backed initiative, warned Nancy Terryn, who runs the PhD programmes for refugees at the University of Gent, a member of the EU scheme.
“In our case, it is very important to use Facebook,” said Anke Sobieraj, spokesperson of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD).
DAAD manages three programmes. ‘Hope’ is an EU-funded initiative that gives scholarships in the region. ‘Integra and Welcome’, supported by the German Ministry of Education, finances integration courses for students at German Universities.
‘Leadership for Syria’, funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is one of the most successful ones, with more than 5,000 applications.
“Everybody wants to come, there is a lot of demand,” she added.
The Commission also made public its initiative mainly through Facebook, although the results were rather different.
“We are constantly working on promoting the service,” Lucia Caudet, Commission spokesperson, explained.
All about the money
But at the end, everything boils down to money.
CARA, together with the host universities, not only offers funds to the applicants, but also to their families. A total of 230 researchers and 300 members of their families have received support. In some cases, the figure could amount to €25,000 per candidate if they come with their spouse and one child.
Meanwhile, the EU executive will allocate €1 million in 2017 to between eight and ten universities involved in the programme, to scale up their initiatives.
For Terryn, this is not enough: “You need to offer something else than the science4refugees logo, because these people have special needs”, she explained.
In her experience, there are some “doubts” among the professors when it comes to accepting refugees in their departments, even more when they have no material, books or even a laptop to work with.
That is why the University of Gent went a step further, allocating an additional budget to accommodate academics under the ‘Scholars at risk’ programme, an international scheme set up in 1999.
Kassem Al-Sayed Mahmoud came to Belgium thanks to this programme.
The Commission is aware that its initiative needs some improvements.
Last November, the institution added a new tool (Science4Refugees Buddies) to be updated in their research areas by linking up with European researchers who are willing to coach them.
This new instrument matches demand and offer automatically, taking into account the areas of specialty. Once the match is made, it is up to both sides to confirm their willingness to become ‘research buddies’.
The executive is also in contact with CARA and other organisations, as well as researchers to revamp its programme.
The main reason for the lack of visible results so far is the long process needed before a refugee can find a job through the science4refugee programme, said Caudet.
“Refugees need to acquire the status of a refugee and make sure that his/her diplomas are recognised. Since they cannot travel for jobs they can only apply for job openings in the country where they apply for refugee status. In addition, they often don’t speak the language of the country where the research institution is based or do not have the right skill set to pass job interviews,” she explained.
Kassem Al-Sayed Mahmoud experienced only some of these difficulties, because he obtained his masters and PhD in Nancy, France, at the École nationale supérieure d’agronomie et des industries alimentaires.
In his view, the main problem “is always money”. “If you have funding you can do a lot”, he insisted.
But still, money cannot help bring his family to Europe or solve the conflict in Syria. While he awaits a reunion with his wife and three children, a process that could last up to nine months until they get the required visas, he misses his country every day.
“You cannot forget your homeland as you cannot forget your mother”, he claimed. Looking forward, he knows where he would like to go: “Of course I want to come back to Syria! There is no home like your home.”