'I have things to give this country, but I am not allowed to'

August 20, 2004

Persecution has led to a rise in numbers of refugee academics, but they don't feel welcome in the UK. Chris Bunting reports.

When Kebebush Mulugeta sat down at the Job Centre to fill in the registration forms for the Government's New Deal programme, she encountered a problem. "They didn't seem to have even thought that somebody like me might come along. At the top of the page, they had boxes for titles such as 'Mr', 'Mrs' and 'Ms' but no box for my title: 'Dr'," Mulugeta says.

When Mulugeta politely insisted that she wanted to be referred to by her proper title, she was first ignored by the Job Centre official and then found herself being shouted at. "She would not recognise my academic level. She started shouting at me, telling me that I had no choice what work I could do. That I had to forget my previous life."

Mulugeta holds a PhD in economics and worked as a senior lecturer at the University of Economics in Bratislava before being forced to come to Britain from Slovakia in 2002. She is one of a growing number of refugee academics living in Britain. Although there are no precise figures, the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics (Cara), the 51-year-old charity that represents academic refugees in the UK, estimates that there are more than 2,000 refugees and asylum seekers with academic backgrounds in the country, substantially more than there were a decade ago.

For many, finding a place in British society, let alone a place that uses their qualifications and experience, is almost impossible. Mulugeta sees the Job Centre episode as symbolic. "There was no box for a person with my qualifications. I didn't fit in to what a refugee was supposed to be: this idea that we are just here to get the benefit money," she says. "I realised before I came here that it would not be easy. I didn't expect too much, but my experience has been much worse than my expectation. This society talks about being very multicultural, but to really penetrate it is hard. When I compare it with Slovakia, it is much worse."

The comparison is damning because Mulugeta, who is originally from Ethiopia, was forced out of Slovakia in 2002 by neo-Nazis who targeted her because of her race. She and her husband were physically abused and repeatedly threatened. They were given refugee status in the UK because immigration officers were convinced that the authorities in the Baltic state were ignoring their plight. They could not return to Ethiopia due to their association with the democratic opposition there.

Mulugeta's experience of the UK so far has been of a suffocating and debilitating refusal by her new host society to see her as anything other than an "asylum seeker" or "refugee". She has applied for academic positions in British universities, but has never had a response. She has also applied for junior researcher jobs for which she is probably overqualified, but has been similarly unsuccessful. She is currently working at Cardiff County Council as a support worker for fellow refugees.

"I am not saying I look down on the work I am doing at all, but I feel I have things I can give to this country that I don't seem to be allowed to give," Mulugeta says.

"People are coming to this country who are highly qualified - they are valuable - and not using them is like not using a finished product. It is a waste."

It is indicative of the calibre of people such as Mulugeta that many are not passively accepting their situation. Mulugeta is a founding member of the Cymru Refugee and Asylum Seekers Academic Council, an organisation set up in Cardiff by refugees to address their plight and act as an alternative focus for their energies.

Listening to members of the group at a meeting in a stuffy back room of a central Cardiff community centre, it becomes apparent that Mulugeta's is not an isolated case. There are more PhDs, masters degrees and professional qualifications packed into the small space than many a university council, but the stories of many of those present are depressingly repetitive.

Abdalla Khairi, who has a PhD in psychiatry with full refugee status, says he has found it impossible to find work suited to his qualifications and is considering returning to war-ravaged Iraq with his family. "I have been told to go and work as a cleaner or work in a shop. I respect shopkeepers and cleaners, but what kind of a waste is it when you are a medical practitioner and you have skills to offer this society?"

Khairi says that to keep himself occupied he has been making a study of his fellow asylum seekers and refugees. He says: "You sometimes get this image of people happy on benefits, but I found people who were on the verge of committing suicide because they can't find a place here. Some just said to me: 'Don't speak to me about that.'"

Adil Shashaty, a former government translator from Sudan, talks of the "paralysis" of being left on the scrapheap, expected to live off state benefits without making "the proper contribution to this society".

This is a recurring theme. Debebe Legesse, chairman of the Welsh group and a former economics lecturer, says the group's aim is to lobby for qualified refugees, but also to "try to engage with the local people here". The group has organised seminars and lectures where members can share their expertise, but where they can also learn about the traditions of their new home: "We have just had someone from the local community talking to us about the history or Wales, its history and language. We are trying to learn about the identity of the local community.

"We have got materials made by members on economic issues and immigration policy. We've had discussions on things such as the citizenship ceremony.

We are trying to talk to the media to put over our views. We are living here in Wales and we want to show them that we are proud of being here and that we can give something back," Legesse says.

John Akker, executive secretary of Cara, sees the Welsh group, for which his organisation has provided funding and support, as a pioneering approach to supporting persecuted academics wishing to settle in Britain.

"There are a lot more academic refugees in the UK than there were previously. It is very clear that academics are being targeted in increasing numbers in all sorts of states. It has happened in Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and across West African and Middle Eastern countries. Whole hosts of academics are finding their way over here, not only from the arts and social sciences but from scientific subjects. In the past, this kind of thing happened but it tended to happen in one country at a time: you would have people coming over from Chile and then from another country. It is a much bigger flow now.

"With the policy of dispersal, we are finding quite large groups of professionally qualified refugees outside the London area, which was where these people were traditionally concentrated, and that means we need to develop a network outside the Southeast to help these people and help them work with their local communities," Akker says.

Devolved Government is also fostering the need for a more local structure for academic support. In parallel with the Welsh group, Cara is helping to set up a committee in Scotland to bring refugee academics into contact with government officials and Scottish higher education institutions. Akker sees this decentralisation as positive, partly because he has detected a much more creative response to refugee issues from the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Executive than in Whitehall departments. But, he says, the long-term success of the local groups will depend on a creative response from local academic institutions.

"The people we are dealing with are very strong. There is a huge amount of optimism and energy, but we are getting the impression from them that, at the moment, some universities are not properly dealing with their issues," he says. "These are the very institutions that might be expected to give them the most support. They apply for jobs and the impression that they get is that their applications are not considered properly, that they are discarded because their qualifications come from outside this country.

These people have got loads and loads to offer our society. The concern is that eventually their optimism might run out."

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