Refugee academics deserve your support

April 28, 2000

The new Asylum and Immigration Act threatens the livelihoods of displaced academics, says John Akker

Imagine the implications for knowledge if Karl Popper or Max Perutz had been held in detention or dispersed to a Glasgow tower-block, spending their grocery vouchers away from the stimulus of contact with fellow academics.

Had the Immigration and Asylum Act been in force in the 1930s, hundreds of academics fleeing from Nazi Europe would have been isolated from the UK's academic community, and their contribution to the national fund of knowledge hampered.

While much has been written and said about the act's impact on all those looking for refuge in the UK, implications for refugee university teachers and researchers have been largely overlooked. Academics are, however, likely to be hit hard by the new legislation.

The reasons are clear and compelling. Most important, all asylum seekers must now present themselves at the point of entry and are then dispersed throughout the UK.

Whereas before, such academics were able to move to existing communities of colleagues and friends, they are now compelled to go where they are sent. Like all refugees, these are people whose personal and professional lives have been totally disrupted; many have lost family members, faced torture or been forced to leave behind all they possess. Many have shown remarkable courage and determination in defying totalitarian regimes and defending democracy and intellectual freedom.

They now simply wish to rebuild their professional careers and to contribute their knowledge and skills in their new environment. Instead of being assisted to do so, under this harmful legislation they face being dumped in alien places, far from the practical support of their peers and the universities and educational institutions that could help them find their way back into academic or professional life.

Other aspects of the new law are equally detrimental. The Council for Assisting Refugee Academics (Cara, formerly the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning), which has been assisting academic refugees since the 1930s, has examples of academics who have waited for over two years to have their asylum applications considered. There is a backlog of more than 102,000 such cases awaiting decision by the immigration authorities, some since 1996.

The Home Office claims it is reducing this backlog, and that the backlog reflects the inordinately high numbers now seeking asylum. Britain, it argues, is seen as "the softest touch" in Europe.

The facts show otherwise. According to the United Nation High Commissioner for Refugees, we rank ninth in Europe in terms of asylum applications per 1,000 inhabitants. Moreover, contrary to government and popular rhetoric the majority of asylum seekers are genuine political refugees, driven from countries in turmoil - the former Yugoslavia, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Iraq, Afghanistan - where they have faced persecution and torture.

The new law means that asylum seekers are only entitled to the equivalent of 70 per cent of income support: a maximum of Pounds 36.54 a week for a single claimant. Even this meagre provision will be mainly in the form of humiliating and inflexible vouchers.

Some academic asylum seekers have had to walk more than ten miles to gain access to suitable university library and other facilities. While Cara helps with institutional fees, travel, equipment and research expenses, we can no longer support all the applications we receive. With this new legislation we anticipate our ability to help becoming even more stretched.

Cara has a long and illustrious history of assisting refugees, many of whom, including Popper and Perutz, have made enormous contributions to the culture and scientific advance of this country. Originally the Academic Assistance Council, it was formed in 1933 by the country's most eminent scholars and scientists to help refugees driven from German and other European universities by the Nazis to find their way back into academic life.

No fewer than 18 became Nobel laureates, 71 fellows of the Royal Society and some 50 became fellows of the British Academy.

We need a similar vision today. University teachers and researchers have often taken the lead in opposing totalitarian regimes and have a great deal to contribute to our own democratic culture. If ever there was meaning to an ethical foreign policy, it can surely best be shown in the way we treat those seeking asylum in the UK.

The academic community has an important role to play, by publicising the fate of asylum seekers, persuading their institutions to provide a more hospitable environment for academic refugees, helping us to raise funds for their assistance and lobbying the Home Office to recognise the impact of the new laws.

John Akker is executive secretary, Council for Assisting Refugee Academics.

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