Refugee academics feel ‘patronised’ over status

Some scholars who have fled to Europe worry others see them more as refugees than as experts

July 17, 2020
 Demonstrators calling for greater government assistance for refugees
Source: Getty

Refugee academics in Europe often feel patronised, fear that universities discount their qualifications because of their refugee status, and some find it “almost impossible” to even be considered for jobs, interviews conducted across 10 countries have found.

Aid organisations and universities across Europe have given academics fleeing countries such as Turkey and Syria special help – but the flip side is that the recipients can feel that they are viewed more as victims than as highly qualified experts.

“I refuse to be supported as a refugee but [not] as a scholar,” one told a focus group. “Dignity is needed; we will be more successful when we are treated like the locals.”

The findings emerged from Career Advancement for Refugee Researchers in Europe, a European Union-funded project looking at whether academics have managed to re-establish their careers after fleeing their homelands.

Focus groups involving more than 50 scholars, mainly from the Middle East, were carried out in mostly northern European countries in 2019 and 2020. Around three in five were currently employed. The majority of those with jobs were working in higher education or research.

In every single focus group, refugee academics raised concerns about how they were perceived within academia, with their refugee status felt to “overshadow the perception of them as skilled academics”, according to a report based on the focus groups.

Some felt “put in the spotlight as refugees in a victimising and patronising sense” when they wanted instead to be “judged by their academic achievements”.

For some academics, “the label [of refugee] is bothersome”, said Marija Mitic, a policy officer at the Academic Cooperation Association (ACA), one of the bodies involved in the project.

Interviewees feared that the label meant universities “assumed incompetence” on their part and stopped them finding research positions, according to the report.

Most had been “very active” applying for jobs, but some found it “almost impossible” to be considered for academic positions, it says. Interviewees even reported cases of colleagues changing their names to sound more European, which had led to better treatment.

But although refugee academics wanted to be recognised for their expertise, not their background, they still saw the need for specific career guidance, say, to establish a foothold in a competitive profession. “This is one of the biggest dilemmas,” said Ms Mitic.

Finland, for example, gives specific help to all migrant academics, not just refugees. “This can remove a little bit the problem of the [refugee] label,” she said.

The report also reveals that in some cases, refugee academics had their identities revealed on institutional websites or by support organisations promoting their work – despite their wanting to stay anonymous.

This “crossed the line”, said Martin Bogdan, an ACA project officer. “The security services [of their home countries] were after some of them.”

This is not a “systematic problem”, he stressed. Nor were there any reports of their suffering any consequences as a result.

Still, “there were cases in each [focus] group where someone didn’t feel safe”, said Ms Mitic. Some refugee academics felt there had been an “overuse” of their stories by the organisations that had helped them, she explained.

One in three of the refugee academics interviewed had fled Turkey, where an increasingly authoritarian government has fired and jailed thousands of academics. It was these Turkish academics who felt most threatened, said Mr Bogdan. “At all times there was an implicit caution in Europe because they weren’t sure who was looking for them,” he said.

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