Safe Haven: University

When threatened researchers have fled abroad they need support to find their feet at university once again. Many institutions run special programmes in order to help, but if they are going to be successful, good will alone is not sufficient.

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  • Text: Barbara Sheldon
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Dr Barbara Sheldon heads the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation’s Strategic Planning Division, which developed the Philipp Schwartz Initiative together with the Federal Foreign Office.


How does the asylum process work? What sort of help do people who have fled from persecution really need? For years, questions like this did not regularly crop up at German universities or research institutions. The disintegration of the Syrian education and science system has changed all that. Students and researchers are having to flee the country and are seeking a safe haven where they can continue to study and work – not least in Germany. These people bring along valuable skills and knowledge with them. But research institutions and universities also have to cope with their special experiences and problems.

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In the last few years, international aid organisations, foundations and funding institutions have launched a raft of initiatives to help threatened researchers from Syria and other countries. You meet representatives of these organisations at conferences and strategy meetings. They are all absolutely determined to do something, even if it can only be a drop in the ocean. Many are totally dedicated, working hours that drive them to the very limits of their own capacity. And they are all also plagued by doubt: are we really helping? How can we reach the people who are supposed to benefit from our efforts? Who can we cooperate with, who will give us advice, whom can we trust? How can we avoid making mistakes in what is potentially a political minefield?

The universities took the initiative

In Germany, too, many activities have been started for refugees in the education and research arena. According to statistics published by the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, amongst the refugees who applied for asylum in Germany in 2015, 55 per cent were under 25 and about 80 per cent were under 35. One thing soon became clear: the education sector, in particular, needed to work on solutions. Suddenly, the refugees were there, in some cases on campus or living nearby. And the universities took the initiative: guest student status was quickly introduced, libraries were opened up and mentoring schemes were created – and one university even ended a long-lasting debate on whether lectures in economics should be held in German or English by simply swapping to English so that refugees could participate.

The science organisations had to take special account of the situation of fully-educated researchers in order to develop suitable support mechanisms for them. Whilst students have often not made an irreversible decision about their careers, refugee researchers have already chosen academia and spent years preparing for it. So for them the markets for scientific and science-related jobs are particularly relevant. This has its advantages: international activities are part of every scientist’s life; many academic disciplines can be practised anywhere and the language of science is often English in the first place. Therefore, in theory, researchers can find their feet abroad much faster than other occupational groups. In most countries, however, the academic job market is restricted.

Against this backdrop, opening up existing positions for endangered researchers would not seem to be the way forward – at least not at present. Take the experience of the European Commission: on their job portal for researchers with job offers from all over Europe, flags with the caption science4refugees were attached to hundreds of job offers. During the first nine months of operation, however, not a single refugee responded to the announcements on this portal. And the word from the major German science organisations which have opened up their programmes and job offers is that there certainly has not been a run on opportunities for refugees. The Alexander von Humboldt Foundation’s Philipp Schwartz Initiative with its tailor-made fellowships for threatened researchers, on the other hand, is in great demand.

From refugee to job-seeker

The inference that might be drawn is that endangered researchers need more active support and guidance in mastering the transition from being a refugee to participating in the normal employment market. Perhaps we also have to realise that, depending on the country of origin, the general conditions for research may be so different that even highly gifted Syrian researchers, for example, may not have had the opportunity to publish at a level that would make them internationally competitive.

The scientists sponsored under the Philipp Schwartz Initiative are not competing with their German colleagues; their special situation is taken into account. The fellowship allows them to work in Germany and get their bearings for a period of two years. They may then be lucky enough to find a position within the German science system. Science-related sectors, such as industrial research, also offer them opportunities. Maybe the next step will take them to a university in another country via the Scholars at Risk Network, or perhaps they will be able to return to their own countries at a later stage.

One thing is, however, clear: during the time they spend in Germany, these researchers with their knowledge and experience will certainly benefit their host institutions in no small measure. Meeting them in seminars and lectures will open the eyes of many German students to the fact that academic freedom and freedom of expression are not a matter of course.

To harbour and support students and researchers from crisis areas is the objective of various university programmes which are designed to create better structures such as additional language courses and integration measures.

  • With its Integra Programme, the German Academic Exchange Service prepares academically-qualified refugees at universities and Studienkollegs (preparatory colleges) to embark on degree courses. Its Welcome Programme supports projects run by students who actively engage with refugees. Both programmes are financed by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research.
  • With the support of the Federal Foreign Office, the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation has created the Philipp Schwartz Initiative for endangered researchers
  • The European Union’s HOPES Programme supports Syrian refugees searching for a place at university in Turkey or the Middle East by providing advisory services and scholarships.

For decades, globally-active organisations have been campaigning for endangered researchers from all over the world – irrespective of whether they have fled from war or been persecuted in their own countries..

  • The Scholar Rescue Fund grants fellowships to established researchers whose lives and work are threatened in their own countries; it also helps universities to host them.
  • The Council for At-Risk Academics (Cara) has a long tradition reaching back to the 1930s and 1940s when it cooperated with Philipp Schwartz’s Notgemeinschaft deutscher Wissenschaftler im Ausland (Emergency Society of German Scholars Abroad). Cara mostly finds positions for at-risk academics in the United Kingdom but is increasingly working together with universities in other countries, as well.
  • Scholars at Risk is a global network of universities that are willing to accept endangered researchers. The organisation also seeks to draw attention to threats to academic freedom. 

Young refugees who are not lucky enough to gain access to education where they find themselves can turn to the internet for a whole range of virtual courses. There are also online jobs forums designed to help refugee researchers find work at universities and research institutions.

  • offers online teaching opportunities in Arabic to academics who have fled from Syria and connects them with European universities and NGOs.
  • In cooperation with partner universities, offers the option of learning via a digital platform. The courses are tailored to prepare for university entrance and facilitate a smooth transition.
  • is a platform operated by the University of Leipzig which connects displaced academics and students with German universities and research institutions.
  • The European Union’s online portal science4refugees finds job offers for endangered researchers across Europe.
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