What can academics do about the refugee crisis?

Like many millions of people, I have watched the Syrian refugee crisis unfold and felt helpless to act. But until my friend Eva Alisic contacted me, I had never thought specifically about how we might be able to use our skills as researchers and academics to help.

Eva Alisic is Co-Chair of the Global Young Academy (www.globalyoungacademy.net) and co-organized the expert meeting on the refugee crisis. She is a psychologist and blogs at www.trauma-recovery.net. Karly Kehoe is Canada Research Chair in Atlantic Canada Communities and co-chair of the Young Academy of Scotland (http://www.youngacademyofscotland.org.uk/). She is a historian who investigates religious peripheries and migrant minorities. In this post they tell us what they have been doing and challenges us all to think about how our skills as researchers can be applied to these problems.

sad eye graffitti wall with people seated in front

Refugees waiting near the ferry terminal in Lesvos, Greece. © Tom Turley.

About 60 million people are currently displaced around the world as a result of conflicts and human rights violations. This displacement is being referred to as the largest refugee crisis since World War II. In the first four months of 2016, over 180,000 people have arrived in Europe.

We are facing one of those ‘wicked problems’ that seem impossible to solve. Every day media outlets show new images of human suffering, confront us with opinions about the perils associated with the movement of so many people, and scare us with stories about how this movement of people is threatening the essence of Western society.

We are facing a wicked problem – there’s no doubt – but is it really one that can’t be solved? If we break it down into a series of smaller ones, would that give us the opportunity to come up with solutions?

There are pockets of hope opening up around us, in all of the countries that are receiving refugees. There are countless local communities, individuals and organizations who are leading grassroots campaigns of support. Governments and NGOs are trying to come up with solutions but they are facing numerous obstacles which are slowing their progress and inhibiting their abilities to develop solutions.

In December, we brought a group of young experts in refugee and migration issues together because we wanted to see if we could come up with a ‘fresh perspective’ on the crisis, with a specific focus on Europe. Our participants’ subject areas included history, victimology, urbanism, international relations, public health, and engineering, among others. These backgrounds informed incredibly rich discussions.

We covered a lot of ground as you can read about in this PDF . As we kept talking to each other, what started to become clear was that what might actually be happening is more a crisis of solidarity than one about refugees. The conversations resulted in what we hope is a thought-provoking video about this dilemma (see below).

What also became clear to us was that we, as a research community, can and should be doing more.

As readers of the Thesis Whisperer, you are coming from around the world. You may be in a European country and seeing media headlines about the crisis every day; you may be in an area where other issues dominate; or you may actually be living in a conflict zone.

Most of you, though, will be in a place where you are safe, but where refugees are close by. Among them will be students, PhD candidates and early career researchers just like you. They are being forced to start their research careers at a significant disadvantage. They have important stories to tell, and a lot of potential. How can we, and you, help to facilitate their paths?

We challenge you to take up one of the options below, if you haven’t already. These ideas come out of the young expert meeting on the refugee crisis. The full report can be downloaded here.

What can you do to further our understanding of the refugee situation?

There is knowledge in every discipline that is useful in helping to address the refugee crisis. It doesn’t matter whether you are a construction engineer, who can think about clever housing solutions, or a linguist, who can help think through ways of language education. You have specialist knowledge – how can it be applied here?

Can you mentor young refugee students/academics?

Is there a way you can get involved with programmes that offer mentorship to young refugee students or early-career researchers? How might you work with your local university associations or asylum seeker centres to extend a hand of support? Collaboration is easier to manage than individual initiatives in this respect. The Young Academy of Scotland, for example, has just introduced a refugee/scholars-at-risk membership initiative which will see four spaces (two for women and two for men) allocated in each of their next three recruitment rounds. This initiative promises to help people to access the professional networks that will enable them to build successful careers in Scotland.

Can you help create a more informed debate about the refugee crisis?

If you have relevant knowledge, please don’t hesitate to share it with journalists and other academics, especially via blogs and social media (so it doesn’t take months or years to come out…). Be proactive and responsible with your research. Can you translate your findings into a video, or a magazine article that will get a wide audience?

We hope that our comments don’t come across as if we are only concerned about those refugees with academic qualifications or research ambitions because we aren’t.

As academics, though, there are specific things that we can do to help and ways that we can support those who are working with and/or volunteering for refugees in our wider communities. We have access to significant resources that many people don’t, so we need to think about how we can share what we have.

Please spread the word, and also share below which activities you have in mind; it will be an inspiration for others.

You might like to view the video that came out of our meeting:

We’d be interested in hearing your ideas and thoughts on this issue – have you been doing anything specific to help? We’d love to hear about it.

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15 thoughts on “What can academics do about the refugee crisis?

  1. A great post. It is really important that we as academics use our expertise to help address global issues. As you suggest, in part, this means finding ways to communicate quickly and reach a broad audience. I am a young researcher in applied linguistics, with a focus on language, policy and procedure in the Australian refugee regime and I blog frequently on this and related issues on a great research blog. I believe this is an excellent way to start a larger conversation (without the long waits and limited audiences of more traditional channels, like journal articles). My most recent post is below:

    http://www.languageonthemove.com/crucial-communication-language-management-in-australian-asylum-interviews/

      • @Tseenster and @Bestqualitycrab just made me aware of this great initiative: https://pozible.com/project/205505

        From the description: “The Geelong and Bellarine-based Seeking Refuge Project (SRP) is mobilising a small army of volunteer Migration Agents and administrative volunteers to help local Asylum Seekers prepare their protection visa applications. These volunteers will provide migration law advice and practical help to Asylum Seekers to apply for protection visas, and there is an urgent need for interpreters to work alongside them.

        Professional interpreters are essential so that the Asylum Seekers and volunteers can understand each other. This understanding will make the application process possible and provide the Asylum Seekers with the best chance of having their story told. Once the Asylum Seeker’s story is properly told, their claim for protection can then reasonably be assessed.”

      • Hi Eva,

        Sounds great and reminds me of similar efforts by organisations like RACS in Sydney and the RILC in Melbourne. One of the strengths of these organisations is that they recruit volunteers with a range of different skills (legal and otherwise) and part of their skills base includes people who speak some of the languages used by their clients. This helps them communicate with their clients not only in terms of putting together statements and submissions, but also facilitating communication throughout their working relationship – so if someone calls with a question, the organisations can connect them with a volunteer with the appropriate language skills. These models seem to work pretty well in larger cities. 🙂
        Having said that, the further you get from state capitals, the more this model would be challenged, and professional interpreting services are expensive! Given that government funding is all but gone, and interpreting costs are only covered from the moment someone walks into the room for their departmental interview or merits review, it definitely comes down to individual members of the public to support these important services! I wonder whether any professional/para-professional interpreters would be interested in volunteering a few hours of their time each week to assisting asylum seekers in the same way the migration agents in this organisation are?

  2. I brought up the issue with a number of disability sport contacts I had to try to gain visibility and attention on the Paralympic side, similar to the boost the Olympic side got. http://www.parasport-news.com/international-paralympic-committee-investigates-having-team-for-refugees-at-rio-paralympics/10249/ I’ve also talked to some sports reporters who do governance of sport issues about how to responsibly cover national delegations from countries like Iraq and Syria, where there are issues for sportspeople in general.

    • Hi Laura, what an interesting article!! I have been involved in research that focuses on refugees who have a disability. See http://blogs.usyd.edu.au/refugees-disabilities/ And yes, just as you say, while there are plenty of potential barriers, people with disabilities are definitely amongst those who flee overseas to escape conflict or persecution. In the case of some of the Syrian refugee participants in our study, acquiring a disability or needing assistance related to their disability that was no longer available in Syria was a/the main motivating factor for leaving the country.

      It would be great to see refugee paralympians, but as you say, there are many barriers to participation for those living in displacement, and this often makes training/development/access to facilities inconceivable, especially in contexts where even the most basic life needs are not being met.

      • It’s possible that there are refugee sportspeople with disabilities out there that might be eligible. It is just an issue of people being unaware that the IPC is looking, and aren’t pointing them in that direction. It’s a whole visibility thing.

        It is also possible that there are just money things going on. I don’t know what shape the Syrian Paralympic committee is in. In the case of Libya, one of their Paralympians who should compete couldn’t compete in important qualifiers could not because of money issues. She’s based in Benghazi, which doesn’t make life any easier. She used to self fund but her father died. Her NPC has no money at all. It’s impossible. That sadly isn’t unique to Libya and other conflict zone countries. 😦

    • Thanks for that extra info. Yes – money is such a basic, important factor I imagine, for many potential olympians and paralympians, regardless of displacement. I look forward to hearing more about whether the committee is successful in forming a refugee team.

      • If you have contacts in the refugee community with disabilities, it might be worth putting the word out that they should get in touch with the IPC if they know of potential eligible participants.

    • They are helping. See http://europe.newsweek.com/gulf-states-are-taking-syrian-refugees-401131 . In any case, that has nothing to do with the issue at hand of what academics can do to assist refugees. Related to that, Central African Republic, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Eritrea, Pakistan and Ukraine have been some of the biggest countries for countries of origins for refugees. It’s unclear why academics should refuse to assist refugees while Gulf States located several countries away geographically should. Sudan, Somalia, CAR, Ukraine, Pakistan, South Sudan do not border any Gulf States as far as I know.

  3. Hi,

    I’m a Master’s of Human Rights Law at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. I want to right my dissertation on refugees, and conduct field work and interviews to help gather a qualitative analysis of their experiences.

    Do you have any thoughts?

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