This year’s refugee crisis — a result of the civil war in Syria and enduring instability in the Middle East and Africa — has become an acid test for the European Union.
Although some countries would rather pull up the drawbridge where refugees are concerned, Germany has generously welcomed nearly one million migrants this year, without regard for the costs or logistical burden involved. “We can do it!” Chancellor Angela Merkel never failed to remind German citizens.
However, as police, immigration authorities, communities and volunteers creak under the strain, Merkel’s optimism is increasingly being denounced in some quarters. To integrate hundreds of thousands of traumatized, mostly Muslim, war refugees into Western society is a massive social challenge. But, contrary to what some critics seem to assume, early signs show that the young refugees — and under-25s make up around half of the influx — will not be inclined to accept social welfare and sit back idly for long. Robbed of their hopes and dreams at home, many will grasp the opportunities offered.
And many will be eager to learn. If admitted into Germany’s well-oiled education and science system (and into its booming labour market at large), they can be a boon rather than a burden to the country’s knowledge-based economy.
German universities and science organizations are aware of the responsibility to these displaced people and the opportunity they represent. The messages they send in favour of openness and plurality — defining features of any honest science — are laudable at a time when xenophobia is on the rise elsewhere.
Thanks to several programmes and initiatives launched by the German science community in recent months, refugee students can access university education and doctoral-research opportunities, and qualified refugee scientists and scholars can participate in advanced science at research institutes across Germany. These initiatives are much-needed and deserve every respect.
Refugees are expected to continue to arrive in Europe in large numbers, often lacking documentation of their professional or academic qualifications. Opportunities must continue to be available to them, and more must be helped to connect with potential employers, in and outside of academia.
Online tools such as the European Commission’s Science4Refugees portal, on which employers can post job opportunities and refugees seeking science jobs can put their CVs, are well meant but not (yet) frequently used. Learned academies, universities and science organizations throughout Europe should more clearly and proactively promote the message that students, scholars and scientists who have been forced to flee their home can rebuild their careers as well as their lives.
Social researchers who study education, mobility and integration — for whom the current wave of migration is a research opportunity — must strive to empirically challenge presumptions about refugees’ allegedly low level of qualification and susceptibility to political or religious extremism. To be sure, these things need to be — and will be — thoroughly investigated. But the idea touted by some that Muslim values are a fundamental obstacle to successful integration into a modern secular society is wrong and hopelessly short-sighted.
Whatever critics might say, Germany’s rebirth as a haven for the prosecuted is a powerful gesture of peace. Embracing refugees, while assuring anxious citizens that openness need not threaten their own quality of life, is perhaps the most pressing social challenge faced by science in these times.
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