The Long-Term Outlook for Displaced Scholars

New survey looks at what happened to scholars who were under threat in their home countries after they completed temporary fellowships abroad.

May 13, 2021

A fellowship at an overseas institution can offer a lifeline, personally and professionally, for scholars who are under threat in their home countries. But what happens after the fellowship is over?

A first-of-its-kind report from the Institute of International Education’s Scholar Rescue Fund attempts to answer that question. The program, which arranges and funds fellowships at international institutions for threatened and displaced scholars, surveyed those who completed SRF fellowships between 2003 and 2019 and found that while the majority had not returned to their home countries, many continue to stay connected in various ways to the places they'd been forced to leave.

“The study shows that those scholars who cannot return home or choose not to are nonetheless impacting their home countries in meaningful ways,” said James King, director of IIE’s Scholar Rescue Fund.

"In many ways, the data deconstructs this binary question of did the scholars return home or not," King said. "It reveals that of course scholars who did return home are having a tremendous impact on their home countries, but even those that don’t, they’re nonetheless making significant impacts."

Since its establishment in 2002, the Scholar Rescue Fund has supported 901 scholars displaced from 60 countries, including conflict-ridden countries like Iraq, Syria and Yemen, as well as countries like Turkey, where many scholars have come under sustained pressures, facing criminal prosecutions and loss of their academic positions in recent years.

IIE sent the survey to 439 alumni with active email addresses and received 207 full or partial responses, a 47 percent response rate.

The survey found that 26 percent of scholars had returned to their home countries, and another 11 percent lived in their home regions. Alumni from Iraq accounted for half of the scholars who had returned to their home country. By contrast, none of the Syrian respondents resided in Syria, where a civil war is ongoing, at the time they completed their survey.

Of those alumni who lived outside their home country, 76 percent lived in the country where they completed their IIE-SRF fellowship. Among alumni living abroad, 84 percent lived in the U.S., Canada or Western Europe.

Two-thirds of the fellowship alumni were employed at the time they completed the survey, including 78 percent of those who live in their home countries and 63 percent of those who live elsewhere. More than three-quarters -- 77 percent -- of employed alumni worked in higher education or at a research institution, 9 percent worked in a for-profit company and 8 percent worked for a nonprofit or nongovernmental organization.

Of the one-third of respondents who were unemployed, less than half -- 15 percent of total respondents -- were seeking employment. Fourteen percent of all respondents were retired or held emeritus status.

“Among the 32 respondents who were unemployed and seeking employment, more than 90 percent currently live outside of their home countries,” the report states. “Though 67 percent of the unemployed alumni residing in new countries have worked since the end of their IIE-SRF fellowships, their jobs were more likely to be outside of academia because of the challenges of finding an academic position. These challenges, among others, related to credential recognition, finding a position at an appropriate level, potentially insufficient knowledge of the new country’s language, and legal issues.”

Despite the challenges, alumni overwhelmingly reported that the fellowships helped them build professional connections and furthered their careers. Eighty-six percent of alumni said they’d remained in contact with colleagues they met during their fellowships, and 41 percent said they’d collaborated on projects with colleagues they met during their fellowships.

Ninety-two percent said the fellowships had a positive impact on their postfellowship careers, and nearly a third of alumni said they’d held higher education leadership positions since completing their fellowships.

Forty alumni reported establishing at least 55 new organizations in 22 different countries since completing their fellowships. The new organizations include academic centers as well as groups variously focused on democratization and human rights, development, education access and equity, and immigration resettlement and support.

Three-quarters of the alumni living abroad said they remained connected to academia in their home countries. Fifty-seven percent incorporated topics related to their home countries in their research and teaching, and 29 percent said they participated in distance learning activities involving institutions from their home countries. Half of alumni living abroad said they had connected with other academics in their country’s diaspora.

The age of survey respondents ranged from 37 to 87, with the average age being 50. Twenty-three percent identified as racial or ethnic minorities in their home countries, and 22 percent identified as minorities in the countries where they currently live.

The vast majority of survey respondents -- 82 percent -- identified as men, and 18 percent women. Women are slightly underrepresented among survey respondents compared to their overall 23 percent representation among SRF fellows.

King, program director of the Scholar Rescue Fund, said the program prioritizes outreach to women scholars, but he said many of the countries fellows come from have a smaller proportion of women among the professoriate.

The survey of alumni comes at a time when IIE’s Scholar Rescue Fund is seeing increased demand: King said the program received more applications from threatened scholars for support in 2020 than ever before in its history. Indeed, he said the program has had record numbers of applications every year since 2015.

“We are currently considering applications from Afghanistan, Belarus, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Haiti, Iran, Kashmir, Myanmar, Turkey, Syria and Yemen,” King said. “Those are extremely different countries, different regions, different political systems. This is an urgent challenge for global higher education and all of us.”

“On the other hand, I see this report revealing an important opportunity to address that and the clear benefit of doing so,” King said. “When we step up to support these scholars, it’s clear they will pay back that investment in diverse and meaningful ways, not just in their host communities but in their home countries.”

Robert Quinn, executive director of Scholars at Risk, a network of higher education organizations that also arranges for fellowships for displaced and threatened scholars, says the IIE-SRF numbers are broadly comparable to numbers his organization maintains internally, with some differences that can be attributed to differences in the two organizations’ fellowship programs.

Quinn said the gender breakdown "has improved probably for everybody since the attacks in Turkey: there are many more female-identifying scholars who were targeted and could take advantage of the opportunities, whereas in the conflict countries -- Iraq, Syria, Yemen -- many more of the female scholars had other responsibilities, so they might not have been in the pool in the same numbers."

He added that while there are low rates of scholars returning from Turkey, Syria and Yemen, if you take those countries out of the equation, the return numbers look much better.

"It shows there is demand for these programs, and I think in general it shows they work,” Quinn said of the IIE survey.


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


We have retired comments and introduced Letters to the Editor. Letters may be sent to [email protected].

Read the Letters to the Editor  »

Today’s News from Inside Higher Ed

Inside Higher Ed’s Quick Takes

Back to Top