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  • Scientists as Forced Migrants and Refugees:What Can We Learn from the 1930s and 2010s?
  • Ludger Pries (bio)

from the beginning of the twenty-first century up to 2017, the number of forcibly displaced people worldwide increased from 40 million to 66 million—that is, by two-thirds. One-third of them are international refugees and two-thirds are internally displaced persons. This is the highest level of displacement on record.1 In 2015 alone, one and a half million refugees entered the European Union without formal registration.

In Syria and Iraq, in Afghanistan and Pakistan, in Somalia and Eritrea, not only people from the poorer or lower classes are affected, but also academics, politicians, and intellectuals. In Turkey, following the failed military coup in July 2016, some 8,000 university employees were dismissed, many of whom had to flee the country due to discretionary persecution and detentions. Wherever migration and refugees become an issue, reactions among politicians and civil society range from solidarity to fears of terrorist attacks. How do scientists in richer and stable countries respond to the displacement of professional colleagues? Given the substantial worsening of their situation, are there adequate and sufficient structures and mechanisms of solidarity and assistance for academic refugees?

Some solidarity initiatives to safeguard and receive scientists are in place. There are programs created especially to assist scholars, [End Page 857] intellectuals, writers, artists, and other persons engaged in the cultural and political sectors. But is this sufficient, given the deteriorating situation, especially in the Middle East and Africa? How did these activities develop in the United States and the European Union? Are there lessons for mutual learning? And what can be learned from history?

Eighty years ago, scholars and intellectuals, among others, had to flee Germany, Austria, and other European countries due to political, religious, gender, and racial persecution carried out by the Nazi regime, especially the project of exterminating Jews. Likewise, since the beginning of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, politicians, unionists, scientists, and others were forced from Spain into exile. This article concentrates on scientists and scholars; but boundaries between academics, politicians, intellectuals, and artists are permeable and sometimes blurred.

Since the 1930s, there has been considerable activity aimed at rescuing exiled scholars and intellectuals, especially in the United Kingdom and the United States, but also in Mexico, Turkey, and other countries (Krohn 1993; for Spaniards in Mexico see Hoyos Puente 2012 and Lida 2009; Crawford, Ulmschneider, and Elsner, 2017). Are there similar actions today? And if so, what is their content and where are they happening?

I believe there are considerable differences between the 1930s and the 2010s, both in the geographic focus of solidarity measures and in their very nature. Moreover, during the 1930s the United States was the most important "safe harbor" for scientists as forced migrants, while in the 2010s it is Europe. And while in the 1930s solidarity programs were concentrated on small numbers of well-known and established scientists, in the 2010s such activities are more decentralized. In the 1930s scientific institutions receiving refugees from Europe did so largely for moral reasons, but they also explicitly stressed the instrumental arguments of how such refugees would benefit the host institutions. During the 2010s the rationale has been a general interest in providing assistance and support for integration. [End Page 858]

In the Americas, two academic institutions received a substantial number of academic refugees from Europe in the 1930s, especially from Germany and Spain: the New School for Social Research in New York City, and El Colegio de México in Mexico City. Both universities are now highly prestigious sites of academic research and teaching in the social sciences and humanities. There exists a great deal of literature on the history of both these institutions and the role of exiled scholars in their evolution. Here I will sketch out some important characteristics of the institutions and describe some programs developed during the 2010s in Europe, especially in Germany, which received academic refugees mainly from the Middle East.


The New School for Social Research in New York City (henceforth the New School) and El...


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