Technology is enabling refugees to utilize and develop their skills in host countries

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Among the things that we have learnt from the displacement of millions of Syrians is that the world’s refugee population is changing: it is no longer mostly poor, unskilled and with low levels of education. Nowadays conflicts displace people of all backgrounds: rural and urban, low-income and high-income families including many who are highly skilled.

Despite their valuable skills, legal, linguistic and social barriers block many refugees from exploring their full potential. Valuable knowledge and skills are left unrecognized and untapped.

Tapping into the potential of refugee scientists

Technology is emerging as a possible career-saver for refugees. Online platforms, search engines and apps have emerged to help migrants access opportunities and professional circles in line with their expertise.

The European Commission, eager to see the European Union’s economy benefit from the arrival of refugees, has created the ‘science4refugees online network – part of a wider online portal called EURAXESS – which helps refugee scientists access and integrate their field of research. It connects scientists to each other and to employers who can search their profile and contact them if they have a suitable vacancy such as a teaching or research position or a fellowship.

The online network has developed a ‘Refugee Welcome’ map with all institutions and organisations supporting Europe’s hosting of more refugees. The European Commission plans to include by the end of August opportunities of training, language classes and mentoring schemes in its ‘science4refugees’ initiative, to help refugees settle in Europe.

While the Commission’s aim is to help highly skilled refugees find employment, the German website ‘Chance for Science’ connects asylum-seekers with a scientific background with scientists in German universities while they are waiting for their request for asylum to be processed. This waiting period can last for over a year, during which they are not allowed to work.

During this time, it is important for refugee scientists to be able to continue their scientific work by accessing libraries, learning the German language and getting to know the German university system. Chance for Science wants to help refugees who are in this situation,” explains Pr. Carmen Bachmann of Leipzig University and initiator of the network.

Chance for Science offers personal contact to peers who research similar scientific topics. Such contacts are in our opinion more valuable than employment – at least in the first step,” he adds.

Helping refugee entrepreneurs

Another recent initiative to support highly skilled refugees is the online portal Entrepreneurial Refugees created in the Netherlands by the tech start-up BidX. It allows users to communicate and help each other out around their business ideas. Refugees and other migrants can present a business concept, ask for feedback to further develop it and reach out to investors and experts to make their idea a reality.

Research has shown that migrants tend to be a resourceful and hardworking group: having known hardship and taken huge risks to find a safe country to live in, they are ready to make difficult choices to see their business succeed.

“For the investors, a good business idea is a good business idea and we believe there are a lot of potentially good business concepts among refugees that can deliver satisfactory investment return in the future,” says Ismail Yassin, who runs the Entrepreneurial Refugees portal.

In addition to these initiatives, several online networks and projects have been launched to help refugees acquire new skills. The Berlin-based project Refugees on Rails, for example, offers free one-day coding courses for migrants, puts them in touch with IT students and professionals and offers second-hand laptops to refugees. As for London-based Techfugees, it has been working on conferences, hackathons and meetups to find tech-driven solutions to the refugee crisis. MIT Enterprise Forum Pan Arab has also launched the Innovate for Refugees Competition which calls for entrepreneurs including refugee entrepreneurs to submit a tech-driven solution addressing one of the challenges of the refugee crisis.
Such initiatives play an important role in breaking the stereotypes of refugees as vulnerable and resourceless victims fleeing from danger. Instead refugees need to be recognised for their creativity, skills and intellectual capital. With the right support and access to opportunities they can be a valuable asset to their host societies.