Fostering refugee inclusion and connections at Australian universities

The crisis in Afghanistan may seem far from Australian shores, but the persecution of academics around the world – and the lack of support they receive if resettled in Australia – is uncomfortably close to home.

The UNHCR estimates that there are 82.4 million displaced people in the world today, forced from home by conflict, persecution and natural disasters.

It’s a difficult number for anyone to get their head around. But for UTS law lecturer and national co-convenor of the Academics for Refugees (A4R) network, Anthea Vogl, the figure, and the individual stories it can distract from, is closer to home.

‘My parents arrived here in the late 1970s from Czechoslovakia and the Kurdish region of Iran,’ she explains. ‘Given my family’s history of migration and asylum, I have a responsibility to engage in questions of politics and justice – especially if they relate to my work.’

Her colleague and fellow A4R national co-convenor, Sara Dehm, an expert in international migration and refugee law and also the daughter of migrants, agrees.

‘The harmful effects of Australia’s exclusionary border policies, including prolonged offshore immigration detention, are overwhelmingly clear in the research. As academics, we can and must use this research to influence public attitudes and understandings on our campuses and more generally.’

This is where the collaborative network Academics for Refugees or ‘A4R’ comes in.

Sparked by the Australian government’s 2012 decision to forcibly transfer asylum seekers offshore, it aims to raise public awareness of the issues facing refugees in Australia and to mobilise university networks to push for more humane policy change.

A4R is open to all university staff, whatever their discipline or area of expertise. So far, over 3000 academics around Australia – and the world – have answered the call.

Universities as spaces for fostering inclusive communities

To date, A4R has initiated a range of public campaigns, including Open Letters to the Prime Minister and a nation-wide public reading of Kurdish journalist, author and scholar, Behrouz Boochani’s award-winning book, No Friend but the Mountains, at over 30 Australian university campuses.

‘Universities can and should make a powerful difference in supporting students and scholars from refugee backgrounds, from student scholarships to research-informed advocacy more generally,’ Vogl says.

UTS Academics for Refugees National Day of Action, involving a public reading of Boochani’s 'No Friend But the Mountains'. Image credit: Sara Dehm.

UTS Academics for Refugees National Day of Action, involving a public reading of Boochani’s ‘No Friend But the Mountains’. Image credit: Sara Dehm

While several Australian universities do offered a range of scholarships to students from refugee backgrounds, currently, less institutional support is given to academics making new lives in Australia.

Despite their wealth of knowledge and experience, academics from refugee backgrounds can face significant hurdles when they first resettle in Australia – both personally and professionally.

Many have had long and respected careers in their fields prior to arriving in Australia yet still struggle to re-establish their professional network or find opportunities for collaboration in order to successfully navigate a university in a foreign country, explains Sara.

There are also unspoken prejudices and barriers at play, argues PhD candidate and project officer on A4R’s pilot academic peer-mentorship program, Rifaie Tammas.

‘Even though research findings and scholarly conversations are often assumed to be transnational, these collaborations and exchanges can still be shaped by exclusions. Empowering academics from refugee backgrounds with opportunities and connecting them with colleagues in similar disciplines can alleviate some of these challenges,’ he says.

Could peer mentoring be the answer?

Building links between academics could be part of the solution – in 2019 and 2020, A4R ran a small pilot academic peer mentoring program. The effectiveness of the scheme was untested until the team received a Social Impact Grant to help evaluate its impact.

‘The significant interest in the pilot program indicated that there is an urgent need for such initiatives and for Australian universities to be more receptive towards scholars from refugee backgrounds,’ says Tammas.

Unfortunately, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic – with the associated uptick in academic workloads and downward pressure on university budgets – have put the peer mentoring program on hold for now.

‘While many program participants expressed significant appreciation of their new connections with their academic peer mentors, our evaluation made clear that the program would need to be reshaped in order to offer more concrete and enduring benefits and stronger institutional support to scholars from refugee backgrounds,’ says Sara.

‘Honorary fellowship positions or paid stipends to academics from refugee backgrounds at Australian universities could be options in the future.’

Despite the disruptions caused by the pandemic, the Academics for Refugees network still sees peer mentoring as one part of the long-term solution to getting more academics from refugee backgrounds into Australian universities.

In the meantime, A4R continues to engage with Australian universities to do more to support scholars and students in places of risk outside of Australia, including those who have recently been forced to flee Afghanistan.

‘If the COVID-19 lockdowns have made anything clear, it’s that the power of collective action and collaborations cannot be underestimated,’ Sara says.

 

To get involved in A4R contact them through anthea.vogl@uts.edu.au or sara.dehm@uts.edu.au.

The Problem

Refugee policy has become increasingly draconian in Australia – but hard evidence on what might benefit those seeking to build new lives in Australia is hard to come by. Refugees who have academic expertise often struggle to re-establish stalled careers without peer support – a loss both for the individuals involved, and for the university sector as a whole.

The Response

Academics from Australian universities have set up the A4R network. It is open to all academics from every discipline and advocates for evidence-based changes to Australian policy to improve the situation facing refugees and asylum seekers in Australia and the region. The network also has supported refugees through a pilot peer mentorship program.

What helped accomplish this?

The hard work and dedication of individual academics involved in A4R in a volunteer capacity has contributed to its success. The evaluation of the pilot peer mentoring program would not have happened without Social Impact Grant funding.

What has changed as a result?

The A4R mentorship program was severely impacted by COVID-19. However, the evaluation connected the project team with other NGOs working in the refugee sector and also helped A4R identify opportunities to expand their reach in future.

Download full case study

Impact Area

Expertise

Beneficiaries

UTS Faculty or Unit

Organisers

Interviewee

Dr Anthea Vogl, Senior Lecturer
Faculty of Law
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