Just before war broke out in her home country, Syrian chemist Hanadi Ibrahim, living in France, completed her PhD research on new drugs for cancer treatment. Dr. Ibrahim had never considered herself an activist, but upon her return to Syria, she felt called to join other academics to call out the injustices and persecution of so many people in her country. Such actions, including the release of a video calling for civil disobedience against the regime, put her life in danger. She and her husband fled the country at the end of 2011, cutting short a promising career.
Political, social and economic instability increasingly threaten scholarly work in laboratories and classrooms around the world. The erosion of the rule of law and democratic institutions, tightening restrictions on free speech and the repression of dissent and opposition put ever-larger numbers of scholars at risk of losing their jobs, as well as imprisonment, torture and sometimes death. In the past decades, scholars have increasingly been the targets of violence and discrimination, imperiling their ability to publish, teach and engage in public discourse in their areas of expertise.
This phenomenon is not exclusive to authoritarian states. It has manifested in the democratic context, too, in countries such as Turkey, where thousands of scholars have being arrested, dismissed or imprisoned since 2016, and Hungary, where the government forced the Central European University to move its main campus from Budapest to Vienna and withdrew accreditation from its gender-studies programs.
Actions that threaten academic freedom and prevent academics from researching and teaching dampen the international nature of science and other scholarly work. They limit participation in global debate, including on pressing global challenges such as food and energy security or climate change.
This is where Canada can step in.
Dr. Ibrahim has been able to restart her academic career and continue her important research through Scholars at Risk (SAR) appointments at Western University and Simon Fraser University. Founded in 2000, Scholars at Risk is an international organization now working in 39 host countries. It places scholars in short-term placements at universities, colleges and polytechnics to allow them to continue their important work. The Canadian chapter was created in 2012 and has 23 member institutions across the country. To date, 13 Canadian universities have been able to offer placements.
This is good news, but there is enormous potential to do more – and so we should. Beyond the moral duty to respond to often serious individual circumstances, solidarity with scholars from abroad in situations of crisis provides a major intellectual benefit to the Canadian academic and scientific research community, not to mention society as a whole. Lawyer and legal scholar Raphael Lemkin’s position at Duke University after he fled Poland during the Second World War provided him the space and support to draft the Genocide Convention, which turns 70 this month.
With 96 universities and many more colleges, institutes and polytechnics in Canada, there is enormous potential for growth. Yet, barriers remain: At present, without a national supporting infrastructure and stable funding, the work of creating placements, inviting scholars and addressing immigration challenges is largely left to individual higher-education institutions, as is the full burden of funding of these positions.
By contrast, countries such as France, Germany, Britain, the Netherlands and Belgium have established national SAR programs with centralized infrastructures to manage them, and in many cases the government provides full or significant funding to welcome scholars.
The time to act is now. Canada must live up to its reputation as a global leader in the protection of human rights by making a firm commitment to this solidarity network to protect academic freedom by creating a Canadian SAR program.