Scholars at risk: why the Dutch system for protecting persecuted scholars is failing and why the government urgently needs to get involved

In the past, scholars facing persecution have regularly been received by Dutch universities, which have provided them with a safe space to continue conducting their research in times of adversity. In 2019, the Dutch system for providing a safe haven for such scholars collapsed – an event that went largely unnoticed at the time. Ever since, efforts to help scholars have been mostly futile, largely because the bureaucratic hurdles to providing a safe space are more or less insurmountable. In this article, Linda Johnson explains how and why the Dutch system for supporting refugee scholars has become ineffective and suggests what should be done about it.

Photo Credit: Ron Lach

The Russian invasion of Ukraine early last year galvanized universities in the Netherlands into a brief flurry of solidarity and a frantic but largely ineffectual effort to provide a safe space for Ukrainian researchers to continue their work. Working parties were set up, web pages were designed and countless meetings were held. The consternation was immense. Sadly, none of this led to much concrete assistance for imperilled scholars and students. There was simply no system in place that would allow grants to be paid out to those in dire need. It became abundantly clear that the infrastructure for supporting scholars at risk is inadequate.

The lack of an infrastructure for organizing meaningful support was systematically exposed in January this year in a report issued by a prestigious group of critical scholars (The Young Academy), who for the first time showed the deficiencies of the current system in a rigorous report that describes and analyses the situation as it is today. They have made clear that the infrastructure for supporting scholars at risk from all over the globe (Ukraine, Afghanistan, Syria, Turkey, Iran and the list goes on…) is woefully inadequate. But how could this have happened and what needs to be done to remedy the situation?


The early days of Scholars At Risk NL

To answer this question, it is important to first take a look at what has happened in the past few years. In around 2010, the American organization Scholars at Risk (SAR) started approaching universities in Europe with a view to expanding global provision for at-risk scholars. I had been active in university internationalization circles globally for several decades; hence, I was one of the individuals approached for initial discussions on setting up a SAR provision in The Netherlands.

I was enthusiastic about the proposal and felt that the Netherlands should get involved in this important work. The aims of SAR and the mission of ISS were in alignment and it was not difficult to gain the approval of the then ISS rector (Professor Leo de Haan) to begin receiving students at ISS. Many ISS colleagues were in favour of creating a structural provision for scholars under threat. I set up an infrastructure and little by little extended the pilot so that the whole of the Erasmus University could participate.

We managed to place one or two scholars a year at ISS and occasional placements were found in other parts of the university. Mentoring a scholar who has had to flee for his/ her life is not easy work, but there were enough excellent colleagues willing to go above and beyond the call of duty to make the system work. Similar efforts took place at most universities in the Netherlands, largely based on solidarity and relying on colleagues who were willing to spend time and effort over and above their working hours to keep the system afloat.

Between 2010 and 2015, most European countries, including the Netherlands, set up programmes to help scholars at risk. The Dutch support organization for refugee students, the UAF, coordinated Dutch efforts and fulfilled the important task of disbursing the grants made available to scholars at risk. These grants came from a variety of sources (universities, private donations, local councils, SAR and others). For some time, things went well enough.


A turn for the worse

Sadly, in 2019 the UAF decided to end its partnership with the Dutch arm of Scholars at Risk. Worries had begun to surface about possible fines being imposed by the Dutch tax authorities because of the UAF’s role in the distribution of grants. The Dutch tax authorities had indicated that the modest bursaries could be construed as salary and would hence fall under the category of ‘notional’ employment on which the recipient would need to pay tax, and over which the employer would need to pay social insurance. This would multiply the costs involved and reduce the grants to a size too small to meet living costs for the scholar in question.

The financial risk was deemed too great by the UAF – in 2020, it withdrew entirely, effectively making it impossible for Dutch universities to offer financial assistance to at-risk scholars and also bringing to an end any structured coordination of support to at-risk scholars. Expertise on how best to support scholars at risk could no longer be shared and data could no longer be collected and collated on the numbers and origins of scholars seeking assistance from Dutch universities.

In short, since 2020, Dutch universities have no longer been able to make any provision to assist scholars at risk. This situation is in sharp contrast to the generous and well-organized support structures available in many European counties, such as Poland, Germany, the UK, and others.


Ripples of concern, but no comprehensive effort

In 2021, the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan led to a modest ripple of concern among Dutch universities. Small, but uncoordinated and largely unsuccessful efforts were made to offer a safe haven to a few Afghani scholars and their families. This proved to be impossible because of the lack of a grant distribution system. Very quickly, the concern ebbed away without any scholars being placed. A year later, in 2022, the onset of the war on Ukraine led to another ripple of concern within Dutch academia. The problem was closer to home this time. Most Dutch universities felt a moral imperative to get involved and to do something constructive to assist scholars and students from Ukraine. Nothing very concrete was achieved, in spite of the best efforts of some individuals.


Attempts to restart the system

A group of concerned university administrators from Dutch universities met several times throughout 2020-2022 to try finding a way to improve matters. I convened and chaired these meetings. It was agreed that Nuffic, the Dutch organization for internationalization and education, could perhaps take on the role previously fulfilled by the UAF. This seemed to be a good choice, as Nuffic has an extensive network within the Dutch higher education sector, is used to administering grants, and has considerable expertise that would be handy in helping to ensure that at risk scholars are placed in settings appropriate to their field of research.

Nuffic was keen to get involved but at the eleventh hour felt obliged to decline further involvement because of the risks involved in relation to tax authorities and the labour inspectorate. Back to square one…


An opportunity to turn the tide

At this point, the Dutch Young Academy decided to get involved. On 23 January of this year, the Young Academy’s report called ‘Support for at risk scholars in the Netherlands’ was launched. This was a tremendously important step: for the first time, a measured and reflective analysis of the support system was committed to paper in the form of a well-researched report. It showed that at-risk scholars are woefully underserved in the Netherlands. The main conclusion of the report is crystal clear: “There is currently no national infrastructure in the Netherlands for the registration and reception of at-risk scholars.”

The exposure of this embarrassing gap in provision for scholars at risk is important: it gives Dutch universities who wish to host scholars at risk the opportunity to do some repair work on a broken system. They need the assistance of the Dutch government in this endeavour. The question is whether this opportunity will be recognized and acted upon. The Young Academy has laid bare an uncomfortable truth. It is surely impossible for the government to ignore their plea for action……

I believe that the only way forward is for politicians to enter the arena to resolve the impasse. The tax authorities and the labour inspectorate understandably have little interest in ensuring that scholars at risk are supported within Dutch universities. It is hardly their core business. The ministers involved (Education, Culture & Science, and Finance) thus need to take the political initiative to remove the obstacles around the tax and labour regulations and to provide guarantees that will allow the universities in collaboration with Nuffic and UAF to fulfil their moral duty to support scholars who cannot practise their profession in freedom and/or whose very life is threatened.

“It is precisely scholars who are often the first people to pose a threat to repressive regimes, and they are therefore often among the first group who must take flight.’’ – ‘Support for scholars at risk in the Netherlands’, January 2023.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the author:

Linda Johnson was the executive secretary of ISS, but has now retired. She is particularly interested in the societal relevance of research. In addition, she has done recent work on the safety and security of researchers and co-developed a course on literature as a lens on development.

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1 Comment
  • Helen Hintjens
    12 April 2023

    What a timely and welcome reflection on this vital issue. If we cannot support scholars at risk then what good is a social justice mandate for universities – solidarity begins with our colleagues, even though it does not end there, of course. Thanks for this thoughtful reflection on how a broken system might become whole again.