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How Global South research institutes can use COVID-19 to their advantage

Elena Habersky.jpg

AUC New Cairo campus. Picture by the author.

Egypt: The crossroads of migration


When one imagines Egypt, pictures are conjured up of pyramids, ancient temples, beautiful Islamic architecture, the cosmopolitan city of Alexandria, and the Bedouin of the Sinai desert.


While these images are all quintessentially ‘Egypt’ they also speak to another story, that of migration. Without the conquests of the Fatimids or Alexander the Great, the sojourns of the Bedouin, or the Greeks and Italians living in Alexandria at the turn of the 19th century, Egypt would not be what it is today. Therefore, it is only apropos that a research centre for migration holds a special place in the academic realm of Egypt’s capital city. 


The Centre for Migration and Refugee Studies (CMRS) is an interdisciplinary centre located in the heart of the Middle East and North African crossroads in Cairo. Since its founding in 2000 by the late Barbara Harrell-Bond, CMRS’s functions include education, research, training, and outreach. It also offers an MA and diploma in Migration and Refugee Studies. The growth and pull of its MA programme came to an abrupt halt in 2012 during the aftermath of the Egyptian 2011 Revolution, with only those with prior experience in the region, or Egyptian nationals applying. While many viewed Egypt’s security as a threat to pursuing further education, CMRS continues to graduate well-rounded students and produce quality research with a perspective from Global South – a view much needed in today’s fraught politicisation of migration. 


Coronavirus and Egypt: Making an opportunity of a pandemic


Just as enrollment numbers were beginning to return to pre-2011 statistics, the onset of coronavirus has brought most international education at an abrupt standstill, with many students and their parents fearful of travelling abroad for educational purposes. Much to the seeming confusion of many international journalists – as seen here, here, and here – the African continent is doing a satisfactory job at controlling and mitigating the effects of COVID-19 within its borders. Though Egypt has one of the largest case numbers on the continent after South Africa, their numbers are nowhere near those in Europe or North America and life has returned to some semblance of normalcy for many. Nevertheless, with global travel becoming more difficult due to countries requiring PCR tests and mandatory quarantine, it is unlikely that schools which welcome a large number of international students will operate normally anytime soon. 


Due to these health and safety concerns in which the majority of people are now travelling only if necessary to mitigate potential shedding and exposure, coupled with broad biases about education in the Global South of not having the resources available to deal with the onset of a large crisis, the onset of coronavirus can present two opportunities for a centre like CMRS to showcase the work of its educational and research institutions in the new normal we find ourselves in. 


Firstly, while research centres like CMRS are often approached by large international non-governmental organisations, the United Nations, and research centres in the Global North to collaborate on research and other projects, it oftentimes seems that the work done by the partner in the Global North overshadows that done by those in the Global South. This past year alone, CMRS has put out three research reports, numerous articles, and a policy brief to a global audience, as well as hosted three international conferences and one international workshop bringing together academics from Ghana, India, Bangladesh, England, Lebanon, Costa Rica, Egypt, the United States, Switzerland, Jordan, and Italy. 


As more and more academics, practitioners, and journalists try to reframe the narrative of migration, research institutes in the Global South, where the majority of migration takes place, have an opportunity to use people’s dependence on online events to showcase their work. This has already begun at CMRS through online webinars and research seminars held this past summer, including one on ‘COVID-19 and International Labor Migration in the Middle East’ and ‘Impacts of COVID-19 on Migration in the Euro-Mediterranean Space’. This work will continue throughout the Fall 2020 semester with an online seminar series, originally started by Dr Barbara Harrell-Bond to bring the Cairene community together to discuss important topics on migration. Now, the community can be global, rather than just local, and such events can truly exhibit the work and partnerships a centre like CMRS fosters on a daily basis. 


The next generation of academics


Secondly, with another stoppage of international applications which were starting once more to rise, the AUC administration, along with CMRS which attracts many displaced applicants, now have the opportunity to focus on accepting refugee students present in Egypt through scholarships set up by the university, as well as overseas partners. This both keeps the programme growing, as well as offers an invaluable opportunity for refugees for whom it is difficult, otherwise, to pursue higher education.


As shown by the Refugee Entitlements project at CMRS, refugees oftentimes have difficulty accessing tertiary education due to prohibitive costs. While many asylum seekers and refugees can access higher education at a cost equivalent to that of nationals, this is still difficult as access to employment is prohibited to them, leading many to work in the informal sector which opens them up to various forms of exploitation. Nevertheless, AUC now has a scholarship for refugee students, as well as funding from the US State Department for the Tomorrow’s Leaders Fellowship, which includes displaced Syrians residing outside their country. Others should consider funding the next academics and practitioners in the field of migration, and what better place to do so than in a truly metropolitan city like Cairo. 


A view towards the Global South


Though Egypt and the entire African continent have so far done a solid job at handling COVID-19, much in-person collaboration and international travel have come to a stop, including those potential students who would pursue their education in a foreign country. While many see this as a negative outcome, for a centre like CMRS, this pandemic can be a true opportunity to reach populations with the education and research that were unreachable before.

Elena Habersky.jpg

Elena Habersky

Elena Habersky is the current Project Manager of the Refugee Entitlements project at the Centre for Migration and Refugee Studies at the American University in Cairo. She has spent the past seven years working with urban refugee populations and conducting research in Amman, Cairo, and Kampala. She holds a BS in International Studies from the University of Scranton and an MA in Migration and Refugee Studies from CMRS. Catch her on Twitter/Instagram: @bur_ski

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