7 April 2022

A window of opportunity for grant recipients Nasrat and Arif

Both work on their projects at Maastricht University’s Faculty of Law on a Hestia Grant. With that, their paths towards settling in Dutch academia and enriching the knowledge and skills in their home countries might look parallel moving towards the future. But Nasrat Sayed’s and Arif Aksu’s respective research projects are unique stories on their own.

Personal experiences and research opportunities

A double refugee himself, Nasrat focuses his research on this situation in Afghanistan and its neighbouring countries. “I know the region, the language and culture.” Since the late 1970s, ongoing violence, war and conflict have been the reason for many Afghans leaving their home country. His own family, too, has migrated, mainly for safety. Growing up in Pakistan in the 1980s, Nasrat spent almost two decades in Shamshato Refugee Camp in the Northwest of Pakistan. “Although living conditions were poor, we were lucky enough to have access to basic health services and education”, he recalls.

After the engagement of the international community in Afghanistan in 2001, thousands of Afghan families, including the Sayeds, returned to their homeland through the support of UNHCR. In 2006, Nasrat migrated back to Pakistan – as an Afghan student on a Bachelor’s degree. After graduation, Nasrat won a two-year JICA-PEACE scholarship for a Masters in Japan and returned to Afghanistan in 2014. “In the following year, the violence and conflict escalated again in my country. One of the major reasons for this escalation was the withdrawal of most international troops from Afghanistan. So again, thousands of Afghans were forced to leave their home country. This time they mainly fled towards Europe for protection.”

Nasrat worked as a researcher with the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development (MRRD) and Integrity Watch Afghanistan (IWA) in Afghanistan. In 2018, he completed his second Master’s, a double degree from Maastricht University and United Nations University (UNU), the Netherlands and then started a research job at Maastricht University/UNU-MERIT, with the Migration and Development Research Group. Nasrat: “The Hestia grant was my window of opportunity. To build my career, to establish networks. I would like to integrate myself into Dutch academia and continue my further studies in the field of migration.”

Sharing knowledge and expertise

Nasrat has seen how since the refugee crisis in 2015, funding from the EU towards non-EU countries has grown significantly. “We think EU funding could play a role in global responsibility-sharing in that matter, to ensure protection and grow capacity. We will explore the steering and solidarity potential of EU funding. By analysing the design and administration modes, focusing on Afghanistan, we get to see whether it was effective. That will give us insights and let us make suggestions towards the reform of EU funding.”

Nasrat Sayed has been working at the University of Maastricht/UNU-MERIT as a researcher since 2019. The Hestia grant opens up opportunities for him.

“The funding is for research, and for career development. It offers me a chance to develop my PhD proposal, improve my research skills and expand my network”, he says.


A great transition to a future in research

Arif was still in a refugee camp when he first visited the faculty and later started his master’s. After being imprisoned without any due process, he left his home country and started anew in the Netherlands. “I did my follow-up education in the Netherlands, in criminology. I wanted to move on into academia. To do so, I needed a transition to further improve my academic skills. I thought I wasn’t fully prepared for a PhD. This project provides a great chance for a transition and then, hopefully, a permanent position in Dutch academia.”

During his masters in criminology at Maastricht University, a course on organisational crime brought the concept of whistleblowing to his attention. “It spiked my interest. I tried to write my thesis on whistleblowing. That didn’t work out, so I put the topic to rest. Until I saw Vigjilenca Abazi had been looking for an applicant for this research fund. It matched both my interest and my background.”

Arif’s research into whistleblowing

In collaboration with his project leader, Arif Aksu is looking into whistleblowing as private law enforcement. “Whistleblowing offers a much-needed instrument to ensure accountability. To strengthen the position of the rule of law in society, we can no longer rely solely on existing institutional control mechanisms”, says Aksu, now a researcher at the Department of International and European Law. With their project, the researchers aim to promote knowledge on how whistleblowing can be used to advance law enforcement in the areas of public health, privacy and anti-corruption.

Why is whistleblowing needed to support EU law enforcement? “The enforcement is lagging. For instance, we’ve seen lots of scandals, where European citizens’ rights to privacy and data protection have been violated. European law enforcement agencies do not have sufficient resources to monitor big tech companies. They do not have enough tech experts and the operational capacity to do so. Big tech keeps innovating, developing new techniques. It is hard to identify whether they are crossing the border. Whistleblowers help supervisory authorities to understand the inner workings of those companies and intervene in a timely and effective manner.”

For Arif Aksu, LLM, the Hestia grant opened up possibilities too. Previously, he worked as a detective sergeant, with nearly 4 years of experience in transnational organised crime investigations. 


For his data collection, Aksu has been talking to experts with different backgrounds, from privacy and data, public health and anti-corruption. “In the next couple of months, I will be fully immersed in interviews. I want to gain insights from the three areas of expertise and about whistleblowing in general.” He selected these three areas from a list of 12 policy fields the EU has specified as ‘significant’ to enforcing EU law.

During his research, he will look into the possibilities of using whistleblowing as a law enforcement tool. “The role of  private individuals in law enforcement is well known, particularly using informants as a source of information in organised crime. The question now is which role whistleblowing can play to that end.”  Research explains why people would not report wrongdoing. Because they do not have compelling evidence, because they believe nothing will change, or because they are not finding a safe environment to come forward and speak up. But supplying this infrastructure alone, is not sufficient. “Take the situation with The Voice of Holland, for example. John de Mol explained how there were many channels to report abuse. But apparently it did not work out. This infrastructure means nothing, if other components are not in place too. Think of leadership, endorsements of people who speak up, and a sympathetic listen-up culture. Otherwise, it’s just cheap talk.”

Scandals such as Cambridge Analytica and the enforcement of the GDPR across Europe made privacy and data protection particularly important. The COVID-19 pandemic has increased relevance of studying public health. And the Panama Leaks and Pandora Leaks revealed that anti-corruption is still one of the most concerning issues of our time.
Arif Aksu

On Hestia and the future

One of the goals of the Hestia grants is to create an opportunity for researchers to share knowledge and expertise, to get to know the Dutch science system, and ultimately, enable them to continue their careers and lines of research in their homeland. Nasrat: “Working here allows me to invest in myself and improve my skills. Here, we have a proper system for research. It is more organised compared to Afghanistan, and we have more access to software. Furthermore, with highly qualified colleagues and professors, I have greater opportunities to discuss and ask questions.”

For Nasrat, he sees working in research and teaching in his future. “These are the two ways in which I can disseminate my knowledge and skills to others.” He continues: “If the security situation allows me in the future, I would like to go back to Afghanistan, and share what I have learned here. So the country can benefit too. That is my overarching goal. There are lots of problems in Afghanistan and other developing countries. They have a great need for experienced trained lecturers and researchers, who could positively impact policy making.”

NWO is committed to a strong science system in the Netherlands and subscribes to the importance of a diverse, inclusive and accessible scientific system. The Hestia programme was developed in consultation with De Jonge Akademie, the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) and the UAF foundation for refugee students. Last year, ten proposals were granted, allowing ten researchers to pursue their project for 18 or 24 months.

 Return to lawreview2021

By: Letterdesk (text), Jonathan Vos (photography). 

If the security situation allows me in the future, I would like to go back to Afghanistan, and share what I have learned here. So the country can benefit too. That is my overarching goal.
Nasrat Sayed