Chilean Exiles and WUS

As researcher and professor of Hispanic Studies at the University of Warwick, I have studied and published on the role of World University Service (WUS). These findings are published in the Journal of Refugee Studies (2021). My focus in the research was on both the United Kingdom and Chile, in assisting Chileans who fled their country in the wake of the 1973 coup and subsequent Pinochet dictatorship. Many of these Chileans were political exiles either clandestinely fleeing repression or banished, echoing a pattern of political exile that has marked Latin American history and politics since colonial times. The WUS story is one of an unprecedented collaboration, well before the invention of the internet, between a national government and an NGO, and this makes it a foundational moment in the history of organised exile and refugee policy in the UK.

Support for Chileans exiles by WUS

It is impossible to give a precise figure for the number of exiles, but it is estimated that some 200,000 Chileans, or approximately 2% of the nation’s population, were exiled as a result of the military coup on 11 September 1973. With the introduction of Decree Law 81 in November 1973, the Pinochet regime gave itself unconditional authority to expel citizens and determine their right to return. Chileans went into exile in more than 100 different countries. For some, their exile destination may have been selected on the basis of cultural or personal affinities. For those forced to depart hastily, it was often the result of the willingness of embassies to receive asylum seekers. The gates of the British embassy were, for example, locked, but the Swedish embassy offered protection. In other instances, destinations were the result of chance or the decision of an international organisation working with willing host countries. WUS was one such body that emerged from early civic efforts to help Chileans at risk, assisting Chilean refugees in the decade following the Pinochet coup.

On 13 October 1973 a number UK academics held the first public meeting of a group entitled Academics for Chile (AFC) at the London School of Economics and Political Science (Bayle 2013:210). With a core membership of approximately 20, they were far from uncritical of the Allende Popular Unity government, but they were united in their revulsion at the brutality of the Pinochet dictatorship (WUS 1986:14). Realising the need for institutional support to achieve the aim of working to assist the victims of such repression, AFC established links with WUS UK and they both became founders of a Joint Working Group for the Resettlement of Refugees from Chile (JWG), established in July 1974 to co-ordinate effective action in the UK. Following a series of private donations and the election of a Labour government in early1974, AFC and WUS together successfully lobbied UK MPs and ministers to back their activities, while simultaneously gaining the crucial support of senior officials in WUS’s capacity to deliver an effective refugee scholarship program. WUS’s Chilean program emerged in the context of the 1974 Labour government’s decision to support a section of skilled and educated Chileans who were the victims of brutality and whose plight had provoked an international outcry.

The Pinochet regime’s repressive apparatus after September 1973 was unleashed not only against political actors and party leaders, but across the Chilean academic community as well. In all, 10,000 students are thought to have been expelled and 18,000 academics and students dismissed from higher education places. The regime’s persecution and purge of the academic community led to a reconfiguration of the Chilean university sector, with the 1980 University Reform Law formalising the circumscription of intellectual endeavour to a functionalist role (WUS 1986:11).

When WUS took on the Chilean scholarship program in 1973, it already had experience of managing significant refugee scholarship programs for Hungarians (1956) and Czechoslovaks (1968), bringing together university and government support to achieve this. However, the Chilean program was considerably larger in scope and extended beyond refugees already in the UK to sustained international efforts to rescue Chileans imprisoned and in danger in Chile itself. Working with the Ministry of Overseas Development, and dealing with the ups and downs of varied views at the Foreign Office and Home Office, WUS developed a markedly new approach:

“The scheme’s character, with its emphasis on developmental criteria was fundamentally determined by the fact that it was not the Home Office (responsible for UK asylum policy) nor the Department of Education and Science (responsible for UK education and training policy) that played the key official role: rather it was the Ministry of Overseas Development (ODM) which is responsible British overseas aid policy and programmes. It is this involvement that sets the WUS(UK) programme apart from all other international assistance programmes for Chilean exiles.” (WUS 1985:15)

The channeling of assistance through the voluntary sector had the advantage, in the Chilean case, of greater sensitivity towards a group of refugees who had experienced abuse at the hands of their own government. Between 1974 and 1986, the UK contributed over £11 million to the WUS Chile program (WUS 1986).

WUS established a Chile team and an awards committee with a prestigious membership, including Prof. Dudley Seers, founding Director of the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex and Dr Lionel Butler, Principal of Royal Holloway College, whose support and involvement was vital to the organisation’s work in a delicate political climate (WUS 1986).

In the early years, priority was given to those, such as political prisoners, who were in immediate danger, and the offer of a WUS scholarship was helpful in securing their release into exile. WUS colleagues in Chile and later in Buenos, when the Argentinian political situation deteriorated, worked under the heat of repression, showing enormous personal commitment to the program (WUS 1986:18). In its 1975 Annual Report, WUS noted that awards were invaluable in securing the release of detainees, but that difficulties in obtaining a visa were a major obstacle to their departure. Delays of up to six months, while applications were processed by the Home Office (WUS 1975:9).

Within the UK, WUS established a clear administrative structure that included a number of caseworkers. Each scholarship holder was assigned a caseworker for the duration of his or her studies. The Chile scholarships constituted ‘a tertiary-level educational/developmental programme of which the professional aspects did not square well, at least initially, with the responsibilities of a welfare agency’ (WUS 1986:21). The situation in the UK was further complicated by the lack of a coherent overall policy and effective structures for dealing with large refugee influxes, and the fact that the politically attuned Chileans who arrived after 1973 were vocal in their demands for adequate support. WUS’ early support for the formation of the JWG was significant in tackling such problems. Through its advocacy for the creation of the British Refugee Council, WUS also played a significant role in transforming UK structures and policies with regard to refugee work. With hindsight, this is a major, if unexpected, result of the WUS program.

Academic Outcomes

The program thus was underpinned by an enabling desire to offer Chilean refugees the capability to continue their education and training, freedom and well-being, and thus to attend to their broader life goals despite the disruption of sudden and enforced exile. While human rights might today dominate refugee discourses, it is worth bearing in mind the importance of a social justice perspective even now.

WUS responded to the crisis of the Pinochet regime’s violation of human rights, and it did so with a social justice objective that not only saved lives but helped people to then rebuild their futures.

In its 1986 report A Study in Exile, WUS notes a pass rate of 64% for its Chile scholarship program, which is remarkable given the challenges and difficulties of embarking on academic study immediately on departure from one’s home country in traumatic circumstances (WUS 1986:7). As of 1986, 900 grants had been awarded, 606 to men and 294 to women. The majority, for both genders, went to individuals in the 25-29 age group, followed by a significant number to those aged 30-34. The peak number of awards occurred in the academic year 1977-78 (WUS 1986:27), and postgraduate qualifications predominated initially. As the program developed and the needs of awardees changed, there was a swing to undergraduate study from 1975 on. A third of awardees undertook courses in the Social Studies field, with approximately one sixth studying Business and Administration, and a similar number Engineering. Although awards to women were few at first, their numbers grew quickly in the late 1970s, and women ultimately achieved a higher percentage pass rate (69.7%) than men (60.9%) (WUS 1986:7).

Experiences of former WUS scholarship holders

How do Chilean WUS scholarship holders remember the loss of home, the dislocation of family ties, and the truncation of their educational lives? What do they reveal of the WUS program’s strengths and weaknesses, and what can they tell us about positive policy supports for refugees today?  These Chilean life stories unfolded in at least two spatial and temporal frames: the enormous upheavals in the Chile they left behind, and those they experienced in the UK with its shifting political and power relations in the 1970s and ’80s. WUS grants were awarded to individuals to come to the UK to study. Initially, envisaged as a postgraduate research program, when the scope of WUS’s scholarships widened to undergraduate degrees and taught postgraduate programs, the lack of high-level English became more problematic. However, many of the Chileans helped by WUS had been subjected to physical and mental torture, and were in the words of one, ‘super vulnerable’. Beginning a course of study in a new country with limited linguistic and cultural knowledge was a huge challenge in itself; to do so straight out of prison or having fled persecution intensified these difficulties. WUS caseworkers were not trained in providing supports to traumatised individuals, and although Chileans did form informal support groups, professional help was limited. For women who were in relationships where a grant had been awarded to a male partner, the result could be a sense of disenfranchisement and a feeling of relegation to a secondary status. Unequal gender opportunities became a major challenge. The life stories of the Chileans I interviewed were closely tied to their own perceptions of the opportunities they had to exert personal agency, sometimes understood as a contribution to the Chilean exile community and sometimes as a wider contribution to UK society.

Return and reorientation

In keeping with its social development perspective, WUS was clear that exiles’ decisions about their future careers, lives, and any possible return to Chile should be voluntary. In addition, the scholarship program envisaged opportunities for them to develop careers in other development contexts, including Africa and other Latin American countries, should they wish to do so. It is thought that between 12 and 20 scholarship beneficiaries had moved to Africa and Asia by 1986 (WUS 1986:36). At the time of WUS’ 1986 report, an estimated two thirds of the Chileans who came under the auspices of the scholarship program had opted to remain in the UK. It was in the UK that they met partners, set up home, had families, and pursued their careers while having close ties to Chile through return visits.

WUS offered return grants to assist those wishing to return to Chile on a permanent basis but who would have greatest difficulty in entering the labour market. Priority was therefore given to Social Scientists. Applicants to the WUS reorientation scheme were based in a variety of European countries, including the UK but also, for example, France and East Germany. They were expected to develop an independent program of research in conjunction with building their own network of contacts within Chile, and selection criteria included not only academic quality and relevance to development concerns, but evidence of course completion and perseverance (WUS 1986:38). As part of a collaborative effort, WUS participated in the Programa de Retorno y Apoyo Laboral (PRAL), which began in 1985. The program’s objective was to provide support for the reintegration of Chilean exiles by offering assistance with employment.

PRAL provided loans for small businesses that would hopefully generate an income for returnees. In taking this approach, it recognised the difficulties confronting those for whom Chile was a changed country.

Even if hopes of a return to democracy were high in some circles, alternatives to the neo-liberal economic path established by the regime were not necessarily evident. Between 1990 and 1994, following the restoration of democracy, assistance was given to returning exiles. The WUC Chile program linked educational and developmental goals in a manner that gave the program a future-oriented dimension. Some senior Chilean scholars were aware of the opportunities afforded by exile to reflect on socio-political concerns, on the lessons of the Popular Unity period, and to evolve a sense of solidarity with those back home as well as a future contribution to freedom and the development of their country. In political circles, the lessons of exile for the parties of the Chilean Left have been much commented upon, with Ricardo Lagos’ assessment that the encounter with European socialism and a realisation of the importance of entrepreneurialism much quoted. The influence of Spain’s managed transition to democracy was also an important factor.

Within the WUS UK scholarship community in the early years, and in parallel to the formal university affiliations of individuals, a network of academics had established their own research priorities, research groups, and system of informal guidance for younger scholars (WUS 1986:22-23). A range of activities had been developed by academic co-ordinators, with an emphasis on a review of the Popular Unity period and the broader challenges of socio-economic development; the evolving nature of education in Chile; heath issues, including mental health and exile; and public administration. This academic program evidenced the commitment of exiles to their homeland, as the 1986 WUS report notes:

“The objectives of the academic coordination were both original and sensible given the unique characteristics of the programme: a refugee scholarship scheme with developmental aims and a scattered community, confronting a university system that was alien to most of them. The linking of academic work with concern for the plight of their homeland was a striking initiative from the community itself, and the development of a ‘parallel college’ structure stimulated a great deal of positive planning and genuine mobilization” (WUS 1976:25)

The WUS development model did largely follow the idea of Western professionals acting within a binary vision of Chilean migration to the UK as a temporary experience that would hopefully lead to a voluntary return movement beneficial to the re-establishment of Chilean democracy. In this sense, the program was of its time, and it responded to a specific traumatic upheaval though available legal and governmental structures which shaped the nature of the support provided.

Without devaluing such potentially enormous gains, we may note that this is something of an elitist view. We should not forget that many Chileans confronted serial exile, moving from home to various exile locations over a span of time, and their subjective and intersubjective sense of Chilean-ness is thus profoundly transnational and transcultural. They also confronted individual difficulties and contexts in which gender expectations, personal struggles and a personal and professional sense of satisfaction or dissatisfaction profoundly affected their daily lives. It was the patient, careful, sensitive work of WUS and its staff that was most successful in not only saving but helping to rebuild lives.


World University Service UK (1975). Annual Report, 1 October 1974-30 September 1975.

World University Service UK (1986). A Study in Exile: A Report on the WUS(UK) Chilean Refugee Scholarship Programme. London: World Univeristy Service.

Author profile
Alison Ribeiro de Menezes

Alison Ribeiro de Menezes is Professor of Hispanic Studies at the University of Warwick and an internationally recognised scholar of Hispanic Literary and Cultural Studies. She is Principal Investigator on an Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project to compile an oral history of Chilean Exiles in the UK. She works closely with the Museum of Memory and Human Rights in Santiago, Chile, and the Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick, which holds significant WUS UK archival resources.