Throughout history, students have been at the forefront when democracy, human rights or academic freedom is threatened.
Students played a key role in the Arab Spring, in fighting apartheid in South Africa, opposing the Vietnam war and establishing the online pro-democracy Milk Tea Alliance across Hong Kong, Taiwan, Thailand and Myanmar.
Students continue to raise their voices for environmental and social justice and oppose growing inequalities in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result of their activism, students have been met with persecution, criminalisation, vicious policing and killings.
Scholars at Risk’s report, Free to Think 2021, reports 332 cases of attacks on higher education worldwide.
In India, authorities have been prosecuting students under the country’s anti-terrorism laws for expressing views critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his administration.
In Belarus, students play a key role in the democracy movement, which has led to the regime targeting students actively and forcefully. The Belarusian national students’ union has collected evidence showing that at least 492 students have been detained and 160 expelled up to June 2021.
In Colombia, men on a motorcycle shot and killed Esteban Mosquera, a prominent student activist and student journalist from the University of Cauca, who brought attention to income inequality, the cost of education and violent crackdowns on student protests in the country.
In Turkey in January 2021, five Bogazici University students were arrested in connection with an exhibition on campus showing the Kaaba in Mecca alongside LGBTIQ+ flags.
Patrick George Zaki, an Egyptian student activist and researcher, is facing up to five years in prison for his article on the living conditions of the Christian Coptic community in Egypt. He is accused of “spreading false news inside and outside of the country”. Egyptian student and researcher Ahmed Samir has been convicted and sentenced to four years of detention on similar charges.
Student unions have been banned and student activists have been kidnapped, persecuted and killed. Too often students find themselves in dangerous situations with little to no support. And the situation facing students opposing the Ukraine conflict in Ruissia is only starting to emerge.
The Norwegian Students at Risk programme
In response to this trend, the Norwegian Students’ and Academics’ International Assistance Fund and the National Union of Students in Norway lobbied in 2011 for a programme to support persecuted students, and in 2014 the Students at Risk (StAR) programme was established under the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The StAR programme has so far enabled 72 student activists from all around the world to travel to Norway to finish their studies and flee the persecution they were facing at home, defending their right to education and giving them the opportunity to strengthen their activism.
However, the StAR programme has several shortcomings. The lack of a language component for incoming students limits the number of study programmes they can access, especially for student activists from Spanish- or French-speaking countries. The programme currently works with a single intake per year, forcing students at immediate risk to wait at home unless they are able to find rapid response support by themselves.
Both of these shortcomings could be overcome if there was an international support network. That is why all the actors involved in supporting StAR have been recently promoting the establishment of an international StAR programme.
A European “Students at Risk” scholarship scheme
Earlier this year, in a joint statement on the situation in Belarus, the European University Association, the European Students’ Union (ESU) and Scholars at Risk called for the establishment of a Europe-wide programme of scholarships for students at risk.
During a recent event organised in Brussels, the German Academic Exchange Service, the Polish National Agency for Academic Exchange and the Norwegian Directorate for Higher Education and Skills proposed the establishment of a European-wide scheme for students at risk by 2024, funded by Erasmus+.
The scheme would bring together national initiatives to host threatened students under a single coordination mechanism under the European Commission and with a single entry point for applications. The European Commission has expressed interest in the programme and is considering working towards its establishment.
We welcome and support the joint proposal – such an initiative would give more opportunities to students at risk by providing more places, more languages of instruction and a wider range of study fields.
We underline that such a scheme must be equipped with a fast lane to deal with emergency situations and humanitarian crises – like the one we are witnessing in Afghanistan. It should have multiple application periods during the year. It should also be open to displaced people, refugees and asylum seekers through humanitarian corridors in collaboration with international and United Nations organisations such as the UNHCR.
It should provide students with enough financial support to cover their living and studying expenses as well as support for accommodation and the bureaucratic and administrative procedures to be expected in their host country.
Despite the UK pulling out of Erasmus, if the scheme is set up in Europe the UK should do all it can to take part. And in any event, if students and their unions in the UK were to lobby for a UK version of Students at Risk, that would help too.
Student rights are human rights!
Students are a global social group with common interests who very often assume the role of human rights defenders.
Their rights, elaborated in documents like ESU’s Student Rights Charter, are deeply rooted in a human rights framework and in the quest for social justice and global fairness – students all over the world fight to see those rights recognised and to make their societies advance in keeping with democratic values, societal progress and social justice.
Therefore, democracies all over the world must provide and support defence mechanisms for those whose fight for democracy and rights puts them in danger.
A version of this article was initially published on the website of the Global Student Forum.