AMSTERDAM – Participants at the triennial Global Congress of Scholars at Risk in Amsterdam on 9 to 10 April were introduced to concrete testimonies of students that have had to face persecution in their home environment. This event brought attention to the need to implement an independent mechanism to protect students at risk.
Representatives from Egypt, Tunisia, Iran and Burma described this situation in their home countries. Liza Shchepetylnykova, President of the Ukrainian Association of Students Self-Government (UASS), a full member of the European Students’ Union (ESU), also delivered her testimony. She explained how the Ukrainian government targeted students during the events on Maidan from November 2013 to February 2014, how students organised, the post-conflict situation that students are facing and how it is necessary to create strong cooperation between students from West and East Ukraine to avoid further conflicts. She also explained how academic freedom was conceptualised in many countries that were once a part of the Soviet Union. In her view, it was important to change the mindset as some scholars believed they were only allowed to teach and research within lines approved by the counties’ ruling authorities.
Preventing attacks on the academic community
More than one hundred participants from all continents attended workshops, where they discussed measures to protect threatened scholars, the prevent attacks on higher education and how to promote academic freedom. ESU has contributed to those aims by supporting SAIH’s (the Norwegian Students’ and Academics’ International Assistance Fund) initiative “Students’ at risk” that offers scholarships and support to persecuted students to pursue their studies in Norway. The Draft State’s Principles To Protect Higher Education from Attacks were also presented during the workshops. ESU actively contributed to the draft principles at the experts meeting organised by the Global Coalition to Protection Education from Attack held in Brussels in December 2013.
The Global Congress was also an opportunity for Scholars at Risk to present its project, the “Academic Freedom Monitor”. There is need for thorough research and reporting of attacks on scholars, students and higher education to then advocate on this issue, raise awareness, and bring the most appropriate response to these attacks. ESU suggested including students in the team of researchers and monitors. “Students as members of the academic community are also targeted by the attacks on higher education. ESU can act as a bridge and an information channel between Scholars at Risk and the students on the ground. ESU believes that having students participate in the “Academic Freedom Monitor” project would help having a more comprehensive reporting of attacks on the ground,” says Gabriela Bergan, ESU’s Human Rights and Solidarity Coordinator.
A special protection mechanism
“Scholars and students will be at the forefront of reshaping the country and reimagining their democratic societies after a conflict ends. Therefore, they deserve special protection,” explains Bergan. “Students who suffer from direct conflicts or who are persecuted in their own country need a mechanism that addresses their needs at each moment. Too often the only solution for these students is to seek asylum and wait years before obtaining a refugee status. Moreover, governments are the ones attributing the refugee status and this often disguises into political considerations. Refugee status gives protection to a student but does not ensure that this student will be able to complete his studies. It is for this reason that there is need for an independent mechanism that ensures the right to higher education for persecuted students,” concludes Bergan.
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The European Students’ Union, headquartered in Brussels, is the umbrella organisation of 47 national unions of students from 39 European countries. ESU represents and promotes the educational, social, economical and cultural interests of students at the European level. Through its member unions, ESU represents over 11 million students in Europe. To find out more about ESU, follow us on Twitter @ESUtwt, check out or Facebook page or visit www.esu-online.org. ESU celebrates its 30th anniversary in 2012.