Around 650 Syrians currently study in British higher education institutions, many of whom have supported the Syrian revolution while in the UK. However, over the last twelve months their capacity to pay fees has been hit hard, with Syrian funding for scholarships pulled and a freeze on Syrian bank assets making transfers near impossible. Others have simply seen their sponsors detained or killed.
At least two institutions have threatened to expel students or to withhold qualifications
While many universities have offered bursaries and hardship funds, at least two institutions – the universities of Leeds and Salford – have threatened to expel students or to withhold qualifications until fees are paid, saying that the students are liable.
Those who are expelled risk losing their student visas and their right to work, and will have little choice but to apply for asylum.
“Some universities have already expelled students,” Mo Saqib, a Syrian student at Manchester University, who has launched a petition calling on the government for support, told HuffPostUK.
“Expelled students will then be deported to Syria, where they risk being detained and tortured, or even killed, by the Assad regime. Their lives are at greater risk if they are suspected of having supported the Syrian revolution while in the UK.”
The British government has helped by issuing licences to banks allowing them to transfer funds subject to the EU’s asset freeze on Syria’s financial system—as it did during the Libyan crisis in 2011 (when it actually provided no direct funding to students).
During a Twitter surgery on Monday, Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt also called on universities and scholarship awarding bodies to “show discretion” but stopped short of offering assistance. However, Saqib warned that easing financial sanctions missed the fact that many “students’ sponsors are either dead or out of work, hence unable to accrue funds”.
“Asylum is not something that they want or makes much sense from the UK point of view either”
Others say the responsibility lies with universities, some of which cannot afford support or indefinitely waive fees. Daniel Stevens, international officer at the National Union of Students, questions whether such institutions should be recruiting in the first place.
“One of the risks of recruiting international students is that these crises are becoming more common, as seen with the Earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, or the Tsunami in Japan,” he said. “I think that the universities need to understand that these things will happen and that they have to put contingencies in place.”
Universities have so far tried deferring fees or pooling resources with other institutions – a strategy Universities UK is said to be pushing. The British Council is also prepared to cover the living expenses of 100 PhD scholars whose funding was pulled by the regime, and 58 students have so far accessed the fund. “We intend the fund to remain throughout 2012/13,” said Tim Sowula, senior press officer.
Yet to be addressed, however, is the expiry in March of a UKBA extension to Tier 4 visas for Syrians, granted on temporary basis in October. This could affect many currently on courses who would have to become asylum seekers.
Stephen Wordsworth of Centre for Assisting Refugee Academics told The PIE News: “We would like to see that agreement extended so those who are over here studying are able to stay on on that basis. The alternative is you force people into making claims for asylum, which is not something that they want or makes much sense from the UK point of view either.”