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Authoritarian regimes “intimidating, surveilling and harassing” on US campuses

International students on US campuses from some of the USA’s biggest student source markets are being targeted by foreign governments, a new report has claimed.

Framing transnational repression entirely within the scope of national security risks stigmatising targeted individuals, including by encouraging racism and xenophobia, the report suggested. Photo: iStock

The report said tactics by authoritarian regimes to silence dissent among members of a diaspora is an "everyday problem on campuses"

The paper from nonpartisan organisation Freedom House suggested that China is the “biggest threat” to international students and scholars in the US, while Egypt, India, Rwanda and Saudi Arabia have allegedly perpetrated “transnational repression”.

Tactics include digital and physical surveillance, harassment, assault, threats and coercion by proxy, the report stated.

If government is tasked with countering the threats due to national security concerns, victims could end up being marginalised rather than individuals in need of help. Institutions should update policies to mitigate students being at risk, it continued.

University administrators “lack sufficient awareness” of the threats, meaning that individuals targeted are often having to protect themselves.

“This unfairly places the onus for addressing transnational repression on the shoulders of those most vulnerable to it,” it said.

Institutions need to begin reporting mechanisms for transnational repression that are accessible to students and faculty, including guidelines about the process of handling reports.

“Young people who come to the US to take advantage of its higher education system are being followed and harassed by some of the worst perpetrators of human rights violations,” said Michael J. Abramowitz, president of Freedom House.

“Administrators need to better understand what transnational repression looks like and develop strategies to protect members of the campus community.”

The report said tactics by authoritarian regimes to silence dissent among members of a diaspora is an “everyday problem on campuses”.

Previous analysis by organisation has found 38 governments perpetrated 854 incidents of physical, direct transnational repression in 91 countries between 2014 and 2022.

The incidents include assassinations, assaults, detentions and unlawful deportations, but “likely represent only a small fraction of the total number of cases that occur”.

Examples given in the report include solidarity gatherings for prodemocracy protests being photographed and relatives of participants arrested by law enforcement in their origin country, students being asked to report on fellow students from a human rights seminar class, efforts to deport critical academics back to their origin countries, among others.

Photo: Freedom House

Efforts by the US government to address the threats on campuses have “been fairly limited”, it said.

Additionally, they have focused “almost solely on the role of Chinese authorities”, with Department of Justice’s China Initiative – now shuttered – and efforts to close Confucius Institutes being the main two.

The practice of viewing transnational repression as a national security issue also “runs the risk that victims themselves may be viewed with suspicion or otherwise marginalized, rather than seen as vulnerable individuals in need of assistance”, it said.

“Framing the issue as one that falls entirely within the scope of national security overlooks the human rights dimensions of the problem and risks stigmatizing targeted individuals, including by encouraging racism and xenophobia,” the report said.

“It’s in everyone’s interest to foster safe learning environments”

Higher education administrators should ensure academic freedom, freedom of expression, and freedom of association are at the heart of policies aimed at guarding against transnational repression, it noted.

“Creating a way to report incidents, publicly denouncing attempts to target students, and raising awareness among staff will go a long way toward preventing and mitigating the threats posed by transnational repression on campuses,” the report’s coauthor and research director for strategy and design at Freedom House, Yana Gorokhovskaia, added.

Jill Welch, senior policy advisor at Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, said the issue “certainly merits continued attention from campus leaders”.

“Academic freedom and freedom of expression are foundational tenets of not only the US higher education system but of our democratic society as a whole,” she told The PIE.

“It’s in everyone’s interest to foster safe learning environments in which students can explore challenging ideas and express themselves freely.”

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