A Double Standard for Students at Risk?

Universities should recognize and reconsider the differential treatment they offer Global South students fleeing persecution, writes Isabella Aung.

December 2, 2022
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This fall, my alma mater recently announced that it was welcoming three refugee students from Afghanistan as part of the incoming class. That announcement led me to look at how North American higher education institutions influence the educational opportunities of asylum-seeking, refugee and international students who are affected by violence and war. I was born and raised in war-torn Myanmar when it was ruled by Senior General Than Shwe, who was ranked among the world’s 10 worst dictators, and college admission in the United States was my only ticket to freedom of speech, higher education and survival.

When I was growing up in Myanmar, no colleges or universities offered any programs of study related to politics. My father had to secretly take me to black markets in Yangon to find any books that discussed politics or gender, and the only place where I could express my personal views on the government and global affairs was in the safety of my home. My parents later told me that they both breathed a sigh of relief when I started university in Oregon, because it was only then they could rest assured that I would not randomly disappear or be sentenced to lengthy prison terms like many other young women in Myanmar who were interested in politics.

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine this year, the United States and many European countries have supported the Ukrainian people with arms, personnel and highly generous immigration policies in response to war in the modern day. (See the immigration responses by Canada, the U.K. and the U.S., for example.) Such specialized immigration programs rightfully prioritize Ukrainians fleeing persecution and war by waiving many tedious and time-consuming steps that immigrants usually have to go through when moving to a Global North destination country. In addition to the immigration guidelines set out by the governments, many higher education institutions around the world have also wholeheartedly pitched in to host Ukrainian students fleeing their country.

The international community, particularly academic institutions, has extended to Ukrainian refugees a kind hand in making survival and the right to education accessible to them. And those refugees certainly deserve all the opportunities to migrate in search of protection and safety. But it is time to ask what colleges and universities have done for other students who are fleeing war from non-European states, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan, Myanmar and Yemen.

In a midyear update, the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, or ACLED, has listed the top conflicts to worry about in 2022 around the world in addition to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Those conflicts are taking place in 10 non-European countries where violent political disorder has evolved or worsened over the course of the year. All those countries are in the Global South, and all have nonwhite populations including, in some cases, Indigenous populations cohabiting with the ethnic majority. My home country, Myanmar, is one of them.

Among those 10 countries, only Afghanistan has received much popular attention from Western higher education institutions. Thus, some Afghan students fleeing conflict have been able to access their right to education in safer countries. Yet, at the same time, visa fees and strict documentation requirements are not typically waived for Afghan students as they often have been for Ukrainians under specialized immigration programs. As a result, only the socioeconomically privileged in Afghanistan can afford to pursue opportunities for further education in the Global North.

The same problem applies to most students from the other nine countries on the ACLED list. Even when these students are accepted into universities abroad, they often have a hard time actualizing such hard-earned educational and survival opportunities due to the high costs and unnecessarily complicated bureaucratic processes surrounding immigration.

Indeed, the situation for students and scholars from the other nine conflict-ridden states who have successfully fled warfare in their home countries and landed in the Global North can be particularly difficult. Their educational qualifications are often not recognized by the host country, and many highly educated individuals face barriers that deter them from pursuing their education.

A case in point is Win Ko Ko Aung, who was forced to flee from Myanmar to the United States with just $200 in his pocket, and with whom I had the privilege to speak recently. He is a successful, published author with a best-selling book abroad, and he has fluent English language skills and a law degree from the University of East Yangon under his belt. However, he found that those achievements weren’t recognized in his new country, so he began to actively look for university programs where he could obtain an American graduate degree.

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He contacted several universities known for their financial aid programs for Ukrainian and, to some extent, Afghan refugees fleeing conflict in the hope that they would offer the same opportunities for refugees from other countries in similar situations. But he was largely met with dismissive and insensitive microaggressions at best and dehumanizing questions about his existence as a Burmese person at worst.

Win’s experience is one of the many examples of how Western academic institutions can deal with non-European international students from lesser known countries callously or unjustly, even when those students’ livelihoods and lives are at stake. Another glaring example occurred at York University in Canada last year. A professor refused a request for exam deferral from a Burmese student who was stranded in Myanmar amid a violent military coup. In addition, he also threatened to fail the student despite being fully aware that there had been an internet shutdown and bloody crackdowns against civilians by the military government, compounded by the global pandemic.

The way the North American academy treats non-European immigrants, mostly Black and brown students and refugees, is often still rife with colonialism, systemic racism, discrimination and oppression. International students from Iran, Sudan and Cameroon, for example, have shared with me their frustration with the distinctly unfair treatment they have received while navigating Western academic institutions. The news media has also pointed out other injustices and even violence against Global South people, such as how Asian international students have faced increased racial discrimination and assaults during the COVID-19 pandemic.

This critique should not be misread as any opposition to the protection that North American universities have provided to Ukrainian students to avoid persecution. I simply wish that the same consideration, opportunities and, most important, humanity would be shown to other international students of color from non-European countries. Diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives ought to expand conversations about safety, well-being and belonging to international students from the Global South.

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Isabella Aung, a young Asian woman with long dark hair wearing a blue sweater.Isabella Aung is a doctoral candidate in political studies at Queen’s University. She is also a graduate researcher at the Centre for International and Defence Policy. Her doctoral research studies how both grassroots activists and the authoritarian regime in Myanmar have used social media as a political tool. She is passionate about incorporating the voices and lived experiences of women of color into mainstream academe.

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