International students: don’t be afraid to get involved in protests

International students: don’t be afraid to get involved in protests

Political campaigning can be complicated for international students in the UK – but they shouldn’t be put off making a stand

January 29, 2015 When I began my studies at UCL, I joined the Fossil Free UCL campaign, which demands that the university divests from the industry. My home country of Vietnam is extremely vulnerable to the impact of climate change, so the campaign really excited me.

But I started to wonder why more international students don’t take part in these kinds of campaigns, some of which directly affect them – like the campaign against fees and cuts.

One possible reason is that, for many of us, the British style of democracy is a far cry from what we have at home. I’d never campaigned before coming to the UK – in Vietnam, student-led protest is a taboo. The government tightly controls the media and often imposes severe punishments on protesters.

My parents were petrified learning that I attended a demonstration and an organised die-in in London, because to them, tactics like those should be strictly prohibited. I have to regularly reassure them that what I’ve been doing is legal and dedicated to a good cause.

Bemnet Alemayehu, an Ethiopian human and animal rights student activist at the University of Surrey, says that in his home country, there’s a lack of civic societies and associations for like-minded young people to organise and campaign for social and political causes. Combined with laws preventing public protest, this makes student activism in Ethiopia rare.

But living in a relatively advanced, democratic country doesn’t necessarily encourage international students to become politically active.

Aside from the cultural reasons, UK immigration laws add to our worries. Shreya Paudel, international students’ officer at the National Union of Students (NUS), says: “Non-EU students are reluctant to attend protests because being arrested might mean deportation. It’s important to understand that if we are arrested, we have fewer legal rights than home students.â€_x009d_

For example, the Home Office can curtail some student visa holders’ leave to remain if they are found to be involved in activities that “represent a threat to national securityâ€_x009d_. In theory, this could be used against protesters.

Sanaz Raji is an American student who started her own campaign, Justice4Sanaz, after her scholarship to study at the Institute of Communications Studies (ICS), University of Leeds, was revoked. Raji says the way universities treat non-EU international students leaves them with a huge psychological burden, possibly reducing their chances of engaging in protests.

Non-EU students must register with the police when they arrive and report changes of address and places of study. This makes international students cautious of the authority and more wary of campaigning. Therefore, before any protest, I need to make sure I know my own boundaries and what my legal rights are so that I can make informed decisions.

The language barrier and a minimal understanding of the structure of authority can also put international students off campaigning.

Myrto Skouroupathi, a Cypriot student at UCL and activist with the Fossil Free campaign, says: “Campaigning requires overcoming bureaucracy, talking your way through management, knowing how the legal system works and being able to use the correct terminology to form arguments that will convince others to support you.â€_x009d_

Skouroupathi stresses the importance of team coordination to overcome obstacles. “Using the assets of the team wisely will achieve much more than trying to achieve everything alone,â€_x009d_ he says.

But despite the challenges for international students, campaigning can be rewarding and educational. Michael Gonzalez, a Filipino student at UCL who campaigned to mitigate the impact of Typhoon Haiyan, says: “I found the experience fulfilling and humbling, as I was working with other students for a cause much greater than me getting a first in my degree or networking for career advancement. Campaigning allowed me to get out of my university bubble, and to address current real-world issues.â€_x009d_

Personally, campaigning has taught me more about the struggles of the less fortunate – such as when I listened to people from Colombia and Indonesia talk about how coal mining has devastated their communities – something I can’t get from university lectures.

I hope other international students will be empowered by the lively atmosphere surrounding student activism in the UK, and that they’ll find their voice to speak up about the important issues that concern us every day.

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