Call off the witch hunts

All foreign students are now suspect in the current Salem-like xenophobic frenzy. We must stand firm, says Susan Edwards

April 30, 2009

Many of us in higher education are engaged in debates about the Government's recent moves to strengthen UK border controls for visitors and students, to weed out dubious higher education colleges, and to require academics and institutions to report overseas student attendance to the Home Office in the name of security and educational standards.

After the police and security services arrested and detained 12 students in Manchester and Liverpool, not only the sector but UK society as a whole should be asking searching questions about policing, government policy, law and rights. Instead, we are confronted by a mainstream media content to deflect and distract with stories of possible plots, fake IDs, forged certificates and bogus colleges above fish-and-chip shops filled with "illegal" immigrants masquerading as overseas students, while civil liberties collapse quietly around us.

Meanwhile, at the University of Buckingham, as at so many other institutions, where we strive to offer our overseas students a nurturing, welcoming and inclusive educational environment, those students now realise that outside our lecture halls they are seen as dangerous aliens. They know only too well that the security services could arrest them - on suspicion of little more than being an overseas student.

It is, of course, difficult to substantiate such a claim because such evidence is "closed", but many of us are alarmed by the tsunami of suspicion driving the Government's new raft of legal measures. Like the 17th-century witch trials described in Arthur Miller's The Crucible, the plot starts rolling and gathers momentum into a blind frenzy as the ideological state apparatus, through media hype, keeps alive our heightened state of apprehension.

If they are accused, justly or unjustly, of being involved in terrorist-related activity, the following is what our students can expect: first, to be arrested on a lesser standard than reasonable suspicion; second, to be detained for up to 28 days; third, to be subject to a control order under the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005. This new and novel version of house arrest is, we are told, for "the purpose of protecting members of the public from the risk of terrorism". And, like Josef K in Franz Kafka's The Trial, the evidence is never disclosed: this is suspension in a legal nightmare.

Such orders can be made for indefinite periods, imposing restrictions on communication, movement and visitors, with a house curfew for 14 hours of each and every day. This is the new welcome to Britain and to opportunities in higher education that awaits students who find themselves in such an unfortunate position.

The alternative to the control order is deportation. It is easy to imagine that deportation under suspicion of terrorist involvement will not be viewed by the home country in the same way as a return with a university degree. Deported students may well find themselves interrogated, detained and put on trial.

In considering a decision to deport, the UK courts must consider whether any person deported will face the risk of torture or inhuman treatment or an unfair trial. The acid test with regard to their rights under Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights is that deportation will expose them to a "real risk" of torture or inhuman treatment. With regard to a fair trial under Article 6, the litmus test is that there must be a real possibility that trial in another country will be a "flagrant breach" or represent a real risk of a "total denial of the right to a fair trial". These high bars of real risk of torture and total denial of fair trial - upheld in the House of Lords' decision on 18 February in the case of Omar Othman, also known as Abu Qatada - have created a precedent where few can surpass that hurdle and avoid deportation.

Human rights and global peace are at stake. We all recognise the importance of safety and security, but this debate is all too frequently degraded and hijacked by xenophobia packaged as justifiable fear. A new and virulent strain of "reds under the beds" hysteria has taken root. This plague is a danger to rational informed debate and to human rights. We must, like John Proctor in the Salem witch trials, stand firm.

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