Go back

Universities push governments to protect academics in Belarus

Image: Homoatrox [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

European University Association says its members are “ready to take students in” with EU support

Academic associations have called on the Belarusian government to protect academic freedom, and on other European governments to support at-risk scholars and students in the country, following months of civil unrest and detentions.

“Concern within the European higher education community is mounting,” the European University Association, the European Students’ Union and the non-profit Scholars at Risk said in a 28 May joint statement condemning the detention of academics who participated in peaceful protests against the government.

They drew attention to 11 students and a professor from Minsk-based universities who went on trial this month having participated in protests following the Belarusian presidential election in 2020. At least 480 students have been detained and 154 expelled from the country over their participation in protests (pictured), according to the Belarusian Students’ Association.

“The twelve on trial are among a growing number of university members who have been detained, expelled from their institutions, and punished with exorbitant fines simply for participating in the protests last autumn,” the groups said.

They urged Belarusian authorities to uphold “fundamental rights” and urged European governments to provide support.

‘Ready to help’

Michael Gaebel, the director of the EUA’s higher education policy unit, told Research Professional News that EU countries need to step up their support and act urgently to fund Belarusian students who are in danger.

“The higher education community thinks it’s important to put a programme in place to support students and staff if they have to leave their country,” he said, adding that the need goes beyond the situation in Belarus and that such a programme would “underpin the EU’s emphasis on academic freedom and freedom of speech and set a strong international signal”.

Gaebel said a few European countries, including France, Germany and Norway, have funding in place for refugee academics, but that “it’s not very common”. He said EU support “could make a real difference”, and that funding is the main barrier to institutions providing help.

“Universities, our members, are ready to take these students and academics in,” he said.

Broader issues

The call for urgent action follows European leaders’ condemnation of recent actions by Belarusian authorities. On 23 May, authorities forced the landing of a plane carrying the journalist and activist Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega, a student at the European Humanities University.

EHU has condemned the Belarusian government’s detention of Sapega, while European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen described the authorities’ actions as a “hijacking” of the flight from Greece to Lithuania while it was in Belarusian airspace.

The Belarusian government has said Protasevich was “detained by law enforcement agencies at an international airport of the Republic of Belarus on fully legitimate grounds”.

On the same day as the academic groups published their joint statement, the Commission set out the details of a support package worth up to €3 billion that the EU could provide to Belarus, but only if there is a “peaceful democratic transition in the country following the Presidential elections of August 2020, which were neither free nor fair” according to the Commission.