Hundreds of Syrian students face being expelled from the UK and sent back to their home country, where they could face torture and even death, the Huffington Post UK has learnt.
Up to 650 students face deportation to Syria where they may be subject to "detention, torture and even assassination at the hands of the Syrian regime".
Due to the conflict in Syria, many students can no longer pay their tuition fees as their sponsors have either been killed or imprisoned, meaning they cannot afford to continue studying.
It's claimed that students risk being detained and tortured if they return to Syria
Mo Saqib, a third year student at Manchester University, is campaigning for the UK government to assist students whose degree funding has been cut by the Assad regime. Along with Christine Gilmore, a PhD student a Leeds University, he has been accruing evidence of the plight of Syrian students.
He told HuffPost UK: "The UK government's position is that it's up to universities how to assist students- we have evidence of universities who have already expelled students, and others who have threatened to do so. Expelled students will then be deported to Syria, where they risk being detained and tortured, or even killed, by the Assad regime.
"Their lives are at greater risk if they are suspected of having supported the Syrian revolution while in the UK. The UK government needs to step in and help Syrian students just as it was able to Libyan students in the same situation.
"The UK government assisted Libyan students in this situation once the UK had recognised the Libyan National Transitional Council (NTC) as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people. The UK government arranged for the Libyan students' liability to be registered against the NTC. In November, William Hague recognised the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) as the "sole legitimate representative" of the Syrian people- why has the government not entered talks to make such an arrangement with the SNC?"
He added: "For those students not sponsored by the government, but by family or companies instead, their families members are now either dead or out of work, and many businesses have closed or been destroyed," Saqib says.
According to Saqib, many universities have transferred the financial liability onto the Syrian students - despite them having no means of paying.
"A number of universities have already expelled students. Others have made clear to students that the financial liability is on them - either they will be expelled, or the qualification will be withheld until the fees are paid.
"Should Syrian students be sent back home they face detention, torture and even assassination at the hands of the Syrian regime."
A letter from Salford University to a Syrian institution asking for immediate tuition fees payment - otherwise the student will be removed from the course
The National Union of Students is now considering launching a campaign on behalf of the Syrian students to force the British government to guarantee them financial support. At least 100 students were sponsored by the Syrian government under the British Council's capacity building scheme but have had their funding stopped by the Syrian authorities.
According to the NUS, the students face "severe financial penalties from the Syrian authorities". HuffPost UK has seen a draft motion for the NUS's policy executive, which states:
"Syrian students whose student visas lapse and lose the right to work risk destitution in the UK.
"The British government must make an uncompromising commitment to supporting the rights and freedoms of the Syrian people. The foreign secretary William Hague ensured that Libyan students affected by the conflict in 2011 were able to continue their studies and should extend this gesture to all Syrian students."
Foreign office minister Alistair Burt tweeted instructions to Syrian students on Monday, adding he urged universities to use their discretion:
Despite Burt getting involved in the students' plight, Saqib says this is simply not good enough.
"Mr Burt has left the matter to universities' own discretion, some of whom are expelling students. If a student is expelled, they may also be deported back to Syria, where they risk being detained, tortured or killed as the regime continues to indiscriminately target innocents.
"Mr Burt appears to think that the matter is one of transferring funds over to the UK. He is wrong, as students' sponsors are either dead or out of work, hence unable to accrue funds," Saqib adds.
"Furthermore, banks in Syria are also controlled by the regime and they are unlikely to fund students they suspect of engaging in anti-regime activities."
A letter from the University of Leeds warning of expulsion unless fees are paid
Liam Burns, president of the NUS, told HuffPost UK: "The situation in Syria is devastating enough without universities turning their backs on those currently studying in the UK. What we urgently need to see is every Syrian student is given support when finances aren't forthcoming so they can continue their studies.
"This has to be the least the UK can do considering the tragic circumstances of the conflict in Syria."
The NUS is discussing a motion to urge all UK universities to waive or reduce the tuition fees, or extend the payment period for any Syrian student affected by the conflict.
"UK universities should not make any Syrian student sponsored by the Syrian government personally liable for their tuition fees but should register their tuition fees debts against the Syrian authorities," the NUS adds.
"[We resolve] to request all UK universities to make hardship grants, scholarships and bursaries available to all affected Syrian students, whether sponsored or privately funded, to cover their living expenses."
The British Council said it had established a hardship fund to support the living costs of the 100 Syrian scholars who are studying in the UK through the Syria Higher Education Capacity Building Project. So far, it has paid, or in the process of paying, grants to 58 of the 100 scholars to help support their living costs during this 12/13 academic year.
A spokesperson for the council said: "We have supported Universities UK in negotiations with the partner universities who are hosting the Scholars, and all of the project partner universities have agreed to defer or waive fees for this 12/13 academic year and some until the end of their course. We also understand some of the universities have agreed to defer fees for all Syrian students (i.e. Manchester). However in some instances this has not stopped Finance Departments from automatically sending out letters requesting fee payments similar to those illustrated."
There are eight partner universities in the UK involved in the scheme: Brunel, Edinburgh, Essex, Heriot-Watt, Manchester, Marjon (St Mark and St John), Newcastle and Warwick.
Huw Morris, academic vice-chancellor at the University of Salford, which is not involved in the scheme, said: “The University considers all requests for help from students in hardship on their merits. We have already been in contact with our Syrian students to offer one-to-one advice and support tailored to their personal circumstances and, should we receive any hardship applications from these students, we will consider them fully and sympathetically."
The university insisted it had a full support package for the students, including the opportunity to apply for hardship funds.
"Our Student Life welfare team has already been in contact with all our Syrian students to offer support and, at the time
we were contacted by Huffington Post, none had made an application for hardship funds," a spokesman said.
Jacqui Brown, head of the University of Leeds International Office, said: “Any student at the University of Leeds who is suddenly left destitute and is unable to pay their tuition fees can apply for financial support from the University and this includes students who have been affected by the conflict in Syria. We would encourage any of our Syrian students who have concerns about financial hardship to contact the Student Advice Centre.”
Saqib is eager to stress any students who feel their lives are at risk if they are deported can can claim asylum in the UK. He can be contacted via Twitter: @Mo_Saqib.
CORRECTION: We previously said "Up to 650 students face deportation to Syria where they may be subject to "detention, torture and even assassination at the hands of the Syrian regime", according to the Centre for Assisting Refugee Academics." This paragraph has since been altered and the quote attributed Mo Saqib, not CARA."