LONDON // British universities and the government have been urged to help more than 600 Syrian students in the UK who face expulsion after the crisis in Syria dried up their scholarship funding.
Activists have asked universities and the government to waive tuition fees, establish hardship funds and extend visas for Syrians who in some cases have publicly supported the Syrian uprising and whose lives might be endangered should they return.
According to Avaaz, an online pro-rights pressure group, some 640 Syrian mostly postgraduate students could be removed from their courses due to a lack of funding.
Many were financed by Syria's higher education ministry, which has ceased awarding grants for a combination of factors, including EU sanctions on Syria.
The Syrian embassy, meanwhile, which processed student payments, has been left with a skeleton staff after a series of diplomatic defections and expulsions.
Earlier this month, Avaaz organised a petition to support Syrian students that has received more than 40,000 signatures.
Sam Barratt, the media director for Avaaz, said the petition was launched to pressure universities and the UK government to come up with guidelines on how to support students, as the process varies by institution. Some universities have threatened to take students to court over unpaid fees, he said, while government help was often complicated by red tape.
"Demand letters for £12,000 (Dh69,600) are coming through to students that they are simply unable to pay," Mr Barratt said. It's causing "huge trauma" for the students, he said.
Husam Helmi, 32, who is finishing a doctorate in economics at London Brunel University, said he had to take odd jobs to care for his wife and daughter. Between study, unpaid university fees and the news from his home in Dareia, near Damascus in Syria, he said the pressure, was unrelenting.
"We're struggling," Mr Helmi said. "We are struggling with more than one problem. They want us to solve our own problems, but to find a job, finish our studies and deal with our emotional situation is very difficult".
Avaaz says students removed from courses could also run into difficulties with their visas and face deportation. "The pressure these students are facing from universities to pay these fees needs to be urgently reconsidered."
Universities say the criticism is unfair. On Thursday, more than 20 education officials signed a letter in The Guardian newspaper on behalf of their respective universities that asserted that they were doing "all we can" to help.
Kate Robertson, the executive director of Council for Assisting Refugee Academics (Cara), said its 75 UK university members had started to waive tuition fees or defer costs to the British government rather than individuals.
"There is an important case to be in made in terms of keeping the government looking at what concessions can be made," Mrs Robertson said. But some "enthusiastic folks", she said, are "stoking the view that UK universities are expelling students and leaving them to their fate and they're being forced to return to whatever awaits them, and that is totally out of perspective".
The government has taken some steps. The British Council has established a hardship fund that provides students a grant to cover living costs for a three-month renewable period. The UK treasury has also pledged to help students access funding from Syria.
Most Syrian students, however, are not in the country on a British Council programme. And while fears of deportations have eased after the UK's Border Agency in October announced it would afford Syrian students in the UK an exemption and allow them to apply to extend their visas while still in the country, some are finding it hard to survive.
Mr Helmi has applied for hardship funding, but said his application was rejected because he failed to provide a letterhead document from his university in Aleppo to prove his status.
Aleppo has been the site of fierce fighting in Syria, and more than 80 people were killed this month in a bombing at the city's university. Mr Helmi said it was simply not possible to provide the kind of documentation the university's was requesting.
The United Nations says that more than 60,000 people have been killed in Syria's uprising, which broke out in March 2011 with peaceful protests and morphed into an armed insurgency after a harsh regime crackdown.
A spokeswoman for the UK Higher Education International Unit, the international branch of the advocacy organisation Universities UK, said she was aware of the students' difficulties.
"Obviously there is a potential risk if they are unable to pay their fees and do not have money," she said. But, she added, universities were trying to help.
"As we understand it, universities are being as sympathetic and supportive as they possibly can be."
But Yassin, a doctoral student at a university in Scotland, said UK authorities had been slow to acknowledge the problem.
Yassin, who asked to be identified by his first name only, said he was arrested in Syria in April 2011 because of pro-opposition comments he posted online. He was held for two months, during which he said he was tortured. After bribing a judge and border officials, he managed to leave the country only to find his UK visa had been revoked.
It took the intervention of the university and Scottish parliamentarians to resolve the situation. It would be impossible for him to return safely to Syria now, he said, but he is uncertain how he can afford to stay.
"The [UK] government is waking up to the problem, but it's late. After 22 months [since Syria's uprising started], many students have had to take on so much debt to survive."