International students risk censorship by authoritarian governments at home

Oct 8, 2021 | International

Roksana Mirzae has known the anxiety international students face about how their words and social-media activities could put their loved ones back home at risk.

The York University student from Iran said the Iranian government would reach out to her family members because of her social media posts shared in Canada.

“I’ll sometimes use WhatsApp to message my friends and family living back in Iran,” said Mirzae. “I often forget I could get into trouble with Iran’s authority if I am not careful.”

Mirzae has been enrolled in a master’s program at York University. Yet living in Canada has not relieved her concerns about free speech. The Iranian government wants its citizens to obey state rules even if they reside abroad. Typically, overseas students — even those holding dual citizenship — are expected to comply with the policies of Tehran.

“I would have assumed that if you go to a different country to study, you’d be under the laws of said country,” said Margaret Papel, an international student at the University of Toronto. “I don’t think it’s fair, for example, if my government were to keep tabs on me with what I am doing and saying.”

Papel said that international students deal with the stress of abiding by both countries’ laws.

Recently, a Chinese university student who studies law in Canada got into trouble in his own country because of retweeting a chart about the alleged corruption of the Chinese government.

International students in Canada interact with their friends abroad, often using message applications. They might forget that the freedom and human rights in Canada do not always apply elsewhere.

Andrew Ness, Humber’s Dean of International students, said the pressures of self-censoring is among the stress international students face.

“We have no direct knowledge of Humber students being censored,” he said. “There is a lot of stuff that happens in students’ lives that impacts their ability to express and to study. Our international team prioritizes the lives of students every day.”

Ness said Humber strives to offer diverse resources regarding wellness, education, and culture.

Humber College also provides an accessible system called keep.meSAFE. The platform offers multi-language services and representatives to help support students culturally and within their country’s political circumstances.

The college purchased a VPN system allowing international students to access the internet and learning resources all around the world.

Ness said Humber will keep providing diverse and accessible resources to its students abroad whose tops concerns are wellness, education, and culture.