NEWS
11/18/2019 19:59 EST

Canadian Universities Urge Exchange Students In Hong Kong To Return

Tensions have escalated as police sieged Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

Some Canadian universities are urging their exchange students in Hong Kong to consider returning home as the semi-autonomous Chinese territory is beset by escalating violence between government officials and pro-democracy protesters.

Dozens of Canadians remained in Hong Kong on Monday, according to several institutions reached by The Canadian Press — many of which said it would be in their students’ best interest to flee the violence.

So far just one Canadian school, Montreal’s McGill University, has reported a partnership with Hong Kong Polytechnic University, the campus at the centre of a tense police siege.

Athit Perawongmetha / Reuters
An anti-government protester throws a molotov cocktail during clashes with police, outside Hong Kong Polytechnic University Hong Kong in Nov. 17, 2019. 

But students at several schools have already begun heeding widespread warnings and cut their exchanges short.

The University of British Columbia said 11 of its 32 students completing programs in Hong Kong have already left the territory.

“Given the ongoing tensions in Hong Kong, the university has reached out to all UBC students studying in Hong Kong to discuss their options and ensure they feel safe and supported should they decide to leave,” UBC said in a statement. “Our recommendation to them is that they leave.”

Protests have been raging in Hong Kong since early June, but have escalated in recent weeks and begun spilling over into post-secondary institutions that have opted to suspend classes early in a bid to curb the violence.

Adnan Abidi / Reuters
Firefighters work to put out a fire after the clashes between anti-government protesters and police near the Polytechnic University in Hong Kong on Nov. 17, 2019. 

The protests started peacefully, sparked by proposed legislation that would have allowed criminal suspects to be extradited to mainland China. But by the time the extradition bill was withdrawn, the protests had broadened into a resistance movement against the territory’s government.

Universities have become the latest battleground for the protesters, with a police blockade of Hong Kong Polytechnic University fuelling anger and prompting dramatic efforts to help students stuck inside.

The battle for control of the campus began last week as demonstrators fortified the campus to keep the police out. On Monday, cornered by security forces determined to arrest them, they desperately tried to get out but faced a cordon of officers armed with tear gas and water cannons.

Thomas Peter / Reuters
Food and other supplies for protesters are seen at the Polytechnic University in Hong Kong on Nov. 14, 2019. 

McGill said the ongoing violence has prompted campus closures at some of the schools where 22 of its students were completing exchanges.

“There is now a clear and strong message from our partner universities in Hong Kong to end the semester early,” the school said in a statement, noting the “vast majority” of students have opted to follow the university’s guidance and leave the city.

Simon Fraser University near Vancouver, Kingston, Ont.’s Queen’s University, and the University of Toronto said officials have contacted all students on exchange in Hong Kong and are helping make travel arrangements for those who wish to leave.

Tyrone Siu / Reuters
Police detain protesters who attempt to leave the campus of Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) during clashes with police in Hong Kong on Nov. 18, 2019. 

While Queen’s issued a formal statement urging its 15 students to return to Canada, Simon Fraser and U of T did not. However, both schools say they’re working closely with their exchange students — numbering 17 and 20 respectively — to help them fly out of Hong Kong.

The University of Toronto said in a statement that it is “working closely with each partner organization and each student to determine the best approach for helping students stay safe and have a smooth academic transition plan.”

Global Affairs Canada did not immediately respond to request for comment on the situations facing Canadian students in Hong Kong. But the government is urging Canadians in the area to exercise “a high degree of caution” as a result of the political unrest. 

— With files from The Associated Press

This story by the Canadian Press was first published Nov. 18, 2019.