American universities are becoming more concerned about academic freedom and safety in countries that restrict freedom of expression, opting to hire travel risk specialists.

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When University of Washington doctoral student Walid Salem traveled home to study, he left the comfortable halls of an American university for a complicated scene in Cairo.

Twice this decade, the government has been overthrown, first in a popular uprising, and later in a military coup. President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the former head of the military who took control in 2014, has since made it clear he won’t tolerate dissent. Egyptian jails are packed with political opponents, activists, journalists and academics, according to Human Rights Watch.

Salem was studying Egypt’s judicial system, according to his lawyers. More than two weeks ago, he disappeared. Days later, he appeared in custody, where prosecutors said they suspect him of “spreading false news” and “belonging to a terrorist group.”

As global tensions rise, American universities are becoming more concerned about academic freedom and safety in countries that restrict freedom of expression. More than 325,000 American students received credit abroad in the 2015-2016 school year. That’s a record, and represents a 46 percent increase over a decade ago, according to Institute of International Education data.

Salem’s case is the latest example of U.S.-based students and academics getting into trouble overseas, a story that has played out in several countries over the past two years, including Iran, Ethiopia, Turkey and North Korea.

Monitoring, managing risks

“Fifteen years ago, the words ‘risk management’ never came up. Now it’s a key feature,” said Denise Cope, Director of the Office of International Education at the University of Denver, which sends about 70 percent of undergraduates to study overseas.

For undergraduates, studying abroad develops empathy and forces students to consider their own culture in relief of the society they visit, she said. Graduate students often head overseas to access research materials or data available only on location.

Many universities, including UW, now employ specialists focused on travel risk.

Daniel Brencic, a global travel security manager at UW, said the institution has “more resources now than ever before to prepare our students and faculty to go abroad.” His job, which was created by UW in 2010, is to oversee student and faculty health and security overseas.

University policy requires that students purchase travel insurance for medical and emergency assistance, including evacuations if necessary. Students must register travel itineraries with UW.

“At any given moment, we can see who from the University of Washington is where across the world,” Brencic said.

Brencic’s team uses an alert system and monitors international news for natural disasters, terrorist attacks or protests, and contacts at-risk students. Students can also contact a 24/7 global emergency line.

“They can reach myself or a duty officer any time of day or night,” Brencic said.

Brencic said he could not comment on Walid Salem’s travel or even confirm that he is a student at the university. Salem had a profile page on the UW website that identified him as a doctoral student and listed three courses that he taught. Access to the page was restricted days after his disappearance.

The State Department issues travel warnings across the globe. The warnings consider safety and security factors, including crime, terrorism, civil unrest, health, natural disasters, events like elections or sports contests and other potential risks.
The State Department issues travel warnings across the globe. The warnings consider safety and security factors, including crime, terrorism, civil unrest, health, natural disasters, events like elections or sports contests and other potential risks.

Egypt: ‘I don’t think it’s safe’

Egypt, the most populous Arab country and with a rich history as one of the earliest recorded civilizations, has always made for an attractive place to study.

“The American University in Cairo used to be the main place people went, [where] American students went, to study Arabic,” said Sarah Yerkes, a fellow in the Middle East program of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Yerkes studied in Egypt and later worked on Middle East affairs for the U.S. State Department.

In recent years the dynamic changed, she said.

“I have not gone back to Egypt since 2012 because I don’t think it’s safe for academics to go, [or] for anyone critical of the Egyptian government,” Yerkes said. “Freedom of expression is gone. But it’s also a threat to personal safety to do research. On the other hand, we shouldn’t cut off all academics from going to dangerous places.”

As Egyptian police crack down on dissent, Yerkes said high-profile arrests involving academics and civilian nonprofits have raised concerns.

An Italian doctoral student, Giulio Regeni, was kidnapped and tortured to death in Egypt in 2016 while researching the country’s labor unions. Earlier this year, an Italian prosecutor said that Egyptian security services might have been behind the brutal killing, according to The New York Times, though circumstances are still murky.

In 2014, Aya Hijazi, an Egyptian-American aid worker, was detained along with her husband and others working with the organization they founded to shelter and rehabilitate street children. Hijazi, who was charged with crimes including child trafficking, was acquitted and released from prison in 2017, after years of intervention from the State Department.

“I thought the minute we’d see the judge, it would be cleaned up,” Hijazi, who lives in the Washington, D.C., area, said in a phone interview, referring to her first days in detention. “When we got months after months of postponements, we knew the judiciary was not impartial.”

She went to a women’s prison. Her husband was taken to the Tora Prison south of Cairo, where UW’s Salem is now held. Hijazi credits her release to international advocacy, political pressure and her U.S. citizenship.

Egypt has been an important U.S. ally in the Middle East for four decades. In a call with President el-Sissi last month, Vice President Mike Pence praised the recent release of several hundred prisoners, including Ahmed Etiwy, an Egyptian-American student who had been jailed for more than four years, according to a White House statement. Pence also “raised concerns over other arrests of nonviolent activists.”

Salem, an Egyptian national, might face steeper hurdles.

“Clearly the administration gets far more involved in cases of U.S. citizens,” Yerkes said.

Incidents around the world

It’s not just Egypt, of course.

Last month, UW students and staff rallied in support of Xiyue Wang, a Princeton doctoral student who was jailed in Iran on spying charges. Wang, who had studied as an undergraduate at UW, was in Iran to conduct dissertation research. He was accused of being a spy and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

“He was just interested in history things, not political matters,” said Linda Iltis, an adviser to Wang during his time at UW. “The idea of him being a spy is completely off.”

Earlier this year, a Turkish-American research scientist at NASA, Serkan Golge, was detained and sentenced in Turkey to more than seven years on terrorism charges. A State Department spokeswoman said the agency was “deeply concerned” about the conviction, and said the court in his case lacked “credible evidence.”

In Ethiopia two years ago, an American plant biology researcher was killed when protesters stoned a vehicle she was riding in during clashes with state police.

Also in 2016, North Korea seized Otto Warmbier, an American undergraduate student visiting the country during a study stint in Hong Kong. He was accused of trying to steal a political poster and sentenced to 15 years hard labor. He returned to the U.S. last year in a coma and later died.

UW uses designations from the State Department and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to determine which nations present a high risk to students.

The State Department ranks countries on a 1 to 4 scale, with a level 1 representing the lowest risk. It classifies Egypt as a level 2 travel risk, meaning travelers should take increased caution, and warns against travel to some areas in the country.

Students traveling to level 3 and level 4 countries, or to higher-risk areas within a safer country, must submit travel waivers. A campus committee vets waivers and makes a recommendation to a university provost, who ultimately decides whether to approve travel.

“We’re looking at an overall risk assessment of the travel,” Brencic said. “Where are they going? Is there institutional support? Do they have language skills or prior international travel experience?”

About 2,500 UW students and nearly 2,000 faculty and staff members travel abroad each year, he said.

“We want to support travel. We want faculty and students to do this kind of study, but our priority is safety and security,” Brencic said.