Canadian universities encourage exchange students in Hong Kong to head home

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.

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.

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 But by the time the extradition bill was withdrawn, the protests had broadened into a resistance movement against the territory’s government.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.

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.

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 says it is closely monitoring the ongoing unrest in Hong Kong, but did not specifically address the circumstances facing students. The government is urging Canadians in the area to exercise “a high degree of caution” in their travels.

— With files from The Associated Press

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

Michelle McQuigge, The Canadian Press

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