U.S. higher education likely to suffer as international scholars call for academic boycott
People gather to protest against U.S. President Donald Trump's executive order travel ban at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), California, U.S. Image via Reuters/Monica Almeida.

Academics around the world are pledging to boycott international academic conferences that will be held in the United States following the enforcement of U.S. President Donald Trump’s controversial travel ban last weekend.

At the time of publishing, over 5,000 scholars have signed the petition, refusing to attend any conferences held on American soil as long as the ban persists, in solidarity with those affected.

The executive order, signed last week, prevents national citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries – Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Libya, and Somalia – from entering the U.S. over a 90-day period, including those with valid visas, green card holders and dual citizens.

This has affected thousands of students and academics who are nationals of the seven countries, leaving many stranded as they are escorted off U.S.-bound airplanes or held in detention at airports.

The temporary ban also blocks refugees from entering the country for the next 120 days, with Syrian refugees under an indefinite ban.

Dr Nadine el-Enany, a lecturer at Birkbeck, University of London, who was among those who started the petition, told Middle East Eye that the letter was created to “be clear about [academics’] opposition to the ban” and “not carry on with ‘business as usual’ at a time of emergency”.

“It is an attempt to draw necessary attention to the urgency of the ‘Muslim ban’ and to generate conversation on the far-reaching consequences, not only for those who are nationals from the seven countries identified by Trump’s executive order, but also for many others who are not from these countries but who are nonetheless being detained and harassed at the border,” she said.

Dr el-Enany also criticised the American academic unions that failed to condemn Trump’s executive order outright.

The open letter that accompanies the petition states: “We the undersigned take action in solidarity with those affected by Trump’s Executive Order by pledging not to attend international conferences in the US while the ban persists.

“We question the intellectual integrity of these spaces and the dialogues they are designed to encourage while Muslim colleagues are explicitly excluded from them,” it added.

The ban may cause other side effects, such as creating a “brain drain” at U.S. higher education institutions.

Due to the ban, international academics are being diverted away from the U.S., leaving a void in the sectors that need them the most, namely science and technology, reported Salon.

Iranian Samira Asgari, who had just completed a PhD from a university in Switzerland, was due to start a postdoctoral fellowship at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston to conduct research on how a person’s genes affect their response to tuberculosis.

On Saturday, however, she was stopped from boarding her flight to Boston at Frankfurt Airport.

Speaking to the Atlantic, Asgari said although the shock has worn off, “now there’s just extreme sadness, and a very strong feeling that I’ve been discriminated against”.

“Even in Iran, you have this picture of America as a dreamland. But for people like me, this isn’t the America we imagined,” she commented.

Houra Merrikh from the University of Washington also told the daily: “It’s going to destabilize a lot of labs, faculty recruitments, contributions from conferences.

“This will have a big impact at all levels in science,” Merrikh added.

Last year, the National Science Foundation found that as of 2013, 18 percent of the scientists and engineers residing in the United States were immigrants, comprising up to 5.2 million.

Not only is the ban preventing students and academics from the affected countries from entering the U.S., but it has also “effectively trapped” those already in the country. Many have been forced to cancel travel plans for fear of being barred from returning.

U.S. universities have voiced their concern over the travel restrictions, and have advised those from the countries included in the ban to avoid international travel for the time being.

The Association of American Universities (AAU), made up of 62 institutions, released a statement over the weekend urging government officials to end the travel ban “as quickly as possible.”

“We also urge the Administration, as soon as possible, to make clear to the world that the United States continues to welcome the most talented individuals from all countries to study, teach, and carry out research and scholarship at our universities.

“It is vital to our economy and the national interest that we continue to attract the best students, scientists, engineers, and scholars,” it added.

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