Skip to content

Illustration by Security Management

International Students Leave Hong Kong Amid Protests

A Hong Kong university campus was the epicenter of violent conflict this weekend as hundreds of pro-democracy protesters clashed with riot police.

Police accused protesters of firing arrows and throwing Molotov cocktails off bridges on university campuses. As of Monday afternoon local time,  some 500 to 600 students remain trapped at Polytechnic University, surrounded by riot police who are urging surrender. Many protesters tried to leave the campus by breaking through police lines, Reuters reports, but some were arrested or tackled, and others climbed over barricades and fences to leave. 

In a statement, police said that the protests had escalated to rioting. “We must warn that the university campus has become a powder keg where danger is far beyond what we can estimate,” the police said. Protests have been ongoing in Hong Kong since June, but escalated sharply earlier this month when protesters began targeting the transportation network and police fired tear gas on a university campus.

Multiple universities in Hong Kong have cut their semesters short in light of the unrest, and others have arranged off-campus housing for non-local students seeking to leave the area.

International universities are recommending their students visiting Hong Kong in exchange programs return home immediately. Universities from Sweden, Norway, and Denmark have all urged their exchange students to consider leaving. One American exchange student studying at the Chinese University of Hong Kong received an email from her home university saying that her safety was in jeopardy and “mandatory repatriation” was being enforced, Time reports

John Rendeiro, vice president of global security and intelligence at International SOS, a medical and travel security services firm, shared some of his insights into student safety in Hong Kong and other protest sites with Security Management.

SM: Due to the ongoing and escalating protests in Hong Kong, many universities—such as those in Denmark, Canada, and Australia—are urging their exchange students to return home or find alternative accommodations off-campus. What factors go into making that decision in university travel programs? 

Rendeiro: The safety of students while abroad is paramount. The most important factor in requesting students return home or find alternative accommodations is the students’ personal safety. A secondary factor is whether the students’ activities (e.g. studies, cultural activities, etc.) can continue. If their activities cannot continue, then it is reasonable to bring them home. Several universities in Hong Kong have cancelled classes or moved them online. The universities are closed, meaning students may be lacking the necessary support (meals, utilities, water) to stay on campus.

What are some of the potential ramifications of requesting students leave or allowing students to remain?

One potential ramification of allowing students to remain is that they are hurt during violent clashes between police and demonstrators. They could be hurt either as participants or bystanders. The ramifications of bringing them home is how to continue their studies or determine their academic credits for the disrupted semester.

How are universities managing travel risk and collecting accurate risk information during rapidly changing conflicts?

Rendeiro: Universities are using all available resources to maintain situational awareness. Many have contracted with a travel risk provider for risk ratings, alerts, and assistance capabilities. Many are using their local contacts to understand the details of what is happening on the ground. Universities are in communication with their students to understand their needs and concerns. Finally, universities review government travel advisories. Overall, all of these sources feed into the university’s risk management framework to help them decide how to proceed.

For students who have not left, what recommendations do you have on how they can maintain their safety?

Rendeiro: The most important thing to do is to avoid all protests. Even peaceful protests can change rapidly, and the unpredictability means students should avoid the risk. Students need access to reliable information about the situation on the ground. Not all university campuses are affected, so knowing what is happening on their campus is important. For those whose campus has been closed, they should relocate to an area of Hong Kong not affected by protests.

Outside of Hong Kong, there are emerging and ongoing conflicts in many other regions, including Chile and Lebanon. Do best practices for student safety vary based on the unique situation, or are the overall recommendations similar? What about for less extreme but still large-scale protests, such as Yellow Vest protests in Paris or in the UK around Brexit?

Rendeiro: Best practices for student safety work in all regions, although additional mitigation measures may be necessary in higher risk locations. For example, Lebanon needs more mitigation than Chile even when no civil unrest is happening. Students should always avoid protests, even in traditionally low-risk areas like Paris and the UK. Protests are unpredictable, and the situation can change quickly, making avoidance the best risk mitigation strategy.

Read more about protest security and safety in “Preparing for Protests” and “Employee Protection During Protests” from Security Management.