JUST West Yorkshire Interviews Sanaz Raji from the JUSTICE4SANAZ Campaign


Up until October 2011 Sanaz Raji was a PhD candidate at the University of Leeds. Sanaz found out that her scholarship had been revoked because of “insufficient academic progress”. Sanaz disputes this and asserts that it was she who had been failed by the university, moreover that the university has since acted in ways that reflect a larger pattern and discourse of institutionalized racism and xenophobia towards its international students that operates within UK academies. She launched the JUSTICE4SANAZ campaign with the demand to be reinstated and allowed to continue her doctoral studies. You can read the details of her case on her case on her online petition. The campaign also works to highlight the unfair treatment international students’ are subject to in the UK. JUST West Yorkshire met up with Sanaz to talk about the campaign and hear her views on the condition of international students. 

JUST West Yorkshire: How are international student are failed by their institutions when studying in the UK?

Sanaz Raji: A big problem is that there are no adequate outlets or channels for international students to take their grievances to. When they go to the student advice centres there isn’t the support, they don’t take you seriously. They would likely look at an international student and think ‘okay they have bad English’ and in their xenophobic mind-set they have dismissed you, they see you as the problem before they would see any institutional failings. As an international student I’ve been failed – when I’ve gone to the Students Union I’ve had no support from the Student Advice Centre, zero support from institutional bodies designed to support students, by this I mean the NUS. There are a lot of international students that have a lot of issues and grievances in their institutions but there is no mechanism to bring them forward – because at every stage they are frustrated and encounter walls, invisible ones and ones that are clearly marked. So for international students there isn’t much room to manoeuvre.

As research for a Guardian article I met up with a few Iranian students who are at the University of Leeds to talk about how the US an EU imposed sanctions on Iran had left them unable to access money. I sat down with them and asked them why they didn’t go to the student advice centre, and they said ‘well we did, but they didn’t know what to do with us’. The universities’ advice centres for students are not equipped to support international students, just look at how Syrian students are in this precarious situation regarding their tuition fees – and if it wasn’t for people campaigning for them then I think they would be in an even worse position.  I’ve heard cases where Libyan students who, because they had governmental scholarships paying for their tuition, when the revolution happened they were left in the lurch and there was no support from the university. They didn’t know how to feed themselves or how to live in this country any longer.

JWY: How does the JUSTICE4SANAZ campaign work to tackle racism, xenophobia, and the unfair treatment of international students in higher education?

SR: I know my campaign is part of a wider cause – being an international student my visa sponsorship is tied to the University of Leeds, so when my scholarship was taken away I had no leg to stand on. I’m in this Visa liminal space it prevents me from going to certain rights, and that is frustrating.  I always have to be careful –  I was in Manchester a few months ago at the coach station and my friend was there to pick me up and we saw a couple of UKBA officers and I thought ‘Shit’, you know, I just thought they were looking at me…If my friend hadn’t been there I might have freaked out and ran off because my natural inclination was to think  -Okay I’m in this Visa liminal space and they are going to question me and I could be in a van going someplace…

So what I would like to do with the campaign is to build on the wider context of migrant instability, to make connections with institutions and organisations that look into these issues – not just anti-racist groups, but groups that focus on asylum seeker and refugee support, because I think international students are now being hit with similar treatment, and the racist agenda is explicitly there.

JWY:What do you see the reality being for international students in the UK in the coming years?

SR: We saw what happened to the students at London Met University and London Film School; we see it now with the fingerprinting of students at Sunderland University, and the University of Ulster. International students are made to feel like criminals. You’re made to feel like you’re not allowed to access the same resources home students have. I think with the rampant xenophobia you see, we’ve seen the Home Office Racist vans over the summer, and what we now see with the fingerprinting of international students – I think unless we all fight collectively and with as much vigour and strength as we can or it’s going to get a lot worse.

For many international students you are constantly being observed and your status is constantly subject to surveillance – particularly if you’re a student from the Middle East or from Asia. If you do feel you need to make a compliant because you have had an adverse academic experience you don’t feel like you have much of a leg to stand on.  A lot of international students don’t want to draw attention to their situations, because their legal status and sponsorship is tied up with the university. Let’s say they have an issue with their supervisor or some other problem within the institution – they would be less inclined to trouble the waters because they might jeopardise their opportunity to remain in the country. So if you are coming from a country that has conflict then you are going to be completely mindful of these risks, especially if you plan to stay and find a job in the UK. So you may endure with abusive supervisors, or an abusive department, because you just think, if I stay another year or two years that you will be able graduate, and get a job and live in the country.

If we don’t make our institutions accountable in the treatment of international students then we lose, because if you walk away from it – and I understand why a lot of students do because there is no safety net for international students in this country- , but if you don’t fight it’s going to get worse, because institutions can treat us like rubbish. They know that they can just flick us off at any time when we are not seen as viable.

It’s important that campaigning bodies such as the NUS, the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts don’t think of the barriers for international students only in terms of immigration issues – it becomes tokenistic, one dimensional, it’s not a rigorous understanding of the condition of international students.  We need to engage with the divisions and lines that have already been drawn by our neoliberal universities – lines that disempower international students by understanding them as cash cows. We need to work towards a nuanced and fuller understanding of how our universities operate in order to campaign for the rights for all students. 

Interview by Anne-Marie Stewart
JUST West Yorkshire