Ukrainian students stuck at borders need urgent help

“I am a young, highly motivated student. I have been preparing for this step to study abroad my entire life, but I am about to miss out on this opportunity due to circumstances beyond my control.

“If you are a student at a foreign university, you are legally permitted to leave Ukraine. Following that, some people began using falsified acceptance letters from foreign universities in order to leave the country legally. As a result, our authorities prohibited all students who enrolled after the war began from crossing the border.

“The semester has already begun, but we are stranded at the border, unable to enrol or attend our classes officially. We will most likely be expelled from universities if nothing changes.

“We have all of the necessary documents to prove that we have been accepted. We have certificates for departure abroad from Ukraine’s Ministry of Defence, which means that the army does not need us as long as we are studying. Please assist if you can.”

Hundreds of Ukrainian students who are about to start their studies abroad have found themselves in a similar situation to the student above in the last weeks. They have been trying to inform the public about what is happening, but have been struggling to make their stories visible and their voices heard.

According to Ukrainian law, assigned-at-birth male citizens between the ages of 18 and 60 are not allowed to leave Ukraine, as they are included in the lists of mobilisation for military duty.

However, students are not part of such lists, which should allow them to leave the country and pursue their education abroad if they have been admitted by a higher education institution abroad.

Uncertainty about documents

Such a right is being hindered by uncertainty about the required documents and a lack of clarity about how the Ukrainian border authorities should process such requests. This has resulted in a general tendency to not let them leave the country.

The problem has been exacerbated by the urgency of the situation: in many countries the academic year is starting and many students fear losing scholarships or being expelled from their universities due to non-attendance at classes.

For transgender students this situation is not new, since transgender women have been denied the right to leave the country because their passport says they are male.

If this situation is not tackled and solved immediately, it could have a ripple effect. There is a risk, in fact, that closing the border could lead to students migrating through illegal routes, which would have a significant impact on their mental health and overall social situation at this difficult time.

It could also lead to a brain drain as Ukrainian students currently abroad might avoid coming back to visit their families and friends for fear of being denied the right to leave the country to resume their studies.

Finally, suppose those students currently enrolled at higher education institutions abroad are denied the right to study: there is the risk of losing a generation who will be crucial for the rebuilding of Ukraine after the war.

A European call to action

The European Students’ Union and the Ukrainian Association of Students have issued a joint statement, actively supported by dozens of student organisations across Europe, to raise awareness of the issue and to find immediate solutions.

A concerted effort is needed: the Ukrainian government must be true to their word and indicate a clear path for these students so that they can reach their places of study, which must be diligently followed by the military administration as well as the border authorities.

At the same time, the higher education institutions where the students are enrolled should contact them individually in order to assess their situation, to reassure them that they will not face negative consequences academically and to find temporary solutions in order that they can access their studies.

Contacting the Ukrainian ministry through the relevant national authorities to certify their enrolment and request their passage is also a viable option that should quickly be pursued as it seems to have been proven effective in some individual cases.

With its participation in the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) and, most recently, with its candidacy to join the European Union, Ukraine has committed itself to respecting and upholding European values. And many countries within the EHEA are committed to supporting Ukrainian students’ desire to pursue their studies.

Furthermore, student unions across Europe are working on individual cases to support our Ukrainian colleagues so that no one is left behind. Now is the time for the Ukrainian and European governments to play their part.

Matteo Vespa is the president of the European Students’ Union. Antoine Bakhash is the human rights and solidarity coordinator of the European Students’ Union.