University College at U of T. STEVEN LEE/THE VARSITY

In the latest move in the ongoing Canada–Saudi Arabia dispute over human rights, media reports are circulating that the Saudi government will withdraw all of its more than 15,000 students from Canadian postsecondary institutions, including the University of Toronto.

The diplomatic spat stems from a tweet last Thursday from Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, which slammed the arrest of Saudi women’s rights activist Samar Badawi.

“Very alarmed to learn that Samar Badawi, Raif Badawi’s sister, has been imprisoned in Saudi Arabia,” tweeted Freeland. “Canada stands together with the Badawi family in this difficult time, and we continue to strongly call for the release of both Raif and Samar Badawi.”

Since Freeland’s statement, Saudi Arabia has expelled the Canadian ambassador, recalled its own envoy, frozen new trade and investment initiatives, and reportedly stopped state-sponsored flights between Saudi Arabia and Toronto.

And now, students are in the line of fire, with less than a month before classes are supposed to begin.

According to Al-Arabiya, a Saudi-owned media outlet, “training, scholarships and fellowships to Canada” have been suspended as of Monday, and the government will be taking steps to transfer those students to other universities abroad.

Bessma Momani, a political science professor at the University of Waterloo, told the Toronto Star that most Saudi students in Canada are in the country through the King Abdullah scholarship, a government program that covers tuition, flights, accommodations, and a stipend for living expenses.

A spokesperson for the University of Toronto told The Varsity that out of 19,000 international students attending the school for the 2018–2019 academic year, 77 are from Saudi Arabia. Of that number, 30 are undergraduates and the rest are graduates.

“In addition, there are 216 medical residents and fellows from Saudi Arabia who are being trained in hospitals affiliated with U of T under a longstanding program,” said the spokesperson in an email. They are also affected by the government’s decision.

In total, 293 students at U of T could be affected.

“We are working to support our students who may be affected,” said Joseph Wong, Associate Vice-President and Vice-Provost of International Student Experience, in a statement released by U of T.

“This is a very stressful time for these students. Their studies have been interrupted, and we want to help them to continue their education,” continued Wong. “We will be working with them, our colleagues at other universities and with government officials, as the situation continues to evolve.”

According to the enrolment numbers for the 2017–2018 school year, 240 Saudi nationals attend U of T. They constitute the seventh largest group of international students, ahead of Nigeria with 200 students and behind Taiwan with 277.

In response to Saudi Arabia’s actions, University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) President Anne Boucher told The Varsity that the UTSU is “deeply distraught and saddened… To see students being used for political leverage, being used to make a point.”

“These students are a part of the U of T community. These are our friends and classmates,” added Boucher. “They should not be punished for exchanges between political leaders.”

The Varsity has reached out to the Saudi Students’ Association and the Middle Eastern Students’ Association for comment.

This story is developing. More to come.

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