Academics from Norway’s top technical university have expressed concern after almost a dozen post-graduate science students from Iran had their residence permits cancelled because of international sanctions.
‘When I first heard about this, I just couldn’t believe it,’ says 27-year-old Hamideh Kaffash who was about to start a PhD in material engineering at the prestigious Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU).
She’s one of 10 Iranian post-graduates who have received letters from the Norwegian Directorate of Immigration in recent months informing them that they must leave the country. The letters say that Norway’s Police and Security Service has ruled that their studies could result in the transfer of sensitive technology which could help Iran develop its nuclear industry.
The security services say this would put Norway in breach of international sanctions in place against Iran over its disputed nuclear programme. But Hamideh says her speciality has nothing to do with the nuclear industry.
‘I’m working on a project to reducing Co2 emission in ferromanganese production,’ she says. ‘It’s a project which will benefit the environment and is now being applied in Iran.’ The immigration ruling affects three post-graduate students at NTNU, including Hamideh, and the university has lodged an appeal on their behalf.
The seven other post-grads who’ve been affected, and who are studying at other universities, have also challenged the decision. Hamideh and her friends have also been campaigning to get the decision reversed.
They’ve set up a Facebook page, organised an online petition and held protests on university campuses across the country, attended by both students and lecturers.
‘We think the Department of Immigration decision is baseless and wrong,’ says Jostein Mardalen, head of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at NTNU. ‘The topic of my students’ project is to reduce CO2 emissions and other pollutants,’ he told BBC Persian.
‘This is environmentally-friendly work and has nothing to do with WMD or atomic energy or anything like that.’ The Norwegian police security service has declined to comment on the 10 post-graduate cases, but in a statement issued early June, the service confirmed dozens of Iranian students hoping to go to Norway to study this academic year had also been refused visas based on its advice.
‘Since 2012, we have noted an increase in the number of Iranian applicants for advanced technological university programmes in Norway,’ the statement read. ‘In 2013, basing ourselves on UN resolutions, we recommended that applications from approximately 60 students and researchers be rejected.’
For academics at some of Norway’s leading universities this is not good news. ‘Norway needs input from well qualified people,’ says Professor Torgeir Moan, who heads NTNU’s Centre for Ships and Ocean Structures, and has had many Iranian post-grad students in the past.
‘Most of the foreign students that come here stay and work in Norway after their education and contribute to Norwegian development.
So for us the recent Iranian cases were a surprise.’ There are around 200 Iranians studying at NTNU and hundreds more at other institutions across the country. Even for those not so far affected by the Immigration Department’s new rulings, it’s a worrying time. Many fear their long-term job prospects are being damaged.
‘The entire atmosphere is so negative towards Iranian students now,’ says one a PhD student at NTNU, who asked not to be named. ‘Norwegian companies and employers are not interested in hiring us, even people who’ve been living here for a long time. Our job applications are getting rejected because the employers know that Iranians might not get work permits.’
Inside universities there are also fears that there will be fewer opportunities for Iranian post-graduates, however talented, because of the complications surrounding their work and resident permits. Professor Moan acknowledges that it is becoming a problem. ‘I must confess that yes, it has impacted on us,’ he told the BBC. ‘It is very unfortunate because we would really like to hire [Iranian students] but of course we are in a different situation with obligations to make.’
While Hamideh and her fellow students await the outcome of their appeal the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research has announced that it has called a meeting this autumn to seek clarity on the issue.
They have invited representatives of the Foreign Ministry, the Security Service and the Immigration Department. Iranian students and their Norwegian lecturers will be watching the outcome very carefully.–BBC