SAR’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project investigates and reports attacks on higher education with the aim of raising awareness, generating advocacy, and increasing protection for scholars, students, and academic communities. Learn more.

Date of Incident: August 23, 2019

Attack Types: Travel Restrictions

Institution(s):Harvard University

Region & Country:Americas | United States of America

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On August 23, 2019, US officials denied entry to Ismail B. Ajjawi, an incoming student at Harvard University, allegedly based on his friends’ social media activity. He was later granted entry to the US on September 2, 2019.

Ajjawi is a Palestinian resident of Lebanon and a first year student at Harvard University. Upon his arrival at Boston Logan International Airport on August 23, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents reportedly stopped Ajjawi and several other international students for questioning. Officials interrogated Ajjawi for eight hours, during which they asked him about his religious beliefs and searched his phone and laptop. After reviewing his electronic devices, one CBP agent reportedly screamed at Ajjawi, saying that his friends had posted views on social media opposing the US. According to Ajjawi, he told the agent that he had not liked, commented on, or shared any such posts. The agent allegedly told Ajjawi that his visa had been cancelled. CBP agents subsequently deported Ajjawi to Lebanon. CBP Officials later stated that Ajjawi had been turned away because of “information discovered during the CBP inspection”

Shortly after news of Ajjawi’s deportation was released, human rights groups and higher education leaders called on the US government to secure Ajjawi’s return to the US. The US Embassy in Beirut reviewed Ajjawi’s case following his return to Lebanon and reissued his visa. He successfully entered the United States on September 2 to begin his studies.

Scholars at Risk is concerned about restrictions on a student’s academic travel as a means of limiting the international exchange of ideas or retaliating for past acts of nonviolent expression or imputed expression — conduct which is protected by international human rights instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which the United States is a signatory. State authorities have an obligation to refrain from interfering with and retaliating against the peaceful exercise of academic freedom, freedom of expression, and related rights. In addition to the harm to the immediate victim, such incidents undermine academic freedom and democratic society generally.