Press release

NEW REPORT: Foreign Governments Silencing International Students and Educators in the United States

Authoritarian governments are using dangerous tools to intimidate international students, visiting scholars, and faculty on American campuses. Chinese authorities are the single greatest threat to international students in the United States, who number over one million. 

WASHINGTON—Authoritarian regimes are intimidating, surveilling, and harassing international students and faculty on campuses across the United States in an effort to stifle criticism, according to a new report released today by Freedom House.

The report, Addressing Transnational Repression on Campuses in the United States, finds that transnational repression—a set of physical and digital tactics used by governments to reach across borders to silence dissent among members of a diaspora—is an everyday problem on campuses. International students, visiting scholars, and faculty experience digital and physical surveillance, harassment, assault, threats, and reprisals against family members.

While Chinese authorities pose the single greatest threat, the governments of Egypt, India, Rwanda, and Saudi Arabia have also targeted international students and faculty with online harassment, digital surveillance, hacking and spyware, threats, and the intimidation of family members residing in their homelands. Transnational repression affects the physical safety, mental well-being, and academic freedom of over one million international students at American institutions of higher education.

“Young people who come to the United States to take advantage of its higher education system are being followed and harassed by some of the worst perpetrators of human rights violations,” said Michael J. Abramowitz, president of Freedom House. “Many colleges and universities lack the tools to protect them from ongoing threats from authoritarian regimes. Administrators need to better understand what transnational repression looks like and develop strategies to protect members of the campus community.”

The report is based on interviews with international students, scholars, and administrators in the United States about their experiences. It builds on previous analysis by Freedom House that found 38 governments perpetrated 854 incidents of physical, direct transnational repression in 91 countries between 2014 and 2022. These incidents include assassinations, assaults, detentions, and unlawful deportations, but likely represent only a small fraction of the total number of cases that occur.

“Campus administrators can take steps to safeguard their students and faculty,” said Yana Gorokhovskaia, the report’s coauthor and research director for strategy and design at Freedom House. “Creating a way to report incidents, publicly denouncing attempts to target students, and raising awareness among staff will go a long way toward preventing and mitigating the threats posed by transnational repression on campuses.”

The report provides recommendations that school administrations can utilize to respond to incidents of transnational repression.

  • Adopt a definition of transnational repression, identify common campus tactics, and create best practices for teaching about democracy and human rights. A definition of transnational repression can be used in training for staff, students, and faculty, and in informational materials to explain and spread awareness of the issue. Freedom House defines transnational repression as a set of physical and digital tactics used by governments to reach across borders to silence dissent among members of a diaspora. Faculty should also receive guidance on how to cover topics related to political developments and human rights in unfree countries that may put international students and scholars at risk.
  • Create procedures for reporting incidents of transnational repression. Reporting incidents will not only help connect targeted students and faculty with resources, they also help create a record of incidents, which aids efforts to raise awareness. Procedures should not automatically link reporting to law enforcement and should protect the rights of those accused of working on behalf of foreign governments.
  • Publicly denounce efforts by foreign governments to intimidate or harass international students and faculty and express solidarity with targeted individuals. Statements of support by universities and colleges should underscore their commitment to protecting academic freedom, freedom of expression, and freedom of association.
  • Incorporate explanations of transnational repression and its warning signs into existing student and faculty codes of conduct. Codes of conduct applicable to students, staff, and faculty should address transnational repression as a threat to academic freedom; a violation of the rights and freedoms available to everyone studying, teaching, and working in the United States; and incompatible with academic expectations set by the institution.
  • Collaborate with academic associations to raise awareness and address transnational repression. Higher education associations in the United States should bring school administrators together to discuss experiences with transnational repression and share best practices. Administrators can exchange information on successful responses and affirm support for international students, scholars, and faculty.

Click here to read the full report and policy recommendations.

Addressing Transnational Repression on Campuses in the United States is the latest in Freedom House’s ongoing effort to document cases of transnational repression around the world. In 2021, Freedom House released the first comprehensive global survey of transnational repression, Out of Sight, Not Out of Reach, and in subsequent years released the follow-up reports Defending Democracy in Exile: Policy Responses to Transnational Repression and Still Not Safe: Transnational Repression in 2022, with A Light That Cannot Be Extinguished: Exiled Journalism and Transnational Repression released most recently in December 2023.

To schedule an interview with Freedom House experts, please contact Maryam Iftikhar at [email protected].

Freedom House is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that works to create a world where all are free. We inform the world about threats to freedom, mobilize global action, and support democracy’s defenders.