‘The University has to adapt’
K. Rasool did an internship at a refugee camp in Iraq, and he took all the necessary precautions before departing. But the RUG declined to support him with insurance.
As a humanitarian aid worker, he didn’t want to work in an office but with people in need instead. ‘The practical work is much more valuable.’
The University consults the travel advice of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, according to Bas van Dijk of the Judicial Affairs Department of the RUG.
PhD candidate Kars de Bruijne was also denied insurance from the RUG when he sought to travel to Sierra Leone to research how to better inform the public about Ebola prevention and treatment.
De Bruijne feels the University should be clear on what kind of risks they want to take: a lack of explicit rules and policies for his situation complicated the process.
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K. Rasool’s preparation for his master’s internship went a bit differently than how it goes for the average university student. He had to call the Dutch embassy to notify them of what his specific whereabouts would be in the hopes that, in case something were to happen, either the embassy or his employer, UNHCR, would evacuate him from Iraq.
Another safety net was his car: he drove all the way from the Netherlands to Iraq in order to be flexible during his internship. ‘Mobility means safety’, he says. ‘If something would have happened, I could have driven to the border.’
The Humanitarian Action student had to prepare these safety measures because he decided to go to Iraq without any travel insurance. ‘I had to take the risk’, he says – he wanted to fulfill his dream. Since Rasool’s chosen location for his internship was considered an unsafe area, the University declined to support him by insuring him. This insurance is normally granted to everyone who plans to go abroad for a University-related project or internship.
International Humanitarian Action
Rasool’s options to gather practical experiences were limited and he didn’t want to end up in an office job. ‘The practical work is much more valuable.’
Without the support of the University, his only other option to get insured was a highly expensive insurance policy from an American company. But 70 euros a day would have been too much for a student, he says.
The Humanitarian Action Department and the Mobility Office, which handles internship placements, are not responsible for the decline of his request to get insured, says Rasool. ‘The instructions come from above.’
In cases like this, the University consults the travel advice of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, explains Bas van Dijk, Judicial Affairs Department of the RUG. If a region is considered unsafe and gets a negative travel advisory, the University refuses to support students who want to pursue a project in these specific regions.
The My University website includes the following statement about insurance matters:
‘On 1 September 2011 the University of Groningen took out a collective travel insurance policy for staff and students traveling abroad for work or study. This was done with an eye to the University’s internationalization efforts.’
‘Students are insured in the following cases:
if they go abroad to earn ECTS credit points for their degree programme, regardless of this being a requirement
if they are following a placement abroad (at a company, institution or university) for which they will obtain credit points
if they travel abroad on a compulsory study trip
if they travel abroad to promote the University of Groningen at trade fairs
the insurance covers foreign guest students spending time at the University of Groningen as a requirement for their degree programme.’
‘The safety of the students is the highest priority’, says Van Dijk. ‘We just want to be sure nothing happens.’
Rasool agrees that the RUG shouldn’t send inexperienced, young students to those kinds of areas. But he believes that the University should’ve at least considered his case individually. ‘I know the region and I have worked there before’, the 35-year-old explains.
‘I never had the chance to talk to anybody to explain my point of view’, says Rasool.
Kars de Bruijne, who went to Sierra Leone in March in order to contribute to the fight against Ebola , was in a similar situation. He is a PhD candidate and lecturer for the International Relations and International Organisation Department.
Prior to the trip, De Bruijne spent weeks trying to get insured for his stay. The PhD student was in contact with the Judicial Affairs Department of the University. ‘The RUG refused [to insure me] according to Bas van Dijk because of the risks and costs involved’, says De Bruijne.
The University didn’t make an exception for him, even though he had also already been to Sierra Leone and had work experience in that area, he says.
The 31-year-old later approached the insurance company AON on his own to find another way to get insured. He only later found out that AON was also the broker of the RUG, which he says further complicated the situation.
At first, it was difficult for De Bruijne to reach his contact person at the insurance company. He finally reached her, but only after the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had instructed them to help, which sped things up.
‘I have had extensive contact with AON, but it turned out that the RUG seems to have told them not to proceed with insuring me’, De Bruijne says. The UK was not able to confirm this because Van Dijk declined to comment on individual cases.
Annemiek Hogeslag from AON wasn’t able to comment on the specific case, either. In general terms, however, she says that the RUG is the client of the insurance company, which means that the company follows the policy of the University.
During a general board meeting where the matter of ensuring the safety of RUG researchers whose work may expose them to radiation was discussed, the board made the following comment about insurance issues: ‘Insurance is a complicated matter from any angle and usually, the first step is to check what travel advice the Department of Foreign Affairs provides for certain areas in the world. If that is negative, insurance is always going to be a problem and the University will not encourage people to travel to such areas, rather do the contrary.’
The special case of Ebola
Still, the Ebola Task Force of the Ministry assured De Bruijne that even though Sierra Leone had a negative travel advisory because of the Ebola threat, the insurance company should be able to support him because Ebola was a special case.
More people from the Netherlands were in the same position as De Bruijne. They wanted to go to Africa at the end of last year, but they struggled to find an insurance company willing to help them, he says.
Thea Hilhorst, professor in Humanitarian Aid and Reconstruction at Wageningen University, implies that the issue of safety is not exactly black and white. She travels almost exclusively to dangerous areas for her work, according to NOS .
‘An advisory is very important, but it’s not sacred. It’s a pretty rough measure. Our local contacts can often better assess exactly how safe or unsafe the situation on the ground is’, explains Hilhorst to NOS. She adds that it also depends on the specific area of the country. Some are relatively safe, but it may be more dangerous in other regions.
Nevertheless, many Dutch universities seem to be in agreement when it comes to insurance policies. The policies for certain faculties or study programmes of the University of Leiden, the VU University Amsterdam, and the University of Utrecht state clearly that they do not encourage students to travel to countries with a negative travel advisory.
As a consequence, the Ministry had an agreement with their European counterparts saying that European nationals should be able to go to Africa if it’s in relation to Ebola, explains De Bruijne. This medevac system guarantees that ‘Europe’ will cover the costs and logistical issues involved in repatriating an infected patient.
Based upon that, De Bruijne says that the insurance through AON and the RUG should have been financially possible. The only problem was that the University would have been responsible, he says.
After the University and AON declined to help him, he also considered going without any insurance. This, however, was not possible: the project he was working on was set up in collaboration with several NGOs and other organisations who required him to be insured, he says. He finally found a small private travel and health insurance company that was able to help him.
‘I don’t think the University should support everything’, de Bruijne says. ‘But they should be clear on what kind of risks they want to take.’ Especially in his case, he says that he feels a lack of explicit rules and policies for his situation complicated the process.
‘The University is trying to keep up with the top 100 universities of the world’, says Rasool, but he believes that their insurance policy is not helping with that.
‘I think the University has to move on with the times’, he says. ‘We have never had this situation before. There were never so many refugees on the run. They have to adapt.’
But there is more that has changed in the last few years. According to a comparison between the travel advisories of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2010 and 2015, ‘many more countries have in recent years become more dangerous for travel’.
In 2010, only six countries were so unsafe that the Ministry advised people not to go to them. Today, the negative travel advice applies to thirteen countries, including Yemen, Libya, Sierra Leone and Syria.
This would mean that the chances of a RUG student wanting to go to an unsafe country are even higher, especially when it is in the nature of the program to deal with these kinds of areas. ‘This time, it’s me, and next year, it’s someone else’, says Rasool.