When world problems arrive at your doorstep


Climate marches, Brexit fuss, mass demonstrations in Hong Kong: all have been making headlines around the world in 2019. Observant spoke to two students and a PhD candidate who experienced the world news first-hand.

 “It was complete anarchy”

Monday 11 November 2019. At 7:00 in the morning, the alarm went off: time to get up for classes. But from that moment on, 24-year-old Johannes Frilling's exchange programme at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, took another turn. The German student at the School of Business and Economics in Maastricht, who planned his semester abroad in Hong Kong, saw how protesters blocked all three exits of the campus.

Frilling had been reading the local newspapers, as well as social media, since his arrival in Hong Kong in August, noticing beforehand what the protesters were up to, but this blockade came as a surprise. “Classes were cancelled for the following days, so I thought [Frilling is an example of sobriety]: let’s go for a city trip to Macau, just an hour travelling from Hong Kong. It was on my to-do-list and I didn’t want to stay in my room.”

Retrospectively, Macau was the best choice Frilling (and two friends) could have made. “We heard that there were a lot of fights on campus that day, the police firing tear gas and rubber bullets, while protesters threw bricks and petrol bombs. We stayed in a hotel in Macau for one night, but since our clothes, laptop, and other stuff were still in our rooms at the campus, we had to get back.”

Before he continues his story: Why did he chose Hong Kong? Didn’t he bother the protests? “I had to make my choice for an exchange programme back in December 2018. There were no demonstrations going on back then.” He wanted to visit the Chinese University of Hong Kong, a research university and Worldwide Universities Network partner (just like Maastricht University and 21 other universities in the world). “I had been to Hong Kong before, together with my parents. I loved it. The university has a very good reputation and a room was included: a huge advantage.”

In June, a few weeks before Frilling would arrive in Hong Kong, heavy protests started against the plan to allow the extradition of criminal suspects to mainland China. Hong Kong was ruled by Britain for years, but returned to China in 1997. Both countries came to a compromise: one country, two systems, which meant that Hong Kong got some autonomy, but only for fifty years, until 2047. Still, the influence of China has been growing.

Didn’t Frilling think of cancelling his exchange programme? “The Dutch government kept on saying that it was safe to travel. Besides, the campus is located outside the centre, on a hill, so I could easily avoid the protest districts.”
Until that week in November, when protests reached his own university.
Back from Macau, he and a friend tried to reach their rooms on campus. “The entrances were still barricaded with bricks and trees that had been taken down. There were no fights anymore, but the atmosphere was ominous. Staff was gone, so nobody could tell you what to do.” The campus was a mess, almost a ‘war zone’, he says. “It was complete anarchy. Protesters had taken over the campus buses – driving without driver’s license, we almost had an accident.” But still he didn’t have any fear, he was just curious what was going to happen. He stayed in a hotel in the city for a few days and fled to Cambodia later that week. He brought his planned trip through Asia forward.

Now he’s in the Philippines. He will be home in Germany for the end of the year. Asking him what he thinks of the protests, he says he understands to a certain degree. “It’s for a democratic way of life, but you can question the use of petrol bombs, arrows, and catapults against the police. On the other hand: is it necessary to shoot at people with rubber bullets, as the police did?”


“People often don't realise that their way of life is bad for the climate”

When ICIS PhD candidate Luis Diego Segura Ramírez (35) was in his second year of high school, a lot of children suddenly became ill, himself included. It was caused by the tropical dengue fever (also known as breakbone fever), which is transmitted by mosquitoes. Anyone who contracts the disease a second time, can die from it without proper treatment. This infectious disease is quite common in Costa Rica, especially on the coast and in the rain forest, but at the time there were an exceptional number of contaminations. The cause? Rubbish and things like discarded car tires in people's backyards; lots of places for water to collect. “These are five-star hotels for mosquitoes,” says Segura Ramírez. “The government eradicated a lot of mosquitoes with smoke and gave fines to people with rubbish in their gardens.”

At the time, the dengue problem was a relatively simple problem to solve. But today, because of global warming, the number of infections with diseases transferred by mosquitoes is increasing in Costa Rica. “Five years ago, for the first time ever, there were cases of dengue fever near the capital city of San José situated high up in the mountains [height of 1,170 metre, ed.]. The temperature at such heights is becoming more suitable for mosquitoes.”

The mosquitoes near San José are one of the many examples of climate change. Segura Ramírez deals with it every day. For his PhD project, he is researching whether municipalities in different countries include climate change in their decision processes. For example, whether municipalities in Costa Rica take the increasing risk of hurricanes into account. For many years, he worked as a consultant for Funpadem, a Central-American non-profit organisation that focuses on sustainable development.

One of the problems that he was involved with, concerned approximately 250 to 300 islands along the Caribbean coast in the south-east of Panama. The indigenous Guna Yala population has lived there for generations, but the rising sea level is making it more and more difficult. “There are often high waves in the months of December and January, but these days they are higher and occur more often. This is a problem in the short term for the supply of fresh water, but eventually many of the islands will disappear and the Guna Yala will have to move to the mainland. I facilitated a dialogue between the Guna Yala and the government, in addition to giving advice to the community about how they can prolong their time on the islands as long as possible.

Segura Ramírez believes that ‘awareness’ is the means to fighting climate change. “People often don't realise that their way of life is bad for the climate. The Guna Yala, for example, use coral to build their houses. That coral is also a natural barrier that protect the islands again high tide.”

Additionally, people also think that they are ‘too small’ to be able to do anything, says Segura Ramírez. He quotes the Dalai Lama to prove that this is nonsense: “If you think you are too little to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito in the room.” It is a cliché, but “start with yourself,” says Segura Ramírez. “That’s why my girlfriend and I recently decided to no longer eat meat, we have also decided not to have children of our own. The meat industry is very bad for our climate and if we want children, we can adopt them. There are already so many people on this planet and there are plenty of children who need parents.”


“In the case of a no-deal Brexit, my fate is in the hands of the Dutch government”

It has been a year of uncertainty for British Tom Phillips, master's student of Medicine. Brexit was originally due to happen on 29 March 2019, but was postponed time after time. “It’s quite frustrating,” says Phillips. “We don’t know what will happen and even if it will happen.” The EU has agreed to a further extension until 31 January 2020. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Boris Johnson called general elections, which will take place this Thursday (12 December).  

Phillips: “I’ve been living in the Netherlands for some years now and I feel quite integrated. I just started my Medicine master’s, I’ve learned the language, and I enjoy living here. But I don’t have a European passport. In case of a no-deal Brexit, my fate would be in the hands of the Dutch government. Luckily, they have indicated not to come down hard on British citizens living here. The university has also informed me that I won’t have to pay the non-EU student tuition fee – which was a big source of stress for me. But what if they put all sorts of emigration restrictions in place? Would I still be able to get benefits like huurtoeslag (for rent) and zorgtoeslag (for health care)? Can I still work the same number of hours? I really would have to arrange some funding and seriously consider if I can stay.”

Apart from the uncertainty, there’s also the fact that the UK is more divided than ever before. Something Phillips also feels in his own social circle. “My family is just as divided as everybody else. Some voted to remain, others to leave. We’ve managed to keep the discussion mostly civil, but it’s been hard. I had a real quarrel with one uncle; he voted leave because he wanted to stop immigration. The difficulty is that the two sides are throwing around different facts. With today’s social media, it’s very difficult to know what to believe. Something like Brexit has never happened before, so nobody knows for sure how it will turn out, but on TV everybody is claiming that they are right and the other side is wrong.”

He himself is still hoping for a new referendum. “I feel like people weren’t properly informed last time, nor that they could realise how huge this decision is. ‘Alternative facts’ were provided by both sides. Hopefully, with the additional information we have now, and a better idea of how the rest of the world will react, we could make a more informed decision. I would vote remain; I feel we throw away a lot of opportunities if we leave the EU. It’s always better to work together instead of isolating ourselves, and by leaving we lose valuable connections to our neighbours.”

Brexit hasn’t influenced his vote for the elections on Thursday too much. “It shouldn’t be just about that, there are other pressing topics that the UK has to deal with. I’m voting Labour because, being in health care myself, I feel persevering the National Health Service is very important. They also want to invest in education and infrastructure, and make the economy greener.”

Wendy Degens, Cleo Freriks and Yuri Meesen

Students recalled

The School of Business and Economics recalled 26 students who were staying at five different universities in Hong Kong. The faculty made this choice on Tuesday 12 November because of the alarm among students in the Asian city. Most of them had their affairs already sorted, travelled elsewhere or returned home, says Lyan Ploumen, director of SBE's International Relations Office. The faculty assisted with flights and hotels. An emergency fund has also been set up. For the whole of Maastricht University (including SBE) the evacuation concerned a total of sixty students.

When world problems arrive at your doorstep
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