Fletcher student-led Pakistan trek canceled weeks prior to departure

Top view of Islamabad, capital city of Pakistan, is pictured. (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)
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A student-led trip to Pakistan through The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy was denied approval for continuation on Nov. 14, in a decision made by the International Travel Review Committee (ITRC) under Tufts Global Operations. According to ITRC’s documentation, the trip was originally set to take place from Dec. 22, 2017 to Jan. 1, 2018 and was cancelled for a multitude of reasons, including concerns about security, political affiliations, timing and the volatile political environment in the region.

According to Ahmad Raza, an American-Pakistani second-year Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy (MALD) student at Fletcher, the trip was meant to allow students to get a hands-on experience learning about various aspects of the country.

“Pakistan is a country a lot of people study about or learn about but they don’t ever get to go to,” Raza said. “You’re on the ground, meeting with policy makers, and meeting with students — a wide range of people, essentially — to get a broader view of the situation of the country beyond just what we learn in class.”

Claudia Jackson, director of Global Operations, said the trip was canceled after provisional approval was granted by the ITRC because later conversations with the U.S. Department of State showed that security concerns made the trek unfeasible.

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“During the process of fulfilling the stipulations of the conditional approval, both the Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC) of the U.S. Department of State and an independent global risk consultancy made recommendations to Tufts regarding safe transportation requirements for this travel in Pakistan,” Jackson told the Daily in an email. “After reviewing this need with a provider in Pakistan, it became apparent that it would not be possible to source the form of transportation recommended by OSAC and the global risk consultancy given the size of the party involved.”

Raza mentioned that the trip consisted of 14 people, all of which had gone through an application process to be a part of the project. Raza, along with Mariya Ilyas and Seher Vora, both second-year MALD students, and Sohail Ali, a Pakistani first-year MALD student, were set to lead the trip, coordinating activities for the group’s time in Pakistan.

Potential activities included visiting the Ministry of Foreign Affairs,  the Ministry of Planning, Development & Reform, the U.S. Embassy and other cultural landmarks like universities and non-governmental organizations, according to Vora.

“There’s quite a large contingent of Fletcher alumni [in Pakistan] … so we were in contact with them. They wanted to host us for dinner, for meet-ups and for meet-and-greets,” she said.

According to Ilyas, the trip was proposed and planned as a Fletcher School “trek.” The Fletcher admissions website states that treks are educational, subsidized trips. Ilyas said that other treks sent students to ColombiaCuba and Israel.

Executive Associate Dean of the Fletcher School Gerard F. Sheehan expressed support for the trek in an official letter that also outlined the objectives of the trip.

“The purpose of the Pakistan Trek is to further expose students to the realities of the country and its people through engagement in dialogue, experiential learning, community service and cultural experiences in Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi,” he wrote.

“I expect the Pakistan trip, both [as] a public diplomacy initiative as well as an enriching educational opportunity, will help to build strong partnerships and to foster a long-term understanding of Pakistan in the global context,” he added.

According to Director of Global Operations Claudia Jackson, the ITRC is composed of members from The Office of the Provost and Senior Vice President, the Fletcher School, the School of Arts & Sciences, the School of Engineering, Global Operations, the School of Medicine, the Office of University Counsel and the Office of Programs Abroad.

According to Raza, the ITRC worked with International SOS (ISOS), a security vendor that works with Tufts for travel briefing and security consulting, to make decisions regarding the safety of the Pakistan trek.

The planning for the trip had begun in October 2016 and the trip was scheduled to take place during spring break in March 2017, Raza said. However, due to issues with funding and safety concerns during that time, the trip was postponed to December 2017 and the application for the trip submitted to ITRC was withdrawn, according to Ilyas.

According to Ilyas, the group of student leaders submitted a proposal for the postponed trip to the ITRC on the week of Oct. 15 and the ITRC was set to meet on Oct. 25. However, the meeting was rescheduled to Nov. 1 and the student group received provisional approval for the trip on Nov. 6, she said. The document of provisional approval contained a list of concerns that the group would have to address before the trip.

In the provisional approval document, the ITRC said it would follow up shortly with more information regarding transportation in the region.

According to Ilyas, the group leaders had taken steps to begin addressing the issues raised in the provisional approval document, including accommodation and travel. Raza said the group also removed Karachi from the travel itinerary out of safety concerns. On Nov. 14, the ITRC denied approval.

Ilyas and Vora expressed frustrations with some of the reasons the ITRC cited, saying that the parties involved did not communicate properly. For example, they questioned why ISOS ultimately decided that the size of the group was a problem, even though the trip was provisionally approved.

According to the document denying approval, the ISOS security team and the OSAC Regional Security Advisor deemed that “chief concerns for a group of this size and composition was that this would be very difficult and would make them a more obvious target to issues such as terrorism and kidnapping, given both the criminal activity in Pakistan and the militant/terrorist organizations present.”

Ilyas and Vora also expressed frustrations over the “self-contradictory” transportation requirement listed in the document, which they said placed “impossible” demands on the trek. According to the document, ISOS and OSAC recommended the use of armored vehicles for transportation while also demanding the students maintain a low profile traveling. However, the ITRC also mentioned that the recommended security provider through ISOS does not have the capacity to provide armored vehicles for 14 people.

According to Raza, the cost of the armored vehicles came to an estimate of about $82,000, which was outside of the trip budget. He added that the entire planning process would have been different if they had known about the requirement.

“If we knew about the cost and armored vehicle requirement, personally I would not have done this trip or even planned it,” Raza said.

Ilyas agreed with this sentiment, citing another obstacle to using armored vehicles.

“If you do use armored vehicles, you won’t maintain a low profile. How are we supposed to meet both standards? It’s just impossible and it feels unfair,” Ilyas said.

The group leaders also said they did not understand the ITRC‘s concerns about the political environment in the region. The document that denies approval for the trip explains that the U.S. administration’s with South Asian foreign policy is liable to change, especially because of Trump’s move toward India and away from Pakistan, presenting a security concern.

Ali expressed his confusion over this concern, saying that he feels there was a double standard in the decision-making process.

“It does seem that the perceptions out there about [Pakistan] influenced the decision and it’s not objective in that sense,” he said. “There have been other treks going to other countries which are as risky as Pakistan and the standards were very lax but… for Pakistan the standards were sky-high.”

However, Jackson said Pakistan generated particular scrutiny because of great security concerns.

“Pakistan is on the list of countries designated by the U.S. Department of State as subject to a Travel Warning,”  Jackson said. “Any Tufts-related student travel to any country subject to a Travel Warning triggers a review by the ITRC.”

Ali, Ilyas and Vora also mentioned that they were curious as to what standards were applied to treks elsewhere, which were successfully completed through the Fletcher School even though they had travel risk warnings issued by the State Department as well.

When asked whether treks to Israel or Colombia, which were also issued travel warnings by U.S. Department of State, are required to use armored vehicles, Jackson emphasized that each trek poses unique risks.

“Each case is reviewed individually with reference to the unique safety risks in each location and the advice the ITRC receives from multiple sources, including, but not limited to, an independent global risk consultancy and the OSAC of the U.S. Department of State,” Jackson said. “The ITRC requires that travel logistics, such as accommodations and transportation, respond to these risks so as to sufficiently mitigate them. Risks are context-specific depending on the traveler itinerary and plan as well as the location.”

The Colombia trek did not require the use of armored vehicles and the student group did not have any contact with OSAC, according to Julia Barry, a student leader of the Colombia trek and second-year MALD student.

Overall, the student group leaders expressed frustration over the ambiguity of the planning and approval process. Raza said he does not plan on pursuing the project any longer after having spent over a year planning it.

“I guess the thing for me is I don’t want any other student to ever go through this,” Raza said. “If there’s one thing I wish the committee could learn from this, like build institutional knowledge at Tufts [so] that students, when they plan trips… from the get-go have all the information or have knowledge of the criteria they’re being judged on.”

Ali criticized the process, saying it was disorganized.

“The process had many gaps and there was a lack of coordination between different organizations,” he said.

Ilyas agreed, saying clear directions need to be put in place.

“What I would ideally love to see is a playbook of how to organize a trek, and then give me the step-by-step directions so that everyone is clear,” Ilyas said. “This way I can hold myself accountable to those standards… I demand that the standards be fair and it’s our right to know whether they’re being applied fairly across the board.”

According to Ilyas and Raza, the group spoke to Global Operations about their frustration, who said that they would try to make the process clearer.

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