Gatwick No Border camp: a positive airport protest?

After the Heathrow Climate Camp demanded curbs on travel and freedom of movement, meet the radical campers calling for free migration.

Nathalie Rothschild

Topics Politics

After the storm of media coverage that greeted the Climate Action Camp at Heathrow in August, you have probably had your fill of news stories about protesters setting up tents near airports. Yet later this week, a network of groups and individuals is gathering for a six-day protest camp near Gatwick airport. And in contrast to the Climate Camp – that week-long campaign for curbing air travel and restricting freedom of movement – the camp at Gatwick may be worth supporting.

The Gatwick No Border Camp is a campaign for ‘the freedom of movement for all and an end to all migration controls’. Where the Heathrow campers viewed movement around the world as toxic, something which emits pollution and causes overcrowding in cities, the Gatwick camp celebrates free migration; where the Heathrow campers celebrated isolationism and localism, the Gatwick camp recognises that migration, the movement of people and cultures across the globe, can be a positive thing. As part of the protest, there will be a ‘transnational demonstration’ against the British government’s construction of new, prison-like, detention centres for ‘illegal’ and ‘paperless’ immigrants, including one inside Gatwick airport.

The No Border protesters plan to express solidarity with migrant detainees in the UK who have staged riots and hunger strikes against their inhumane treatment by the authorities. The Heathrow climate campers, by contrast, claimed to speak on behalf of the ‘voiceless’ poor, unborn generations and nature itself. The Heathrow campers reduced people in the Third World to a helpless horde who need caring greens in the West to represent their interests, while the Gatwick campers look upon people in the Third World and elsewhere as real actors with needs and desires who should be offered support and solidarity when they fight back against immigration controls and harsh treatment.

So far, so positive. But as I discovered at a London launch event for the Gatwick camp, there are some political problems with the No Border get-together. And it would pay to debate them and try to iron them out.

No Border Camps have been held in different locations around the world since the late 1990s. This year, in addition to the Gatwick camp, there will be protest camps in the Ukraine and on the US/Mexican border. At the Gatwick camp, there will be workshops and events to share ideas on how to dismantle global migration controls, claim freedom of movement as a basic right, and oppose draconian methods of surveillance – from international databases of refugees to biometric ID cards – which governments use to control national borders and keep ‘undesirables’ at bay.

At ‘Migrating University’, a two-day gathering at Goldsmiths College in south London to kick off the Gatwick camp, students and activists gathered to hear and share arguments against migration controls. A banner declared: ‘No Detention, No Deportation, No Border in Education: Freedom of Movement for All.’ There were mixed views on whether the camp should call for ‘no borders’ or ‘different kinds of borders’. One speaker said: ‘Ontologically, I don’t have a problem with borders, but we have to think about how they’re constructed.’ An organiser of Migrating University told me that her views were at the polar end of the debate on freedom of movement – that is, she supports completely open borders between nations.

Many of the people I spoke to at Migrating University were unsure whether they could wholeheartedly support the abolition of all migration controls. An undergraduate told me he had not yet been convinced by the demand for open borders, because ‘you can’t predict or control the outcome of a complete cut of immigration restrictions’. However, he said the No Border campaign at least ‘raises awareness and works against the alienation of non-citizens’. A PhD student told me the camp ‘is the bare minimum we should be doing about this issue – there is no justification for the limits to migration in place at the moment’.

The Migrating University banner
at Goldsmiths College

Some of those planning to attend the Gatwick camp make a distinction between different types of migrants. They believe that some migrants – for example those who have had their human rights abused – are more deserving of refugee status. This is a common view in the debate about immigration today. Indeed, officialdom, and numerous commentators, make a distinction between refugees and ‘economic migrants’: refugees are seen as worthy individuals, while economic migrants are frequently looked upon as chancers, possibly even scroungers. Others gearing up for the Gatwick camp counter this argument by arguing that migrants bring economic benefits, and therefore we should let them in.

If we impose criteria to define which migrants would be more ‘safe’ in the UK than in their country of origin, or which migrants are ‘economically useful’ and which are not, then we would still be left with an inhumane policy that restricts freedom of movement. Arguing for immigration in terms of its economic worth, or the extent to which it contributes to the multicultural enrichment of our society, is tantamount to treating people as commodities whose values need to be proven before they are let in. And, inevitably, as our political and economic climate shifts, so will the precarious criteria for who is and isn’t ‘valuable’ to our society. The No Border camp would be better built on the first principle of freedom of movement for all, rather than on moralistic judgements about different types of immigrants.

Another worrying aspect of the No Border Camp is the frequent references, in its leaflets and on its posters, to ‘environmental refugees’. This new term reflects how events that once were explained in social, political and economic terms are now being reinterpreted as the outcome of natural phenomena. An article on the No Border website calls for the recognition of the rights of ‘millions of people [who have been] displaced due to natural disasters, development processes such as the construction of dams, deforestation or any of the vast consequences of climate change’ (1). Here, campaigners risk naturalising poverty in the Third World. The reason why people in developing countries are killed, injured or displaced by hurricanes or earthquakes is because their societies are not developed and industrialised enough to withstand natural disasters. Discussing them as ‘environmental refugees’ overlooks the social and political conditions in their countries of origin that make them vulnerable to natural phenomena. At the same time, the No Border camp seems to demonise ‘development processes’, such as the building of dams, which might actually go some way to improving life and eradicating absolute poverty in the Third World.

Indeed, there is a broader contradiction today between being an environmentalist and supporting free migration. Today, the most common argument against immigration is that it will potentially damage the environment. Considering that restricting travel was a cornerstone of the Heathrow Climate Camp – which portrayed Western holidaymakers and business travellers as CO2-spewing menaces to society – and considering that many environmentalists view humanity itself as the biggest threat to the planet, it is difficult to see how the green outlook can be compatible with a progressive and humanist campaign for freedom of movement for all. Indeed, green-leaning politicians, commentators and activists now explicitly call for clampdowns on migration on the basis that it is ‘polluting’.

Newspaper columnist Madeleine Bunting argued last week that environmentalist organisations must address the thorny subject of population growth, including growth brought about by migration. She wants a debate about ‘population management’, and argues that ‘most of the UK population growth in the next few decades will be attributable to immigration’. ‘Should we have a balanced migration policy with a net zero increase?’ she asks (2). This is becoming an increasingly common demand amongst green-leaning groups and writers, who now depict Britain as simply too overcrowded and polluted to accept any more carbon-emitting immigrants (here, migrants are judged by the waste they create, an even narrower and more shocking criterion than their economic worth). Bunting says this discussion must steer ‘well clear of racism – or of the authoritarianism that lurks in the background of environmentalism’. Yet it is hard to see how policies aimed at managing population growth and curbing immigration can be anything but authoritarian. The No Border camp would do well to question the environmentalist ethos and its impact on freedom of movement.

Yet the overall aim of the camp – to struggle for free movement – is a progressive call for more freedom, for international solidarity, and for an end to the government’s heavy-handed authoritarianism when it comes to surveillance and border controls. What a refreshing change from the petty authoritarian demands of the anti-fun, anti-flying, eco-miserabilists at Heathrow who made the front pages of the newspapers throughout August. The No Border camp is one airport protest worth getting excited about, while also having the argument out about its limitations and the new emerging justifications for restricting global migration.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor at spiked

Radmila Vujnovic


Radmila Vujnovic’s friends and neighbours are campaigning and petitioning to get the Home Office to allow her to stay in London, where she has lived since 1999. A Croatian Serb, Radmila had to flee with her family during the civil war, and cannot return to her home. She has made a new life here and, as well as continuing her education, she undertakes voluntary work at the London Irish Centre. She is currently threatened with deportation. A neighbour said: ‘It is an act of cruelty to refuse her appeal and send her back to face an uncertain, unhappy, and possibly dangerous future.’ Radmila’s appeal to stay on humanitarian grounds was turned down on 10 July 2007.

A petition to the Home Office is available for all to sign and you can join the Facebook group ‘Radmila must stay’.

Previously on spiked

Nathalie Rothschild spent a day with the dreadlocked doom-mongerers at the Heathrow Climate Action Camp. She asked who’s afraid of human trafficking and foreign doctors. Neil Davenport said complaining that there are too many people has become the new acceptable face of anti-immigration sentiments. Maria Grasso and Lee Jones argued that if we want open borders, we need open debate. Alex Standish said we should remake America the ‘Land of the Free’. Or read more at spiked issue Immigration.

(1) See the No Border Camp website

(2) Greens need to grasp the nettle: aren’t there just too many people?, Madeleine Bunting, Guardian, 10 September 2007

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today