Keep border police out of universities

Patrick Hayes talks to the students occupying the director's office at SOAS in protest against the arrest of nine university cleaners.

Patrick Hayes

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Refugee Week kicked off in the UK yesterday. There will, in the coming days, be numerous arts, cultural and educational events to ‘celebrate the contribution of refugees to the UK, and [encourage] a better understanding between communities’ (1).

Ironically at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), part of the University of London and one of the institutions sponsoring Refugee Week, an event not on the week’s programme was also taking place yesterday: a rally and occupation organised by students to protest against the arrest and deportation of nine university cleaners by the UK border police.

‘There are places I could imagine this situation arising’, says Sarah, a first-year undergraduate who came with friends to join a gathering of around 120 people outside SOAS in support of the occupation. ‘But an institution with a reputation for being an international place of study? I’d never have believed it.’

Sarah was inspired to join the rally after viewing raw footage of the confrontation between students and the SOAS director Paul Webley, whose office the students later occupied. Posted on YouTube (2), the footage shows the students confronting Webley for treating the arrest of the cleaners as something ‘outside of his control’. The students sought to hold him accountable, refusing to allow him to evade responsibility or resort to that jobsworth attitude of saying ‘it wasn’t my decision’.

Yesterday evening, the occupied director’s office (only a few hours into the occupation, it already looked like it needed some attention from the cleaners) was a hive of activity. Approximately 50 students were in there, making full use of the director’s boardroom for their discussions and using flip charts and whiteboards to plan their campaigns. ‘The cleaners are our colleagues, they worked alongside us’, said one student. ‘This makes me angry.’

Hanadi Katerji, a second-year politics student at SOAS, says SOAS management acted in an ‘absolutely disgusting’ way by collaborating with the border police. In the bustle of the occupied room she explains how management worked with the ISS cleaning agency and the border police against the alleged illegal immigrants amongst the cleaning staff, allowing 40 riot police access to the university so that they could conduct a surprise dawn raid on the startled cleaners on Friday 12 June. Worst of all, the cleaners had been summoned in bad faith to a 6.30am ‘staff meeting’, whereupon they were arrested.

By Monday morning, five of the cleaners had already been deported, and the others – currently incarcerated in Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre – are believed to face imminent deportation. One cleaner, who managed to evade arrest, has apparently been living ‘like a fugitive’ since the end of last week. One of the arrested cleaners addressed yesterday’s rally by telephone from Yarl’s Wood, and by all accounts the cleaners have been treated poorly. One was reportedly forced to fly back to her home country despite being six months pregnant. The cleaners are believed to be from Bolivia, Colombia and Brazil.

Colourful banners hung from the windows of the occupied director’s office yesterday, stating: ‘Shame on ISS and SOAS management’, ‘Stop SOAS cleaners’ deportation’, ‘In solidarity with the SOAS 9’, ‘No more raids, all staff in-house. Reinstate Stalin.’

That last, strange-sounding demand refers to the sacking of a trade union official – the unfortunately named UNISON branch chair Joseph Stalin Bermudez – who is a migrant worker from Ecuador. He was fired from his position at SOAS after what is described as a ‘controversial disciplinary process’. Indeed, many believe that the cleaners were targeted for removal from SOAS because they had been supportive of their fellow Latin American worker; the cleaners were due to demonstrate in support of Bermudez’s reinstatement just a few hours after they were arrested.

At the rally, some speakers raised the spectre of the British National Party’s recent win in the European election as a warning about the threat of the far right. However, you don’t need to fantasise about a fascist takeover to see that severe restrictions are being placed on free migration now, not by the far right but by the government supported by the mainstream parties. As one supporter at the demonstration put it: ‘Who needs the BNP?’ Indeed, it seems pretty clear that, far from turning immigration into a big, controversial issue, the BNP feeds off the mainstream, top-down desire to restrict and curb freedom of movement for foreign workers.

There was healthy debate at yesterday’s rally. Sofia, a masters student from Peru, said the cleaners were ‘hard working people… They’re not here to exploit but to contribute to British society.’ There should, she said, be an amnesty for such workers, along the lines proposed by London mayor Boris Johnson (3). Juan, a refugee who came to show his support, disagreed with calling for only small-scale measures to help foreign workers already here: ‘Call me utopian, but in the twenty-first century, when the world has been globalised and we all depend on each other, surely these borders should end and we should accept this nation belongs to everybody?’

The students have today been served with a court injunction giving them two hours to vacate the director’s offices. Yet Richard Reynolds, a student from the University of East Anglia who rushed down from Norwich to lend his support to the occupation, reports that – despite a sleepless night and the power having been cut to the directorate rooms – the occupying students are upbeat and determined. In solidarity with the remaining cleaners, they even tidied the offices this morning and provided the cleaners with cups of tea. They are currently devising a set of demands, including the recognition that ‘people are people wherever they are’ and ‘there’s no such thing as an “illegal”’.

As Reynolds puts it, ‘It sets a dangerous precedent for universities to give up their independence and compromise their staff in such a cowardly way as soon as the border police come knocking. The problem with Refugee Week as it currently stands is that it is too narrow. Let’s make it “No Borders Week”, and champion the freedom for everyone to go wherever they like in order to make a better life for themselves and their families.’

Patrick Hayes is a co-founder of the IoI Current Affairs Forum and volunteer co-ordinator for the education charity WORLDwrite, which filmed the occupation for online news channel WORLDbytes.

The demonstrations continue today, Tuesday 16 June on the SOAS steps. Meet 4:30pm for 5pm start, Thornhaugh St, Russell Square, London WC1. For more info call Clare Solomon on: 07958 034181 or visit: Free SOAS Cleaners.

(3) See The hidden dangers of the migrant amnesty, by Nathalie Rothschild

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