Talk at Warwick University, Solidarity with MFJ at Surround Harmondsworth Detention Centre

It has been a busy few days since the Justice4Sanaz University Tour commenced on Wednesday 3rd February at the University of Warwick. I was invited on behalf of the Warwick Anti Sexism Society who sponsored the talk. Overall the talk went well and generated some important discussions about intersectional activism and especially the particular issues that non-EU international, refugee and asylum seeker students are facing both within British higher education and the restrictive policies enacted by the Home Office that limit our movement. Likewise, there was a good discussion concerning institutional racism within higher education, particularly in light of the horrid e-mails that were shown during the talk found in the Freedom of Information request done over the summer that revealed the vile racism, ableism, sexism, and xenophobia used against me by members of the School of Media and Communication, University of Leeds. Lastly, I stressed the need for  free education activist to call for the end of the Office of Independent Adjudicators for Higher Education (OIAHE), given their utterly dismal complaints procedure that not only marginalises students further, but also seeks to protect how the status quo runs within universities. Interestingly, OIAHE’s motto is “for students in higher education” but as these statistics found in both the 2012 and 2013 Annual Reports indicate, they operate “for universities in higher education.” In 2012 the OIAHE Annual Report showed only 4% of cases were found justified, but only 59% of cases were found unjustified. In 2013, the OIAHE decided that only 6% of cases were found justified, but again 55% of cases were found unjustified. As education law solicitor, Sukhvir Gill has questioned,

“Is it that the vast majority of students complaining to the OIA have meritless complaints? Or is it a relevant factor that a number of students fail to highlight the relevant points in a well-expressed manner, thus allowing the OIA to find their complaint unjustified?”

While student activists are celebrating the recent OIAHE decision concerning the Sussex 5,     let us remember that this is the same organisation, put together more than ten years ago by a Blairite government (the same folks who instituted tuition fees) that squashes more than half of student complaints submitted. The success of the Sussex 5 owes itself to strong campaigning, mainstream media coverage, and support from fellow activists, academics and politicians. The OIAHE knew that a negative decision would call their own disastrous practices into question. I’m sure given the new resolve among student activists at the moment in their quest for free education, the last thing the OIAHE needs on their plate is a full inquiry into why more than a majority of student complaints submitted are summarily dismissed.

I suspect for tomorrow’s talk at the University of Birmingham and during the rest of the tour, immigration will be a serious discussion point. On Friday the 7th February, I was on the University of Birmingham campus and I came across a bake sale that was put together by Student Action for Refugee (STAR) to raise money for “…supporting work that students across the UK do with refugees and asylum seekers through STAR, such as volunteering at refugee projects, campaigning to improve lives of migrants, and educating people about refuge and asylum.”

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STAR also put together a petition demanding that the University of Birmingham, like many other British universities, not charge refugee and asylum seekers non-EU international tuition fee rates that can go anywhere from £11,000-£20,000 per year. Not only are STAR demanding that refugee and asylum seekers be charged British home tuition fee rates, but also non-EU international students in Scotland are petitioning the University of Edinburgh demanding the re-introduction of the post-study work visa to make it accessible for non-EU international students to find employment in the UK after they are finished with their degrees.

In a statement of 105 academics, activists and students published in Ceasefire Magazine two months ago stated that in relation to the post-study work visa that, ” ….it is now impossible for non-EU international students to remain legally in the UK after they finish their courses if they do not have a job offer, because in 2012 the government phased out the post-study work visa (which allowed non-EU international students the right to seek work for 2 years in the UK), replacing it with a graduate entrepreneur visa, requiring ‘genuine and credible’ business ideas.” Not only is it next to impossible for non-EU international students to find and be gainfully employed in the UK, but also non-EU international academics are also finding the process of employment in the UK a daunting prospect. As the statement further pointed, “As indicated in a Times Higher Education piece in January 2014, universities are being discouraged from hiring non-EU academics, despite many of them being top scholars in their field. In other instances, non-EU scholars are increasingly being denied visas to attend academic conferences and to work on collaborative projects with their British counterparts.”

While it is great to finally  see that non-EU international concerns, in addition to the issues particular to refugee and asylum seekers students are being discussed within the student movement, however, a lot more work needs to be done to make these issues central within the free education movement.

On Saturday 7th February, I was fortunate to join the Birmingham chapter of Movement for Justice By Any Means Necessary (MFJ) coach to a protest at the Harmondsworth detention centre, where refugees and asylum seekers are kept in deplorable and inhumane conditions. MFJ was founded 20 years ago by people at Kingsway College Student Union to tackle institutional racism. The group, “confronted organised fascism as well as death in custody and wider racism to black people as well as travellers, refugees, and asylum seekers.

On the coach I met Gita, a Kurdish Iranian asylum seeker, who has been in the UK for a couple of months. She has been living with a group of Ugandan women who were instrumental in encouraging her to join MFJ and attend demonstrations outside of various detention centres. As Gita remarked, “It’s important that we all stick together and support one another if we are to win. There is no point in staying home and crying and isolating yourself. That’s what the Home Office want us to do- get depressed and go home.” 

I then asked Gita how did she feel about England, and she replied, “I wasn’t expecting to find this country so green. Everywhere you go it is so green- green grass, green trees, even in the winter time. People are nice here, by and large. There is more respect for being a single woman in this country than in Iran. However, the way immigration treats us is horrid. They put (motioning to her friends on the coach) all of us in a filthy house with broken furniture. It was dehumanising and depressing.”

Apart from a few SOAS students who attended the Harmondsworth protest, the majority were refugee and asylum seekers, some of whom had made a trek all the way from Teesside and even Glasgow! If the student movement wants to challenge the discriminatory immigration policies that have been enacted by each successive government, whether the Conservatives or Labour, they must be involved and provide real, on the ground solidarity to group like MFJ or various No Borders chapters dotted around the country. And by solidarity, I don’t mean talking over or above refugee and asylum seekers or hogging up the activist limelight to plug your own events. I am talking about providing hot meals to asylum seekers and refugees, helping them find legal help, or attending and writing about demonstrations like the one organised by MFJ. I am often reminded of Audre Lorde when she states, “There is no thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issues lives.” Free education activists who claim to be “intersectional” but turn a cheek when it comes to the particular issues concerning non-EU international and refugee and asylum seeker students, many of whom are Black and/or people of colour,  are doing the movement no favours.

Here are some photos taken at the protest.

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And another photo taken by Demotix photographer, Peter Marshall:

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I am looking forward to speaking further about these issues tomorrow and on Thursday 12th February at the University of Nottingham.

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About justice4sanaz

For 3 years, Sanaz Raji, a non-EU international student from the United States, has waged a fearless and brave fight against institutional aggression, bullying, and racism from the School of Media and Communication (formerly the Institution of Communications Studies) University of Leeds. The School of Media and Communication took away Sanaz's scholarship in August 2011, only 2 weeks before the start of her third year into her PhD studies. The School of Media and Communication breached their own procedures and rules concerning evaluating student progress. By taking away Sanaz's scholarship, the School of Media and Communication prevented her from continuing her studies in addition to having a decent standard of living with food and shelter that all students expect as a human right. In waging her battle for equal rights for non-EU international students, Sanaz was evicted from her university accommodation in May 2014, threatened with an ASBO (anti-social behavior order) and now fighting against deportation. All non-EU international students should have the right to challenge their universities for their failings without the threat of harassment or deportation. Justice4Sanaz is a movement to redress the failure of the student movement to discuss the myriad of ways that non-EU students, especially those who are people of color, are silenced, bullied and threatened within the neoliberal British university system.
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