Women in Yarl’s Wood have now been on hunger strike for three weeks, demanding better conditions inside the centre, as well as bigger changes to the system, including an end to charter flights and indefinite detention, the reclassification of rape as a form of torture, and an amnesty for young migrants who arrived in the country as children. The Home Office has responded by attempting to deport some of the most outspoken protesters and threatening the rest with accelerated removal in a letter that was widely condemned, including by shadow home secretary Diane Abbott.
Yarl’s Wood has long been a target of protest; in addition to a history of resistance by detainees inside the centre, demonstrations and other actions are frequently held outside, in solidarity with its overwhelmingly female population. Among those currently offering messages of support to the hunger strikers are education workers on University and College Union (UCU) picket lines. Following the UCU leadership’s rejection of proposals drawn up between the union’s negotiators and Universities UK (UUK), the employers’ consortium, academic staff at 61 universities across the UK have just completed a first 14-day strike over proposed changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), the main pension scheme for ‘pre-92’ universities. These changes would effectively end guaranteed pensions benefits by making final pensions depend on investment performance rather than workers’ contributions, with staff predicted to lose up to 40% of their retirement income. At a glance, there is little to link the Yarl’s Wood hunger strikers to the UCU picketers. Nevertheless, there is a deeper connection between their sites of struggle than meets the eye.
Since academic institutions sponsor the Tier 4 visas of international students, UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) pressures universities to check students’ immigration details. From the university’s perspective, failure to do so carries a palpable risk of losing trusted sponsor status, thereby preventing the institution from recruiting students from overseas, as briefly occurred to London Metropolitan University in 2012. This results in UK and EU students on the one hand, and non-EU students on the other, receiving different treatment in respect of determining academic standing. Most importantly for present purposes, the surveillance of international students to ensure visa-compliance is increasingly delegated to university staff. This immigration policing takes such forms as attendance monitoring, sharing emails with UKVI, and – in the most overtly Orwellian cases – implementing biometric scanners.
In March 2014, over 160 academics signed an open letter published in the Guardian in protest at how the visa system has effectively turned them into border guards. Such monitoring adds to an already Herculean workload, and diverts valuable time and attention away from teaching and research, having a detrimental effect on staff well-being and educational quality alike. It adds to the hostile environment for foreign nationals seen in other contexts, including the sharing of NHS data with the Home Office, the checking of private tenants’ immigration status under the ‘Right to Rent’ initiative, and the surveillance of students – particularly those from Muslim backgrounds – under the Prevent Strategy. Most troublingly, such monitoring forces education workers into complicity with the violent state apparatus that is the border control system. University staff become part of the chain that leads hapless migrants into the horrors of detention and deportation.
It was as the UCU Branch Secretary at the University of Surrey last year that I became conscious of academic staff’s deep resentment towards the immigration enforcement role imposed upon them. The brutal scenes unfolding now in Yarl’s Wood, and the detention or deportation of thousands of foreign students for alleged visa fraud with little to no procedural safeguards during the Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC) scandal, only underscore how right university workers are to resent that role. The issue of monitoring international students has only grown more pertinent in light of voiced concerns that non-attendance on UCU strike days will affect their visa status, although a number of students’ unions – such as Manchester – have negotiated agreements with their universities to protect international students from being penalised for absence while staff are striking.
Moreover, if staff employed on Tier 2 visas take industrial action and consequently miss more than 10 consecutive work days, their sponsor must report it as an ‘unauthorised absence’. This means that, in addition to making education workers monitor students, the visa system creates a direct obstacle to UCU’s own strike capacity.
All of this is why students and trade union activists on campus should call for strengthened solidarity with the Yarl’s Wood hunger strikers. It is not simply that we are all engaged in struggle: it is that our struggles connect intrinsically. The border control system that makes international students fear failing to attend enough classes to meet their visa requirements is the same system that places the unwanted duty of immigration policing on to university staff and generates living Tartarus pits like Yarl’s Wood. I therefore call upon students’ unions and UCU branches across the country to go beyond voicing solidarity with those suffering horrifically in Yarl’s Wood and other detention centres. I call upon them to lobby against the monitoring practices on their campuses that send migrant workers and students to detention centres in the first place.