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It’s great that universities are pulling out of the border industry at last

OPINION: Unis profit from violence against migrants. More should follow Cardiff Met’s lead and say no to dirty cash

Eva Sêrro Spiekermann
19 October 2022, 12.01am

UK Border Force guards in Dover harbour with migrants who have crossed the English Channel

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reppans / Alamy Stock Photo

Cardiff Metropolitan University has become the UK’s first uni to divest from the border industry – in other words, to refuse to invest in businesses that are complicit in the violence faced by migrating people.

This world premiere divestment victory hits the stage just a couple of weeks after UK home secretary Suella Braverman said her dream for Christmas was to send refugees to Rwanda, and a leaked report revealed that 43,000 people had been left to die at sea by Frontex, the EU Border and Coast Guard Agency, in the last two and a half years.

The prevalence of border violence has not only become a recurring theme in daily news, but also something Western liberal states publicly take pride in. Recent developments in the UK make for no exception. From Australian-style offshoring plans to the de facto repeal of the right to asylum under the Nationality and Borders Act, it seems this government is unhinged when it comes to border control, willing to literally walk over dead bodies.

Playing to a white-supremacist script, violence towards Black and Brown people moving across and within borders is often presented as an inevitable consequence of maintaining the stability and security of our democracies. But many of us refuse to accept this.

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This Cardiff Met announcement is the first win for the Divest Borders campaign, coordinated by the student campaigning organisation People & Planet, where I coordinate support for our network of student organisers. Launched less than a year ago, this movement is snowballing across the UK, with students and university workers across 25 campuses organising and building power to force their universities to break ties with the profits made from the business of border violence.

The university has included in its ethical investment and banking policy the commitment to “screen out border industry companies”. It is part of the institution’s wider promise not to invest in “companies or activities which are considered to be unethical” and which “threaten community and international stability”.

Compared to previous divestment campaigns, the Divest Borders campaign is an unusual ‘follow-the-money’ story. It leads from UK universities to a growing industry that plays a crucial role in realising the UK’s hostile environment policies such as the Rwanda offshoring plan.

The multibillion border and surveillance industry benefits and thrives from fearmongering, amplifying and capitalising on right-wing nationalistic ideas that idealise border control as a solution to contemporary global challenges such as climate change-induced displacement. This approach is not only reactionary, in that it fails to address the root causes of mass migration, but also acts to sustain a system of global inequality at the expense of the lives and dreams of those dispossessed and displaced.

£327m of university investment portfolios are ploughed into arms, detention, surveillance and other industries involved in human rights abuses against migrants

In December 2021, People & Planet conducted sector-wide research into the investment portfolios of all UK universities. This research uncovered an estimated £327m of university investment portfolios ploughed into arms, detention, surveillance and other industries involved in human rights abuses against migrants at borders in the UK and Europe.

These companies include the likes of Mitie and Serco (which run UK detention centres with a record of widespread neglect and abuse), Airbus (which services drones to track the movement of migrants in the Mediterranean and watch them drown) and tech giant Accenture (which has presented refugees as potential terrorists as a selling point for its surveillance systems).

Border and immigration enforcement does not happen in a vacuum. Someone needs to build, equip and service it – and, as it turns out, that can be good money. Western governments increasingly rely on private companies to secure their borders. People & Planet’s Border Divestment List identifies 60 publicly listed companies engaging in corporate activities that provide the backbone of contemporary immigration and border policies.

As well as constructing and arming the physical boundaries that characterise borders, this involves the harvesting, storing and analysis of mountains of personal data of migrating people; the development of ‘smart’ border technologies such as drones and armed robot-dogs; and the detention and deportation of those targeted by this infrastructure. The involvement of private companies is not only a cost-saving exercise for states, it is changing the nature of border control itself.

UK universities are not neutral spectators. They have massive sums invested in the companies involved, and so continue to profit from perpetual border violence. What’s more, their research agendas are often shaped by the same private companies who also make donations to fund research. They have also become a part of the hostile environment. Under the Home Office’s duty to conduct immigration checks, university administrations act as overzealous border guards, willing to sacrifice the welfare of their own international students and staff for fear of losing the right to issue visas.

Direct community-led action

Cardiff Metropolitan’s commitment is a rebuke to the UK government’s hard stance on immigration. This first campaign win also shows the importance of grassroots action in our communities and at the institutions we are part of. Faced with what seems to be a steadfast human rights deadlock in parliaments, the UK has seen a surge of community and direct action for border justice over the past year – from Kenmure Street to the successful blocking of the first planned deportation flight to Rwanda. The Divest Borders campaign is promising to become the student arm of that movement.

Building on learnings from the fossil fuel divestment movement, students across the UK are building campaigns to demand that their universities follow Cardiff Met’s suit, and divest from the border industry.

Campaigners this summer who successfully put a stop to TUI airline deportation flights have shown that border companies are vulnerable campaigning targets. Their profits and operations often depend on their reputation and credibility.

Divestment is not the end point, but it is one step towards a world free from borders and the violence inherent in their maintenance. Students in the UK have the chance to stand shoulder to shoulder with that movement and get their universities to divest from the border industry.

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