C+: Migrant rights in Oxford

Emma Christie discusses how Oxford students have been responding to the ongoing refugee crisis

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The Safe Passage march in January. Source: Elli Siora

This article originally appeared as part of a C+ investigation into Race at Oxford. Other articles include a discussion of C+ poll responses, the “whiteness” of the curriculum, and the university’s record on race and access

To some degree, we are all aware of the facts around global migration. The number of displaced people worldwide hit a record high in 2015, and has shown few signs of attenuating. But recent statistics remain deeply unsettling. Currently, 65.3 million globally have been forcibly displaced. Of these, 21.3 million are recognised as refugees, and of these refugees, 107,000 have been resettled. This is a paltry number by any measure.

As I write this, US president Donald Trump continues to pass Executive Order after Executive Order in defiance of the country’s status as signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and 1967 Protocol. These have criminalised overnight the very existence of immigrant, Muslim, or dual-nationality Americans. They also ban all refugee admissions to the US for 120 days.

In Oxford, students and residents have taken notice of these disturbing developments. Recent months have witnessed the founding of a number of new initiatives designed to provide aid and assistance to refugees and migrants both globally and locally. But the Trump presidency and its acts of illegal discrimination—which have received support from European quarters, and which exemplify wider anti-refugee sentiment that has been brewing for several years—have made it all the more evident that we all need to think harder about how we as individuals can fight it.

The several student-led activist groups in Oxford, which organise protests and events, are an excellent place to begin this process. Oxford Migrant Solidarity organise monthly transport to Campsfield House, an immigration detention centre in Oxfordshire. Not only do OMS partake in action to shut down the detention centre—which is on record for the wrongful detention of minors and alleged violent mistreatment of its detainees—but they also spend time with detainees themselves, providing access to legal advisors and a human connection that acts against deeply isolating living conditions. Visits take place on a weekly basis. OMS can be contacted via their Facebook page, and have endorsed several protests against Trump’s immigration bans which will take place in central Oxford.

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Bridges Not Walls, an international movement which dropped banners from bridges all over the world in protest on 20 January to oppose anti-immigration rhetoric, has also been active in Oxford, dropping their own banners from the Bridge of Sighs and other landmarks. This is only one of numerous protests happening over the coming weeks.

Elli Siora, a student activist involved in organising Oxford’s Safe Passage protests, outlines the aim of her project as one of many: “To bring together two well-intentioned axes of student activism. On one side,” she says, “there are the profile pictures, the article sharing and the conversations—all in an effort to raise awareness. On the other, there are the on-ground student volunteers. The Safe Passage march on 27 January last year hoped to unite these two forms of activism, creating a real experience of solidarity.”

Clearly, the xenophobic rhetoric and action that increasingly reveals itself in mainstream politics has generated rightful anger among students and local activists, and has given their causes greater momentum. These grassroots movements mentioned provide an ideal opportunity for all those who feel the need to make their voices heard to get involved.

Other initiatives in Oxford are geared not only toward putting pressure on complicit governments, but on revising the way we think about migration as Europeans and as witnesses to the greatest humanitarian crisis of our time. Theophilus Kwek, former president of the Oxford University Poetry Society and MSc candidate in Refugee and Forced Migration Studies, describes new seminar series ‘Words of Welcome’, a fortnightly event at the Refugee Studies Centre, as an effort to showcase and connect with the work of refugee and migrant poets and those who write on themes of “home, dislocation and refuge”. “So much of the paranoia that shapes our policies is attributable to a poverty of imagination,” he explains. “It’s difficult to imagine ourselves in others’ places, especially where there is need and vulnerability. We also find it difficult to imagine ourselves as our own best selves: kind, sacrificial, or welcoming. Literature helps us do that. It restores honesty and possibility to an act of imagination that should be the most natural thing in the world.”

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The Oxford-based Journal of Interrupted Studies similarly focuses on sharing intellectual and cultural experience, publishing the works of displaced academics who, for reasons including their individual legal status and pervasive Eurocentrism in academic publishing, cannot publish in mainstream journals.

My most recent project with the Journal, Interruptions: New Perspectives on Migration, is an online forum that caters specifically to those directly or indirectly affected by migration—refugees, activists, migration scholars, among others—and in which they can express their experience on their own terms. The idea is to create a space unfettered by a Western-centric perspective, where those who speak from lived experience lead the conversation. Submissions are open to all those who feel they might have something to contribute to this new discourse, and can be in any form or genre.

Clearly, opportunities to get involved in Oxford’s discussion around migration and migrants’ rights abound. But we still have a long way to go. Now more than ever, it’s crucial that we take advantage of burgeoning discussion and action and develop it into something that will reach policy-making circles. Currently live on Interruptions is a letter addressed to Oxfordshire MPs, which you can sign and send to demand that they challenge Theresa May’s reluctance to disavow Trump’s executive orders, as well as those have proposed similar policies for the UK.

Protests won’t make an impact unless attendance is at a maximum. Individually, we need to continue to engage with the intellectual legacy of this humanitarian crisis, and with the work of the scholars and creatives who are among the displaced. Oxford’s current dialogue around migration is strong, but there’s always more to learn.

Update (17/03/2017): This article erroneously omitted the work of Oxford Students Refugee Campaign (OxSRC), a two-year old project using student donations (with pledges as high as £300,000 and counting) via opt out battel donations in over 45 common rooms. OxSRC have created a scholarship fund and claim that they are very likely to have the first student funded scholars at Oxford this Michaelmas.