Statement from URBC on The Observer’s “Human traffickers ‘using UK universities as cover'”

After years on the frontline, Unis Resist Border Control (URBC)  have extensive familiarity with the exploitative situations migrant students in the UK find themselves in. As such, we are extremely concerned about The Observer article “Human traffickers ‘using UK universities as cover’” published on 3 July 2022 by Shanti Das, and the conclusions that are drawn upon.

The Conservatives have used human trafficking as a pretext to enforce more draconian border controls, including expanding the hostile environment policy. Likewise, anti-trafficking policies have instead criminalised exploited migrants, rather than going after the real problem- the UK’s inhumane border regime.  

The Home Office and the UK university sector cannot place sole blame on migrant students for a situation which their own actions have so clearly created, especially in treating migrant students like ‘cash cows’, as we have often chronicled.  Indeed it is shocking to see very hostile environment type approaches that have enabled this kind of grim exploitation of migrant students cast as a solution in Shanti Das’ piece when the history of such approaches includes: 

  • Over 20 years of No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF), wherein migrant students & all other migrants have no access to state funds and support services.
  • Paltry pastoral support within universities for migrant students. 
  • High tuition, visa and International Health Surcharge fees, along with soaring living costs, forcing migrant students to take on exploitative gig economy work to survive, leading them into exploitative employment situations.  
  • The on-going Covid-19 pandemic, pushing cash-strapped migrant students and their families into further exploitative situations that hinder their ability to complete their university education, much less to actually survive in the UK.

An example of Daily Mail front pages, depicting migrant students as ‘bogus’.

We notice that the article seems to focus on Indian students. URBC has serious concerns about the potential for punitive targeting of Indian students on the basis of this reportage. Greater suspicion of Indian students will not help to solve these severe problems. Indeed, during the mid 2000s, the UK media had a rash of articles, often daily, depicting primarily South Asian migrant students as ‘bogus’ and not really students at all. These stereotypes led the coalition government (Conservatives + Liberal Democrats) from 2010-2015 to justify the hostile environment policy in UK universities, mandating strict and pervasive attendance monitoring of migrant students and staff. It also led the the racist and xenophobic targeting of largely South Asian TOEIC students in 2014 who were forced off their courses and removed from the UK without being able to exercise proper due process within the UK. They were vindicated in 2016 after a British court found that 48,000 students were wrongfully removed from the UK. Despite being vindicated in the courts, TOEIC students continue to have problems, some have been blacklisted from continuing their education, getting visas to return back to the UK to resume their education, regularising their visas in the UK to remain in the country, and in other cases estranged from family because of the shame of being branded by the Home Office and the UK media as “exam cheats”.

Ten years of the hostile environment policy have introduced multiple surveillance points in the UK workplace, housing, accessing the NHS, schools, universities, and services. Migrant students represent a relatively compliant workforce: in our experience they often do not know much about unions, they may not know what the UK minimum wage is, they are unfamiliar with the notion of a living wage, and they don’t know about their rights as workers in the UK. These gaps in knowledge are being exploited already. Some migrant students are being threatened with sacking if they don’t work beyond their  visa-allotted 20 hour limit.  Why not talk to the migrant students who are being horribly exploited by both commodified higher education and draconian borders instead of writing stories that enforce more blanket surveillance of migrant students and all other migrants?

What would sincere help for migrant students in these exploitative conditions look like? Would it be a campaign to make sure migrant students knew their rights and had clear recourse if they were threatened or had their passport taken away? Surely it would not be greater surveillance under the existing hostile environment in UK higher education. Veiled threats that universities could lose their ability to host migrant students on visas will only create worse conditions for migrant students and staff, not for universities already increasing migrant student enrolment. Das’ piece will only push further universities, under the guidance of the Home Office, to install more pernicious surveillance targeting migrant students and staff. This will lead to a more heightened carceral environment, both affecting and interfering in the way migrants teach, learn and research in UK universities.