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Knowledge is Power: A SOAS Perspective on Calais

  • Features

SOAS Goes to Calais Writing Group: Frances Grahl, Leonetta Luciano Fendi, Laetitia Sanchez Incera, Maria Vittoria Salvatori, Donata Pianon, Surani Himasha Weerappulige, Will Young, Olivia Qasir, Anna Fox, Sara Selleri, Ed Emery, Mohammed Omar

On the 12th of June, 2009, SOAS cleaners were asked by their employers, the cleaning company ISS, to attend an emergency meeting in the Djam Lecture Theatre from 6.30am. The doors were locked and UKBA were present. In the days that followed up to 9 cleaners were deported, after some were held at Yarl’s Wood Detention Centre. These cleaners had been involved in a struggle for fair pay and safe working conditions in the time leading up to the raid. SOAS management, ISS and the UKBA (now UK Visas and Immigration) appear to have been complicit in a politically-motivated attack on migrants which led to people being removed after years of life in the UK.

While we were in Calais, we met and formed relationships with people from many of the same African and Asian countries which we study at SOAS. Some were educated, some were illiterate. Some spoke seven or eight languages, some struggled to communicate. Some had money, some no more than the clothes they stood up in.

But what was the main difference between us? At the end of the trip, we could travel freely back to our homes in the UK or elsewhere. The idea of the international border had a completely different meaning for us and them; physically stuck in Calais, paralysed on the pathways of their lives. As students of the School of Oriental and African Studies, London residents and citizens of the world, we must attempt an informed and nuanced reflection on our position vis-à-vis the Calais Jungle, the ‘Refugee Crisis’ and the current migration situation more generally.

In 1916, our School was established with the objective of training (mainly) British civil servants and colonial employees to run the British Empire. A hundred years, many independence struggles and several projects to liberalise education later, we must reconsider our roles as scholars.

What can we offer to the world? Even as we study international relations and world cultures and read about the heroes of twentieth-century independence struggles, we are faced with the biggest wave of migration since SOAS was founded. It is not possible to hold a neutral position: indeed neutrality risks feeding directly into attacks on our community such as the immigration raid described above.

There are 5235 students at SOAS, which has one of the highest proportions of overseas students in the world at 43%, and many of us are here under the provisos of the controversial Points-Based Immigration System. This means that the university acts as a sponsor for non-EU students, and is responsible for ensuring that people remain where they say, that they follow the course, that they don’t break laws or work more than they are allowed to.

Overseas students are of course a huge source of income for the School, which is currently making plans for cuts which will double our annual budgetary surplus. As such, they occupy a privileged position in the increasingly hierarchised system of international movement, within which money, class and country of origin count for so much.

There are at least 5000 people living in tents in the Jungle. Many lived in the UK in the past and were deported. Some wish to move to the UK because of linguistic, family or educational links, which of course (for us SOAS students) leads directly back to the ongoing devastation wrought by the British Empire, more than fifty years after much of it was dissolved. But there are more recent events we must also bear in mind. How much of the current conflict in the Middle East, we must ask ourselves, can be traced back to disastrous military inventions in Iraq and Afghanistan? And what is the connection between these and the daily work of SOAS students, staff and management? How does the European Union fit into this story?

Increasingly strict controls on flights into Europe have led to the adoption of much more dangerous routes by land and sea, and the huge trade in people smuggling at Europe’s gates and within its borders. Moreover, the 2003 Dublin Regulation II, which stipulated that asylum must be sought in the first safe country, has led to tensions between southern and eastern EU countries (Italy, Spain, Greece) and the wealthier states of the north and west. It is this ruling which leaves migrants in Calais in such a precarious position. Unwilling to stay in PIIGS countries with insecure job markets, they risk deportation at every stage of their journey and can rarely access the standard legal pathways to resettlement. Even if they make it to the UK, they risk joining the growing undocumented workforce, devoid of normal legal protection, upon which our big cities rely.

So, following our first trip to Calais, and in light of these very general reflections about the connections between SOAS and the Jungle, we believe that the School’s slogan, ‘Knowledge is Power’, can itself be read in several different ways. SOAS was set up to ensure that knowledge worked to serve and consolidate British imperial power, and the support and authentication which the British academy lends to modern hegemony cannot be ignored. However if we can access, use and share this knowledge, we can also claim and transmit the power, and so we should.

We demand a more critical and transparent approach by every part of the SOAS community to the ‘Crisis’, one which reflects on long-term causes and offers realistic and humanitarian solutions. An important part of this is the acknowledgement across our university that the ways in which some humans are privileged over others is politically and ethically wrong.

Now have a look at the ‘What You Can Do’ section at the end of this article. Remember we at SOAS have specialist skills such as languages, foreign experiences and historical expertise which make us well-qualified to approach the issues and provide primary support to migrants in Calais and in London.

But remember as well that no student is an island, and that an intelligent, nuanced analysis of the power networks which position each of us within our state, our home and our identity begins at SOAS.


‘What you can do:’ A guide for SOAS students

There are many things you can do to actively help the refugees and also for those who are presently living at the Jungle refugee camp in Calais.

Such activities include: fundraising for supplies, advertising existing campaigns or creating new ones, influencing decision-making and raise awareness and solidarity.

Here are some ideas of what you can do, organizations you can join and campaigns you can participate to:

Support and Join SOAS Solidarity with Refugees and Displaced People Society.

Support and Join SOAS Detainee Support. SOAS Detainee Support is a student-led initiative working in solidarity with people in and outside immigration detention centers aiming at reducing isolation, offering practical support to people fighting for release, and campaigning for an end to the use of detention.

CARA: The Council for Assistance to Refugee Academics, hosts a number of refugee scholars and supports doctoral studies for CARA-sponsored students.

SOAS Refugee Scholarships Fund: SOAS staff, students and the wider community are able to give direct support to the SOAS Refugee Scholarships Fund through SOAS’ online giving platform. Just click on “SOAS Refugee Scholarships Fund” under “Gift preference” at

Write to politicians and decision-makers, sign and create petitions.

Here are some further ideas:

Help, join and make donations to Calais-based charities and fundraisers.

Here are the links to some of the active campaigns:

CalAidAssociation SalamCalais Migrant Society, The Worldwide TribeMusic Against Borders, Good Chance Calais, and Stockings for Calais.

Photo: Himasha S. Weera

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