Tackle lunatics over asylum

January 12, 1996

Universities should lead the fight against xenophobic EU laws governing refugees.

Ghanaian Kingsley Ofusu survived to tell a gruesome story of murder at sea. His brother and seven other West African stowaways were killed by Ukrainian sailors afraid of being heavily fined by the French authorities. The sailors also feared the sack and probable destitution in their poverty-stricken homeland.

They were found guilty of murder by a French court which last month sentenced them to long terms of imprisonment. The case is a tragic but predictable consequence of carriers liability legislation passed by France, the United Kingdom and other European Union governments.

The UK has already levied fines totalling Pounds 76 million since the British Carriers Liability Act came into force in 1987 and has detained asylum-seekers in conditions condemned by human rights groups. Its latest measures are the withdrawal of welfare from an estimated 13,000 asylum-seekers on the presumption of mass fraud; and requiring housing and education authorities, and employers, to report suspected illegal immigrants. In addition, EU governments are drawing up a "white list" of countries, deemed to be "safe" so that all applications for asylum can be refused. The process amounts to a turning against international standards in human rights enshrined in the United Nations Charter and Geneva Convention. Insidiously, EU governments are not only barring entry, but transferring responsibility for much of the policing and scrutiny of immigration status to public and private sector staff.

Julian Gravatt (THES, November 24) highlighted the dangers implicit in public officials being given statutory duty to report on illegal immigrants and the inevitability that suspicion will focus on black and minority ethnic people. What he did not point out was the extent to which colleges and universities are already involved.

Higher education is beset with part-time and short-contract posts in which there is a premium on speedy appointment. These posts are the norm for anyone embarking on an academic career. What does the harassed grant-holder do when fearful of the prospect of tangling with Home Office officials if the best candidate is potentially of suspect status? The candidate who might "cause delay" is quietly dropped in favour of another whose status seems unassailable. The grant-holder who acts in this way will have received no guidance, and may indeed make a serious mistake, eliminating from consideration a candidate who seems suspect, but who fulfils all the criteria, including the right to employment. The rejected candidate has no redress.

Candidates, admissions officers, research contract holders, heads of department and other decision-makers are groping around in an ethical and procedural vacuum because, as the Commission for Racial Equality reported three years ago, universities have not grasped the nettle of equal opportunities in relation to black and ethnic minority students and staff. Instead, to quote the report, "a tone of moral superiority or complacency plus ignorance of the issues and available evidence was pervasive". Anyone who has tried to raise the issues of equal opportunity policies, procedures and training is countered with the principles of liberal individualism and academic autonomy which are assumed to safeguard the interests of students and staff.

But are they sufficient when university staff are being drawn inexorably into the net of xenophobic suspicion as the requirements of immigration scrutiny spread inland from the ports? Personal integrity is no protection against entrapment by expediency as a result of constitutional measures being introduced by EU governments through law and procedure and passed down to institutions to administer. If ever there was a need for universities to take the lead in raising issues fundamental to the concepts of human rights and democratic citizenship, it is now.

Universities are at the summit of educational progress, and should be at the cutting edge of research and teaching which challenge xenophobia at the centre of international networks, which mobilise support for scholars and artists, such as Ken Saro Wiwa, whose campaign for the rights of the Ogoni people led to his execution in Nigeria. We should be restating our mission as free thinkers and democrats - as institutions, in local communities and in the curriculum of teaching and staff development. Within our institutions we should become active for change, fighting racial harassment and discrimination, making our campuses safe and welcoming environments for all students. We should be educating, empowering and forming alliances with human rights and community groups to stop the erosion of human rights and create the forums which will return democratic oversight and accountability to Europe's airports, seaports and border checkpoints.

But the core of the democratic mission of universities must be analysis and teaching of the history of xenophobia in Europe, the postwar consensus which led to the UN charters on human rights and refugees, and the erosion of these rights by the EU. The history of immigration and asylum should not be marginalised as a specialism, but brought into the core curriculum. Where do we stand as our political culture is debased in pursuit of cheap electoral gain? Discussion of how to stem the tide of xenophobia and racial discrimination within institutional ethos and culture should be introduced into academic forums and into alliances with human rights groups such as Amnesty International and The Refugee Council.

Staff development programmes for academics and administrators should acknowledge their roles as gatekeepers of our democratic heritage in human rights. We may prefer to think of the Ukrainian sailors as evil-doers far removed from our own experience. But, as government penetrates deeper, are we sure our institutions protect us any better than airlines and shipping companies protect their employees?

Elinor Kelly is a senior lecturer in the equal opportunities unit, department of adult and continuing education, University of Glasgow.

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