This blog was contributed by Eva Spiekermann, Co-Director of the Migration Campaign and Movement Building at People & Planet.
Today, Cardiff Metropolitan University made a landmark announcement in support of migrants’ rights by approving a policy to never invest in companies complicit in violence against people migrating and seeking sanctuary. An unprecedented act in UK higher education, Cardiff Metropolitan’s decision is also the first victory for the student-led Divest Borders campaign, which was launched 11 months ago and is gaining broad support and traction across UK universities.
Cardiff Metropolitan University has included in its Ethical Investment and Banking Policy the commitment to ‘screen out Border Industry companies’. This forms part of the University’s wider approach to not invest in ‘companies or activities which are considered to be unethical’ and which ‘threaten community and international stability’.
This is the first time a UK university has aligned investment policy with immigration justice. This is so much more than an innovative approach to ethical investment. The divestment commitment rightly acknowledges migration as the defining issue of the 21st century and sets a strong precedent for other UK higher education institutions to follow.
In December 2021, student campaigning charity People & Planet conducted sector-wide research into the investment portfolios of UK universities. According to this research, an estimated £327 million of university investment portfolios was invested in the arms, detention, surveillance, and other related industries involved in human rights abuses against migrants at borders in the UK and Europe.
The People & Planet Border Divestment List identifies 60 publicly listed companies engaging in corporate activities that we at People & Planet believe play a significant role in the violation of the human rights of migrating people. This includes the management and servicing of immigration detention centres, the running of deportation flights, the harvesting and storage of migrants’ personal data, and the building and enforcing of infrastructure controlling movement across borders.
Policies such as the UK Government’s Rwanda offshoring plan – to just name one recent example – do not happen in a vacuum. According to The Guardian, the UK’s new Home Secretary ‘is reportedly drawing up a bill designed to create a “blanket ban” on anyone who enters the UK illegally, including by small boats, from claiming refuge’. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) responded that any such law ‘would almost certainly breach the refugee convention’, the agreement that has protected refugees since 1951, of which the UK is a signatory. But these and other border enforcement measures need to be serviced and equipped. Many border companies build their business cases on the backs of migrating people, disregarding the consequences for people and communities.
The student-led Divest Borders campaign opens up new policy horizons and challenges the UK higher education sector to act on a new issue. But the campaign also builds upon the leadership that UK universities have already been showing throughout the past decade. Over the last eight years, more than 60 per cent of UK universities have introduced ‘Ethical Investment Policies’ which explicitly name and exclude specific industries from future involvement in university financial investments.
There is, therefore, a well-established precedent for industry-wide exclusions in UK university investment policy. The impetus for this movement has been the exclusion of investments in fossil fuel companies. So far, 99 UK higher education institutions have ended their financial stake in the fossil fuel sector, deeming it too unethical to continue investing in the industry. Many universities have also included clauses precluding investments in arms companies and those perpetrating human rights abuses.
Currently, 27 universities and colleges received accreditation as Universities of Sanctuary in recognition of the unique injustices faced by migrating people and the role that educational institutions must play in redressing this. As a result of fierce campaigning and advocacy by students and staff, including many with direct experience of the immigration system, every year more UK universities offer scholarship programmes for people seeking asylum and for young people who are excluded from receiving student finance due to their immigration status.
It is vital to continue this tradition of higher education institutions acting as places of safety, solidarity and empowerment for people seeking sanctuary. Sanctuary values should be reflected in the policies and actions of universities across the UK. From divesting their portfolios from harmful border industries to prioritising the education and wellbeing of students over the duty to conduct immigration control under Home Office policy.
All events are embedded in historical context. More than anything, Cardiff Metropolitan’s commitment to never invest in the border industry is a rebuke to the UK Government’s hard stance on immigration, including deporting people seeking safety to Rwanda or incarcerating thousands of people in prison-like detention centres.
As leaders of institutions that foster knowledge, understanding and exchange, university managers and higher education policymakers will certainly agree that building higher and higher walls cannot be the right approach to solving contemporary global challenges. It is time that other universities followed Cardiff Metropolitan’s example, joining students, scholars and university workers in the campaign to Divest Borders.
- Fergus Green, ‘Birkbeck, University of London becomes first higher education institution to adopt Fossil Free Careers’, HEPI blog, 29 September 2022.