In May I helped organise a public event in Newcastle, entitled ‘Living On the Edge: Short Films on Migration and Welfare Reform in the UK’. The event was organised by Northumbria University’s Centre for Civil Society and Citizenship and Durham University’s Institute for Hazard, Risk and Resilience (IHRR), and was hosted by the independent Star and Shadow Cinema (with cake and biscuits provided by the local Beyond Borders group). The event was attended by a range of members of the public, including members of the Newcastle Unite Community branch and Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! who had helped publicise the event. The meeting was opened by Sarah Curtis, the Executive Director of IHRR, followed by John Grayson, vice-chair of South Yorkshire Migrant and Asylum Action Group. John spoke about the awful conditions in asylum housing under contracts delivered by for-profit companies G4S, Serco and Reliance and the implications for housing more broadly. We then showed three short films: “All in this together”: Are benefits ever a lifestyle choice, about experiences trying to survive on benefits; Pauline Carnet’s The London of My Dream, about a Spanish couple who move to London as a result of the crisis; and Coming to Second Home, about the experiences of migrants from Africa to Newcastle in the 1950s and the 2000s. This was followed by a panel discussion including: Sarah Curtis; John Grayson: Gisele Osambia, director of Coming to Second Home; David Burnett, an animator who worked on “All in this together”; Lena Dominelli, a professor of social work; and myself.
The films worked very well together, powerfully depicting the ways in which human beings share many of the same needs – food, shelter, warmth, social interaction, and more, which should form an obvious common basis for solidarity, and collaboration to meet those needs. This point was addressed by panel members, with John Grayson suggesting that divisions between migrants and non-migrants have been systematically manufactured in order to protect profits for a small elite. Lena Dominelli argued that scarcity has likewise been artificially created as a result of neoliberal capitalism, which has turned a crisis of profitability into a social and economic crisis. I pointed out that we have seen a politicisation of migration by politicians and capitalists, at the same time as responses in defence of migrants’ rights have been depoliticised, as campaigning has become colonised by large NGOs employing professionals, replacing social movements, and many charities have shifted toward a business model.
The meeting also discussed the ways that privatisation and outsourcing in the state’s engagements with migrants have paved the way for similar changes affecting other sections of the population. John reported that when Serco’s CEO for UK and Europe was questioned by the Parliamentary Home Affairs Committee about the company’s profits, he admitted that these contracts were effectively ‘loss leaders’, acting to secure a foothold for these multinational outsourcers in the UK housing market. Lena suggested a similar process could be seen in child protection, where plans have recently been announced to outsource many services.
The event showed the kind of productive discussions that can emerge when academic and activist worlds come together. The meeting heard calls for more political education and organisation to oppose austerity and racism. A demonstration against benefits sanctions was announced, taking place that Friday outside the local Jobcentre in Byker, and more have followed since. After the meeting a researcher working on the bedroom tax at another local university said the film had inspired them to ensure the findings of their research would be communicated in a meaningful way to academics, not just a ‘report on the shelf’. To quote from one of the feedback sheets that people who attended completed, in the current context “Apathy is NOT an option”.