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“Blatantly Sexist and Racist”: Student Support for Anti-Deportation Campaigns

 In the second in her a series of guest posts based on her fascinating PhD research into British student activism, Sarah Webster looks at Manchester student involvement in anti-deportation campaigns.

In October 1982, the Manchester University Students Union affiliated to Workers Against Racism, an anti-racist campaign organisation run by the Revolutionary Community Party to fight deportations during the eighties. The affiliation is formal recognition of student anti-deportation activism across the decade. Under Thatcher, immigration rules were significantly tightened. Even those with long standing ties and who had not personally committed infractions faced deportation threats. Motivated by anti-racist sentiment, Manchester students supported many anti-deportation campaigns. They were particularly active in local campaigns, supporting many Manchester based families.

Students protesting outside the University of Manchester. Source: University of Manchester archives
Students protesting outside the University of Manchester. Source: University of Manchester archives

Manchester students were appalled by the often dubious and arbitrary grounds offered for deportation orders. A Mancunion article entitled ‘Home Office Racism’ outlines how a Nigerian student at St John’s College (now part of Manchester College) was threatened with deportation for not reporting that his father was in the UK illegally. That the student had no knowledge of his father’s whereabouts or immigration status was apparently unimportant. The justification for deportation was clearly questionable. Manchester students framed the case as racist, arguing that the student was targeted based on his race alone, not for any real infraction of immigration rules.

Divided families campiagn posterWith a strong women’s liberation tradition at Manchester, students were incensed at the additional vulnerabilities that migrant women faced in Britain. A woman’s immigration status was often tied to her marital status. Relationship breakdowns could result in deportation, even if women had been abandoned or fled domestic violence. Further, women faced deportation if their husbands were found in breach of immigration rules or had their status changed. Wives were at risk regardless of their involvement, or more commonly lack of involvement, in any infractions.

Manchester students expressed vocal criticism of state treatment of migrant women. In October 1981, a Mancunion article about Nasreen Akthar, a local Manchester woman’s case, describes the immigration rules as “blatantly sexist and racist”. Students joined many anti-deportation campaigns supporting women and families. They joined pickets and marches, including travelling to London to support pickets of the Crown Courts.

Student support for women migrants reflects a surge of feminist and women’s campaigning on campus in the eighties. As well as challenging sexism on campus, students offered solidarity to local Manchester women, including migrants and BME women. The Mancunion reports on the Jackie Berkeley Defence Campaign, noting student participation in the marches and pickets (for details on the Jackie Berkeley campaign see Chigwada, R, 1991, ‘The Policing of Black Women’ in Cashmore, E and McLaughlin, E (eds), 1991, Out of Order?: Policing Black People). In supporting Jackie Berkeley and migrant women facing deportation, students were expressing opposition to the institutionalised racism and sexism affecting BME women in Britain.

Viraj Mendis will stay posterThe Viraj Mendis anti-deportation campaign is well documented in the Resource Centre’s Steve Cohen Collection. The student press records that Manchester students participated in the campaign from academic year 1985/86. Students became active participants in the campaign, joining the marches and pickets held in defence of Mendis. They also supported Mendis during his time in sanctuary in the Church of the Ascension, Hulme. On the 18th January 1989 at least two students appear to have been present when the police removed Mendis from the church. That day students joined the march and mass sit-down in Manchester in response to his arrest. Ongoing student support for the campaign after Mendis’ deportation to Sri Lanka can be traced until 1990. It is likely that Mancunion coverage faded in response to drop in sense of urgency and decline in student participation.

Participation in anti-deportation campaigns reflects strong anti-racist and anti-sexist beliefs in the student body. It forms part of a wider tradition of anti-racism on campus that is also found in student anti-fascist and anti-apartheid activism (more on this next time! – Ed.) and opposition to international student fees.

Sarah’s research has focused on the University of Manchester student press. The University of Manchester Library holds a nearly complete collection of the University’s official student newspapers, as well as an impressive collection of other student publications, which provide a rich source of information on all aspects of the student experience in Manchester. Visit the History and Heritage webpages for more information.

You might also like to read Sarah’s posts on student support for international students and student involvement with anti-apartheid campaigns.

By aiucentre

An open access library specialising in the study of race, ethnicity and migration. Part of the University of Manchester and based at Manchester Central Library.

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