Rethinking borders and the language of movement

Passport control booths when travelling internationally; physical borders, whether lined with barbed wire or marked with nothing but an unassuming sign; bodies of water, even. Borders are literal manifestations of concepts and structures which are both socially constructed and deeply real. It is easy for their arbitrary nature to be normalized, for the complicated bureaucratic labels that monitor people’s movement to appear natural and even justified. Yet protest slogans like ‘nobody is illegal’ and current uproar over border agencies like ICE have succeeded in de-habitualizing the international order’s means of controlling movement. Ultimately, the international language around movement, borders, and people is flawed. The movement of people is differentially labelled and valued, seen as acceptable and valid only in certain situations. Borders are fundamentally exclusive structures which uphold global inequalities.

Certain types of movement are classified as acceptable only for certain populations. Mobility is seen as normal and expected for wealthy, (mostly) white, international elites; Americans who move to France, for example, are ‘ex-pats’ – certainly not ‘migrants’ or ‘refugees.’ Language is everything. A family moving from Colombia to the UK, even with similar motivations as an American family moving to France, are classed as ‘immigrants’ at best. Their mobility is heavily policed and met with labels dripping in condescension. Gender, race, and class play important roles as well. Women and children are seen as helpless victims – imagine an advert asking for money for famine relief, or the popularity of international adoption. Men, on the other hand, are presented arriving in threatening mobs, marked as a terrorist threat or dangerous source of cheaper labor. The darker someone’s skin or the less stable their economic position, the more suspicious and unacceptable their migration. Only certain types of movement and people are considered to constitute a ‘problem’ or ‘crisis’, and these differential labels are based on structural racism, classism, and Eurocentrism embedded in development discourse.

Further, the language of movement carefully distinguishes between ‘refugees’ and ‘migrants’, between deserving and undeserving immigrants. Although this language is intended to safeguard humanitarian protection for the most needy, the narrow distinction does not accurately reflect people’s lived experience before, during, or after migrating, and ultimately it harms the people it aims to protect. The label ‘refugee’ is positioned as distinct and separate from the label ‘migrant’ – the former flees for political reasons and is deserving of humanitarian aid, whereas the latter is searching for economic opportunities. Economic and political reasons for displacement and movement cannot easily be separated, as poverty and persecution are interwoven. Communities and individuals often shift between categories, as the decision to migrate is not straightforward. Structural causes of poverty and economic insecurity do not make individuals less worthy of movement or respect. Moreover, failing to consider refugees’ economic needs negatively impacts the quality of long-term protection and prevents sustainable, durable solutions. Many organizations see movement as contradictory to providing humanitarian aid to refugees – for example, aid is easier to deliver in a camp setting – but long-term, successful solutions for refugees require access to migration and labor channels. In addition, by separating ‘refugees’ and ‘migrants’, states are left off the hook, as they admit some refugees and fulfill supposedly humanitarian goals, while at the same time pursuing political agendas which restrict immigration and only let in a small fraction of individuals in need.

As conflicts become increasingly more complex and enduring, and as likelihood of return becomes smaller, refugees can become trapped in systems of humanitarian protection. The increasing visibility of climate refugees is a testament to globalized forces of persecution which challenge our current approaches to labelling, controlling, and reversing movement. We need to reimagine our labels and frameworks, accounting for nuance in the current international system of displacement and movement. Further, we need to challenge structures of exclusion and inequality which have become naturalized, like borders. Our current system of controlled and limited migration is certainly not the only possible option. Labelling movement and constructing borders is not intuitive; rather, as Professor of Refugee Studies Roger Zetter explains, labels not only describe the world, but construct it in convenient images. Prioritizing the convenience of international agencies and anti-immigrant regimes in the global North over the agency and complexity of migrating people leads to systems which are oppressive and out of touch with reality. Fundamentally, we need to rethink movement.

*Illustration by Juliet Richards*

I Want PrEP Now - HIV Activism and the NHS

It can be easy to think of HIV/AIDS as a distant disease of the past; I certainly did. I imagined New York City in the 80s, Rent, Ronald Reagan refusing to speak up, the death of Freddie Mercury. Nowadays, nothing like that could happen, right? Surely we have made strides in terms of our public health infrastructure, attitudes towards LGBT+ people, and understanding of disease and contagion. We have, and yet there is still so much work to be done. The continuing activism surrounding PrEP and the NHS has shed light on the ways that our healthcare systems differentially value bodies, and how cuts to the NHS will disproportionately affect the most marginalized communities among us.

What is PrEP? PrEP stands for Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis, and it is an antiretroviral drug which can prevent HIV transmission when taken before and after sex. A 2012 UK trial of PrEP was stopped early because there was such a high level of effectiveness (100% biological effectiveness) – in other words, PrEP worked so well that it was unethical to withhold it from the control patients of the study. The importance of PrEP cannot be overstated. It is a complete game-changer. More than 30 million people have died from HIV/AIDS around the world, and the most recent estimates (2017) suggest that there are 101,600 people living with HIV in the UK. In 2015, one in eight gay men in London had HIV. Trans women, black people, and IV drug users are also disproportionately affected. PrEP has the power to change this.

Where can I get PrEP? That’s the complicated part. The answer – it depends on where you live. Despite the revolutionary results of the 2012 Trial, the process to get drugs approved by the NHS is slow and full of bureaucratic ineptitude. So despite the fact that PrEP was approved by the World Health Organization in 2014, and has been available in the US since 2012, you still cannot get PrEP on the NHS as part of routine service provision, except in Scotland (*woop woop Scotland*). From the beginning, PrEP was controversial – critics claimed that it would force taxpayers to pay for reckless (implied: queer) sex and indulged gay men who didn’t want to wear a condom. The best way to prevent HIV, they said, was simply to behave ‘well’. This narrative is shockingly familiar to public and scientific response after the initial outbreak of AIDS. The message is the same: the groups being disproportionately affected by HIV (gay and bisexual men, trans women, and black people) deserve their fate. In 2016, from high-up in NHS England came a decision: they were not legally able to recommend PrEP, due to the re-shaping of the NHS in 2012 which delegated public health responsibility to local councils. These local authorities were not given enough money to provide necessary public health services; plus, due to price gouging by pharmaceutical companies, a month’s supply of PrEP costs a whopping£500. The NHS, facing a financial crisis, attempted to cut without cutting. Because PrEP did not fit a warped definition of ‘treatment’, NHS England claimed it wasn’t their problem. Two court cases challenged this decision, and both times (thanks to an outpouring of community activism), the National AIDS Trust won against NHS England.

What now? NHS England promised a large-scale PrEP trial in 2016, launched the trial in October 2017 with 10,000 places, increasing by 3,000 places in September 2018 following reports that sexual health clinics were oversubscribed and turning people away. This is not a long-term solution, and it is not enough. Trials are not the same as routine availability, and every day that passes, people are diagnosed with a lifelong condition that could easily be prevented. In Scotland, PrEP is routinely available through sexual health clinics, and has been since 2017. Both Wales and Northern Ireland are currently running trials with no cap on numbers.

The case of PrEP and the NHS is a testament to the dangers of cutting nationalized healthcare, and the problematic game that politicians and healthcare providers play in attempting to place differential value on human lives. Gay, trans, and black lives deserve the same urgency in providing prevention and treatment as white, straight, cis individuals. We cannot let bigotry flourish with the excuse of cost – effectiveness. PrEP is not about promiscuity or recklessness – it is about taking responsibility and showing care for yourself, your sexual partners, and your communities.

If you are interested in learning more or in getting involved, I cannot recommend Prepster enough. They are a London-based group of HIV prevention activists, educating and agitating for PrEP access. Their website is amazing, and they run a variety of campaigns which are especially inclusive to groups that are often left out of the narrative of HIV/AIDS (like trans women, migrants, and people of color). Also, I Want PrEP Now is a website which provides information about accessing PrEP outside of the NHS through cheaper generic means.

*Illustration by Juliet Richards*

Pippin - a review

I guarantee that Tom Whiston and Stella Green’s radical re-adaptation of Steven Schwartz’s Pippin (running until Saturday at Bedlam Theatre) is like nothing you’ve ever seen before. As soon as you walk into Bedlam, you know you’re in for something unique. The theatre has been transformed -- all but a few rows of seats have been removed, as well as the stage itself, and instead a large square platform stands in the middle of the space, with seats and benches on three sides. The music has been rewritten to give a rock-n-roll edge, and a live band brings it to life; the ensemble wears workman’s coveralls and docs; Pippin, which originally has a sort-of-bizarre circus theme, has been remade into something undeniably slick and cool.

(In order to provide a hopefully-humorous point of comparison, I’ve included alongside the rundown of the recent Bedlam production of Pippin some info about my high school production of the same show -- 2014/15, age 15, ensemble member no. 6, for reference. Photos included below.)

The tech, staging, and choreography were exceptionally well-done, including hands-down the best orgy scene I’ve seen in my life. The ensemble, a well-timed unit, made it all look easy, and made the supporting characters their own too. The ribbon-infused battle scene was a personal favorite, and their shell-shocked faces walking off stage added a great political grit.

(My high school production watered down the sex scene to a couple of girls in ballet outfits doing their best seductive-but-remember-you’re-a-still-a-literal-child looks. My friend Lauren was unfortunately chosen and was scared shitless.The battle scene involved large plastic armor and fake swords. I remember that they were really loud and heavy, and we had to come up with the choreography ourselves.)

Hannah Robinson and Rob Merriam are the essential duo: Leading Player and Pippin. Hannah was the epitome of confidence and control, holding the whole show together and looking badass while she was at it. Rob was perfectly awkward and endearing; you rooted for him, you laughed at him, and you related to his search for purpose.

(I was madly in love with the Pippin of my high school days. During one scene, I was meant to kiss his hand, and the theatre teacher was forced to cut it because - apparently - it was too awkward to bear. Also for context: I was dressed as a monk.)

It’s a lot of fun to see an old show made new. Despite my reservations, mostly because of some buried high-school-theatre-kid trauma, Pippin was genuinely funny and fresh. The two hours flew by, thanks an excellent cast and crew. Themes which are usually lost amongst the kitsch, like the practical difficulties of revolution, the disillusionment of youth, and the pressure to be extraordinary, shone through.

4 stars.

(Photo from author's show, of course.)

The White House is Burning

For those of you who want a refreshing break from Brexit chaos, turn your eyes across the pond to the US government shutdown, lasting a whopping 35 days from December 22nd to January 25th, the longest government shutdown in US history. The government shutdown happened because Congress and President Trump could not agree on an appropriations bill to fund the federal government for the 2019 fiscal year. Or more specifically, Trump announced that he would not sign any appropriations bill, including the one which passed the Republican-controlled Senate and looked like it would be approved by the then-Republican-controlled House of Representatives, which did not fund the construction of his Big, Beautiful, Border Wall. The lengthy shutdown occurred as both sides of the aisle played chicken, refusing each other’s proposals, until Trump announced on January 25th that he would endorse a measure to temporarily reopen the government for three weeks until February 15th. A glorified temper tantrum by the US president led to nine executive departments, with around 800,000 employees, being shut down. The shutdown cost the American economy an estimated $11 billion and another shutdown lurks on the horizon.

At the time of writing this article – February 6th for full transparency – it is unclear whether a border security compromise will be reached. Negotiations for a bipartisan agreement to keep the government funded are in progress with an unofficial end-of-week deadline. It is unclear what the outcome will be. My own cynicism about American politics in general, about Republicans’ spinelessness, and about the potential for constructive compromise doubts that a deal can be reached by the negotiating committee. Although there are glimmers of hope. Negotiators have signaled that the talks are progressing and CNN reported today about a positive shift in tone. However, there are tremendous disagreements about border security to overcome and, it’s important to note, they are about more than just the wall itself. Even if negotiators reach a compromise, it’s unclear – especially to those closest to Trump – what the President would even accept. His Tuesday State of the Union address gave no indication.

Trump has insinuated that if compromise falls through he is not afraid to declare a national emergency and use military funding to build the wall, with or without Congress. This is a tremendously dangerous precedent and it should be shocking to even the most desensitized, Trump-hating consumer of political news. It would undermine the US Constitution and throw separation of powers to the wind. On the bright side, it probably wouldn’t work. It would only take the support of four Senate Republicans (in addition to Senate Democrats, and the Democratic-controlled House) to pass a Resolution of Disapproval which would override the decision. Trump could veto this but then the Senate could override again, resulting in a game of tug-of-war which would fracture the Republican party and ensure that no immediate construction occurred before the 2020 election.

So what? What, if any, lesson can we, a left-wing paper based in Edinburgh, draw from the dysfunction thousands of miles away? The US government shutdown, although technically over, is an important reminder of the ways that the rise of the right is tearing at the seams of the US Constitution and democracy more broadly. The impasse in DC is testing every possible political avenue of compromise, checks and balances and oversight. Brexit is doing the same.

Part of me wants to deliver a hopeful message and to call for a regeneration of our political system beyond partisanship, just as the Founding Fathers originally intended! But frankly that seems unrealistic. It’s hard to trust in compromise when our political fights are so closely aligned to our morals and to the very core of our belief systems. Border security negotiations are about more than just reopening the government or working across party lines. Migrants’ lives and livelihoods are on the line, ICE is deporting people as you read this, and Trump’s narrative on the border wall is fundamentally racist. Walls don’t work and neither do borders. Compromise is nice in the abstract, but much messier in practice. Further, enthusiastic hopes of regeneration after the midterm elections seem tempered. The influx of fresh, new Democrats in the House is not yet enough to alter the tornado-like destruction of the Trump administration. Hard work lies ahead but so does possibility. The government shutdown signals the potential to regenerate, which can be defined as growing something new after loss or damage. Not growing a new tail, but envisioning a better-functioning political system. A reconceptualized relationship between governors and the governed that doesn’t use federal workers as voiceless pawns for political gain. Faith in the tools of democracy to challenge injustice and selfish privilege (embodied in Donald J. Trump) at every turn and to do so in creative, adaptable, and radical ways that Thomas Jefferson surely could not have envisioned. And a regenerated understanding that imperfect governments cannot do it all; so the rest of us must pitch in too.

UPDATE 15/02/19: the US government is not shutdown! Against my best predictions, Democrats and Republicans have agreed on a compromise funding bill, with $1.375 billion towards ‘securing’ the southern border with Mexico. Trump has declared that he will sign this bill and keep the government open; but, classic Trump, he will not be upstaged. He has also explicitly expressed his plan to declare a national emergency in order to secure additional funds. Yikes.

*Illustration by Juliet Richards*

Capitalism and Climate Change

Keepcups, canvas bags, cycling to uni - you probably know these as ways that you can reduce your carbon footprint. Knowledge of climate change is universal in the UK, and so are ways we can help, but these are often presented in terms of individuals and what we can do. These personal changes are admirable and they are certainly effective; but by presenting an individualistic, neoliberal, and apolitical approach to climate change, we ignore the systematic way that the global North and multinational corporations have caused and continue to exacerbate rising temperatures. Capitalism is causing climate change, and only through radically re-approaching our world system can we tackle it.

Climate change is not natural, nor are its effects equally distributed. Those who contribute least to climate change – the world’s poor and marginalized – bear its worst effects. The world’s wealthiest nations and multinational corporations, who produce the most greenhouse gas emissions, have the privilege of ignoring or adapting to climate change’s effects. The racial and neo-colonial implications of climate change are essential, and environmental causes need to be framed around a language of justice and social equity.

The world’s poor bear the brunt of climate change. They are more likely to live in areas with environmental hazards, often lack the infrastructure to survive the increasing frequency of natural disasters which climate change will cause (and is already causing) and the resources to rebuild after such events. Marginalized communities in the global South are especially vulnerable, as they lack the capacity to adapt to climate change, especially those whose livelihoods depend on agriculture or who live in drought-prone areas with water scarcity. Low-income communities in urban areas across the globe bear the burden of ill-health, as they are much more likely to live in areas with air pollution. Corporations and wealthy nations, on the other hand, contribute disproportionately to climate change. 100 companies have been the source of over 70% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions since 1988, according to the Carbon Majors Report. These multinational corporations are fundamentally at fault. Yet they have financial resources, political and economic positions of power, and market logic to avoid doing their fair share.

While politicians in the global North (*coughDonaldTrumpcough*) debate whether or not climate change is a hoax, struggle to meet emissions standards, and sign diplomatic agreements only to later back out of them, people in the global South are experiencing the effects of climate change right now. They don’t have the privilege or the political voice to be heard within environmental discourse. Bangladesh, for example, is one of the most vulnerable nations to climate change because of its high population density, low elevation, and susceptibility to natural disasters, which have been increasing in both frequency and severity. There were 946,000 Bangladeshi people displaced in 2017 alone, most often people living in poverty with already unstable livelihoods, who most commonly end up in rural slums in capital Dhaka. The case in Bangladesh is just one example among many of how climate change intersects with broader issues of poverty, development, colonialism, and capitalism.

The injustice of capitalism is at the core of climate change – corporations and wealthy nations contribute most to greenhouse gas emissions, and marginalized people face the effects. Capitalist logic, with a focus on profit, efficiency, and short-term gains, will not be sufficient to save the environment. ‘Green capitalism’ aims to combine environmental and market goals, through programs like the carbon credit system. By this system, corporations who cannot curb their carbon emissions purchase ‘credits’ which offset their emissions by providing money to renewable projects. This program is one of many attempts to add a moral and environmental slant to the behavior of corporations.

But this solution, and green capitalist programs like it, ignore the systematic inequality at the heart of climate change. Carbon credits allow big businesses to continue to pollute, places the responsibility on renewable projects (often in the global South), and leads to the commodification of public goods and greenhouse gas emissions. More radical solutions are necessary, rather than shoddy band-aids to appease the guilty consciences of corporations. Business models need to change, corporations must be held accountable, and climate change needs to be framed as an urgent justice issue, rather than an abstract phenomenon to be solved by metal straws and online petitions.

An Assorted History of Student Movements

As students, we often feel powerless or inexperienced—no longer children, yet stuck somewhere between adolescence and adulthood. It can seem like adults control the pillars of society and success and change, and we are constantly two steps behind. Yet, we have rich history of student movements and revolutions to prove us wrong. Activism has centered around students, especially university students, for centuries, as campuses across the globe have spearheaded movements, deposed leaders, and fought for lasting social and political change. Even when student-led movements have been unsuccessful in achieving their goals, they succeed in mobilizing youth, forcing conversation, and changing culture. Even today, students—and young people more generally— remain an important, underestimated, and powerful force of political mobilization, as seen most recently in the US with protests against gun violence, like the March For Our Lives. At a time when adult society is becoming increasingly apathetic and uninvolved, student movements are a vital, refreshing, and necessary source of justice and protest.

What follows is a list, by no means comprehensive, of the student movements which in my perspective are most inspirational and educational. It is a necessarily limited and biased list, and so take it with a grain of salt. May universities—including and especially the University of Edinburgh— continue to be a hotbed of counterculture and dissent!

1. USA 1960s

The mid-twentieth century was a time of revolution across issues and across the globe—the year 1968 in particular was a time of radical student activism and university revolts. In the United States, students at Columbia University protested the university’s affiliation with a weapons research think tank, as well as the proposed construction of a ‘segregated’ gym which would exclude the residents of nearby Harlem. Students held several confrontational demonstrations, and then proceeded to occupy buildings across campus, including the University President’s office, and hold three members of staff hostage. It’s important to note that the protestors were generally split along racial lines, as the protestors from SAS (Student Afro Society) who were more concerned with the racial implications of the segregated gym, distanced themselves from the predominately white SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) protestors, whose main focus was on Vietnam. NYPD violently cleared out the SDS protestors, arresting 700 and injuring over 100 students. In the end, Columbia disaffiliated with the think tank and stopped the proposed gym. The protests at Columbia University were just a small portion of the radical student action of the 1960s, with other incidents at Kent State, UC Berkeley, and Howard University— a historically black college whose students demanded a curriculum which emphasized African-American culture and history. These university protests often (but not always) centered around SDS. Students for a Democratic Society was the largest student activist organization in US history, and its successes remain as an inspirational example of the power of university students to create and sustain a movement.

2. Paris 1968

The same year in Paris, student demonstrations, combined with workers strikes, brought the entire country’s economy to a halt and forced the president to flee. Months of conflicts between students and authorities at the University of Paris exploded as police invaded the Sorbonne campus and student marches escalated into days of riots and street barricades. When the Sorbonne eventually reopened, students occupied it and declared it a ‘people’s university.’ Workers then joined the university students, occupying factories and striking, not led by unions but rather joining spontaneously and demanding a more radical agenda involving ousting the government and running their own factories. The revolts were ultimately unsuccessful in forcing de Gaulle to resign, and full-scale revolution was avoided, but the May 1968 riots are an important reminder of the power and potential of solidarity.

3. Argentina 1918

Since the establishment of Argentina’s first university in the 17thcentury, education was controlled by the clergy and conservative upper class. Professors and administrators decided on the curriculum, suppressing modern ideas like evolution, which challenged the Church’s authority. In 1918, students of the National University of Cordoba fought back, demanding a modernization and secularization of the curriculum, the abolishment of tuition, increased flexibility in attendance and examination to accommodate low income students who needed to work, and student participation in university councils. Students organized strikes, demonstrations, and occupations, preventing classes from restarting, and were forcibly driven out by the national army. Their demands were eventually enacted into law. The objectives of the Cordoba students were adopted by students across Latin American universities, as uprisings and subsequent university reform took place in Argentina, Mexico, Peru, and many other nations.

*Illustrations by Polly Burnay*

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