European governments are responsible for the Mediterranean death toll

Dr Tom Vickers, Senior Lecturer in Social Sciences, Northumbria University

The deaths of at least 1,200 people in the last week, as they attempted to cross the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe, have caused outrage in the European media, and protestations of concern from political leaders. Yet this scale of death was widely predicted when the EU-Italian operation Mare Nostrum was replaced last November by the Triton operation, run by Frontex, the EU’s border agency. While Mare Nostrum included a remit for search and rescue in international waters, Triton has a much more limited remit that focuses on border enforcement within EU waters. Under Mare Nostrum, more than 3,400 people are thought to have drowned attempting the crossing in the year to October 2014, and 1,600 have died so far this year.

British government ministers’ active opposition to search and rescue operations has led some commentators, even in the mainstream press, to accuse them of murder. Their justification at the time was that Mare Nostrum was creating, in the words of Foreign Office minister Lady Anelay, an ‘unintended pull factor’ attracting migrants to Europe. The implication was that allowing them to drown would deter others from attempting the crossing. There is continuity here with the deliberate policy of destitution for asylum seekers, which was introduced by the last Labour government and continued by the Coalition, justified by the argument that this would discourage people from coming to Britain (despite evidence to the contrary), or to leave once here.

The response that has been proposed so far by an emergency summit of European leaders is to send ‘naval assets’ to engage in search and rescue, and in the longer term to consider military action against people smugglers based in Libya. This is unlikely to improve the situation. As activists monitoring the situation in the Mediterranean point out, every previous attempt to forcibly shut down migration routes into Europe has failed to stop people moving, but has forced them to take longer and more dangerous routes.

The recent deaths in the Central and Eastern Mediterranean are partly a result of efforts to make it more difficult to people to cross into Europe elsewhere. Military action against smugglers in Libya will only produce further misery and increase the desperation of those trying to migrate. On the other hand, if migrants were able to enter Europe by regular, legal routes, the smugglers would lose their market and many lives would be saved.

As I argue here and in greater detail here, British capitalism is fundamentally imperialist, and this shapes its relations with other countries and its treatment of migrants. We need to remember who is ultimately responsible for the levels of desperation that are leading so many to risk their lives trying to flee to Europe. It is Britain and other European powers that have destabilised the Middle East and North Africa in recent years through a series of bloody interventions. The bombing of Libya in 2011 was Britain’s 46th separate military intervention in the region since the end of the Second World War.

As long as the British economy is so heavily dependent on overseas assets, which totalled six and a half times GDP in 2013, it seems inevitable that British governments will take whatever steps they consider necessary to defend these investments and the profits they produce. British governments have an interest in not allowing those who have witnessed the impact of their imperialist foreign policy to settle in Britain, and so their hostility toward refugees is also likely to continue.

A further reason for the British government to support such drastic steps to keep refugees out of Europe is that the claim to asylum is based on universal human rights, which contradicts the neoliberal drive to ‘manage’ migration according to demand for labour. In general the presence of migrants within Britain and their access to resources has become increasingly conditional on demand for their labour, yet asylum is a fundamentally needs-based claim. It should therefore be unsurprising that the fine-tuning of UK immigration controls according to the needs of British capital over recent years, epitomised by the Points Based System (pdf) introduced in 2008 and the various measures to restrict EU migrants’ access to benefits, have gone hand in hand with restrictions on asylum.

The people drowning in their hundreds in the Mediterranean are the victims of securitised immigration controls, imperialist wars, and an approach to immigration policy that places profit before people. Of course we should demand that EU states do everything possible to save people from drowning, and we should also demand a safe means for them to cross into Europe and equal rights with citizens when they arrive.

However, the issues outlined above suggest it would be naive to think the British government will do anything to address the root causes of this crisis. Even if there is a change of government at the general election, on the issues raised above Labour is no different. It may be more realistic to look for change led by migrants themselves, like those who in recent months have been mounting determined resistance inside and outside Britain’s immigration prisons.

They could find natural allies in poorer sections of the British working class, who under austerity are facing sanctions, cuts, growing precarity and low wages and are beginning to fight back. Like the restrictions on migration, these attacks on the British working class are fundamentally about restoring capitalist profits, regardless of human needs, and this offers a powerful basis for solidarity.

This article was first published by the Campaign for Social Science at: and is reposted here with their kind permission.

Cake, coffee and community development: The Community Cafes initiative

Tackling Poverty and Inequality: Learning from International Practice for Changing North East Contexts

On Tuesday 3rd March, we held the first of three community café events, part of a series of five events co-hosted by IPPR North ( and the Department of Social Sciences’ Centre for International Development (, in partnership with three local community development consultants. These events are aimed at reinvigorating community development by providing opportunities to engage with examples of development practice from across the Global South, particularly drawing on the expertise of colleagues within the Centre for International Development.

The events use the Café Culture format, with the aim of stimulating new ideas and encouraging lively discussion in an informal environment. Around 40 participants came from a range of organisations including Newcastle City Council; People, Purpose, Planning; Swing Bridge Media; Gentoo; The Angelou Centre; and from many of the Universities in the region. The evening involved lots of animated discussion, fuelled by coffee and cake, and stimulated by interesting presentations from Dr Sarah Coulthard on the concept of wellbeing and its application in relation to fishing communities in South East Asia, and John Stirling, visiting fellow of CID, on his experiences of working with trade unions in the UK and in Sierra Leone, and the way in which learning travels between these different contexts. Ably chaired by Ed Cox, Director of IPPR North, the two hours flew by, and everyone wished we had longer to continue to share ideas.

I’m looking forward to the next of these events at the end of March, with Dr Vasilios Ioakimidis and Dr Darryl Humble, discussing examples of practice from the Middle East and from South India, around the broad theme of social movements.

Full details of the HEIF-funded project can be found here:

Reflections on a career in Sociology

I retired in 2010 as Head of Social Sciences after working for over 30 years as a lecturer in Sociology.

My interest in sociology as a subject stems from my sociology degree started as a supposedly mature student in 1971 in what was then called North London Poly. I needed just 2 A-Levels (acquired by part-time study) and headed off for an interview with a panel that included Howard Wolpe who was then in exile from apartheid in South Africa. They seemed pleased that I was tackling Kate Millet’s book Sexual Politics even if I was finding it a bit of a struggle, and they let me in.

Anti-apartheid became a continuing theme when we occupied the Poly premises following their appointment of a VC with a rather different background to my interviewer. Other student occupations followed and I was caught up in the waves of industrial unrest and now forgotten, but successful, miners’ strikes. This engagement may seem like the distant past now but it had a longer term impact on me as a teacher both in choosing my subject area and in my strong views about sociology as a discipline that engages with the world around us. More than that, it is a discipline that challenges us as individuals and asks us to act to change our world.

Feminism was at the heart of much of the teaching in the Department in its formative years and, I believe, it should remain an important underpinning in a new context As important has been making sure that sociology is located in its global context and i took a number of opportunities to go back and forth to Sierra Leone where we were instrumental in setting up the first Trade Union studies programme at the University  in Freetown. There seem to be very different issues for sociology to deal with today, and there are, but the roots of inequality and its causes remain central. The relevance of this today could not be clearer and, in my particular area of interest in work and employment, we are finding increasingly precarious and target-driven jobs. Once again, sociologists are not just required to interpret the world but to change it too (or did somebody else once say that?).

John Stirling, Head of Social Sciences, Northumbria University 2005 – 2010

Reflecting on Chile

Dr Katy Jenkins’ post during her current research trip to Chile

At the beginning of the week I found myself being briefed on the procedures for evacuation in case of earthquake, and the route out of town in case of a tsunami, and today I find that our trip into the mountains tomorrow requires high altitude medication and our own personal supplies of oxygen – either my Chilean colleagues are exceptionally cautious or else I have taken on more than I bargained for in terms of the reasonable risks of conducting fieldwork in Latin America! Despite these slightly worrying elements of the trip, the opportunity to spend two and a half weeks in Chile, conducting research, presenting at a conference, and meeting Chilean colleagues in three different cities, is definitely one of the perks of the job!

I began my trip in Santiago, at the first Latin American Conference on Political Ecology [] at the Universidad de Chile, hosted by the ENTITLE network []. The theme of the conference was ‘New Latin American Foci and Problems: post-neoliberalism, neo-extractivism, and public policy’, and it was great to be at a conference dominated by young, enthusiastic Latin American scholars. A wide range of papers analysed the interactions between nature and society, and the distinct power relations that such interactions entail, in relation to natural resource extraction in diverse contexts across Latin America and the Caribbean, with keynote speeches from Prof Tom Perreault and Prof Enrique Leff, amongst others. The conference also organised several fieldtrips, and I went on a tour of parks and urban spaces in central Santiago, led by Dr Yasna Contreras, who gave us a fascinating insight into the changing nature of public space in Santiago, before, during, and after the Pinochet dictatorship.

In between conference papers, I had the opportunity to see a little bit of the city. It was incredibly sobering to stand outside the Palacio de la Moneda, close to the spot from where President Salvador Allende was deposed by the military junta of Augusto Pinochet in 1973. And then to La Chascona [] one of the homes of Pablo Neruda, Chile’s most famous poet. His house provides a fascinating window into his life and works. Neruda died a couple of days after the military coup, and his death was mourned at La Chascona even though it had been ransacked during the coup; his funeral was said to be one of the first public acts of resistance against the dictatorship, which lasted until 1990, and profoundly affected the country’s development.

From Santiago, to Iquique in the North of Chile, with my Chilean colleague Dr Hugo Romero Toledo from COES, the Centre for Conflict and Social Cohesion Studies []. In Iquique, and in Arica, further North close to the Peruvian border, we are conducting research with indigenous Quechua and Aymara women leaders, on the issues around large scale mining in the region – a massive source of Chile’s wealth. It is fascinating talking to the women from indigenous communities, and beginning to understand what they see as the key issues around water usage, air and water contamination, distribution of resources, and the wider benefits and negative impacts that the mining industry brings. Iquique and Arica are both prone to earthquakes and, being by the sea, to tsunamis too… though hopefully not this week!

Iquique is a fascinating place, on the edge of the Atacama Desert. It first rose to prominence with the nitrate boom of the late 1800s, which brought enormous wealth to the region. The salitreras, mining towns in the desert, are now abandoned, but the vestiges of the era can be seen in Iquique’s elegant nineteenth century plaza and surrounding buildings. The once grand theatre, now abandoned for many years but open to wander round, provides a glimpse of what life must have been like at the height of the nitrate boom. Iquique is now in the midst of a second mining ‘boom’ and its fading colonial architecture contrasts sharply with the gleaming skyscrapers springing up along the beachfront on the back of this latest boom, and the town as a somewhat ‘wild west’ feel to it, particularly after dark. Further up the coast, mining is yet to come to Arica in the same way, and such extremes of inequality are much less evident as we walk around the town.

Tomorrow we head up into the mountains, to the Aymara community of Putre. It is the Day of the Dead on Saturday (1st November) and many indigenous people who live and work in the towns and cities, return to their communities to participate in the festivities. So this will be a great opportunity to visit the indigenous villages of the altiplano, before giving a seminar at the Universidad de Tarapaca back in Arica on Monday, and then heading back to Santiago for a couple more days of work.

Radical Valleys Radical Women

Dr Carol Stephens reflects on her recent contribution to the Radical Women event in Huddersfield

When I was asked to contribute to a ‘Radical Valleys’ event in Huddersfield in October I wasn’t really sure what to expect. I’d agreed to talk about the rise of Feminism in the 1970s and 1980s in an event that celebrated radical women and their activism.  Feminism in the 1970s and 1980s?  Where to begin?  Who were the audience and what would they know? To top it off I only had around 40 minutes to talk.


In the end I had nothing to worry about – the Milnsbridge Red and Green Club in Huddersfield proved to be  a warm and welcoming venue (a former Labour Club very much like a working men’s club) where socialist and environmentalists meet to socialise and learn.  A large group of women (and some men) had gathered on a sunny October Saturday to discuss everything from sexual violence to Orgreave to women’s health.  Despite the subjects being heavy, the mood was upbeat and respectful – and what was most wonderful was the range of ages: long retired women activists mingled happily with University students in their early 20s.

For my part I began with the rise of Liberal Feminism and then looked at its frailties through an exploration of class, ‘race’ and sexual violence. I was quickly joined in the discussion by women who had lived through and made this feminism and the activism which sprang from it.  A key theme which emerged during the day was that of biography and the personal as political.  As a group – around 50 attended – we discussed our life stories in terms of our engagement with work, trade unions, feminism and protest.

Thanks to Radical Valleys for organising this and inviting me – I came away refreshed by the stories I had heard and by an atmosphere of co-operation and respect.  I agreed to go to the event because of a commitment to informal learning:  my decision  paid off, a really good event.

Dr Carol Stephenson