Should memorialisation do more than keep memory alive?

As we approach a time when witnesses of the Holocaust will no longer be amongst us to give a first-hand account of their past, Dr Diana Popescu, Research Fellow at Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism argues that memorial events must do more than keep their memories alive – it must involve a more direct confrontation with urgent problems we face today.

As organisers of memorial events in Great Britain prepare to mark this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day, we are reminded of the vital role that survivors have played in shaping public awareness of the Holocaust.  Public memory of the Holocaust rests on their remarkable efforts to share painful stories of survival and of loss. Survivors have passed to us the responsibilities for preventing such atrocities from happening again, and of ensuring that the Holocaust is not forgotten. How well have we risen to these challenges?

“Never again” had a profound meaning for survivors who uttered the phrase soon after their liberation from concentration camps. In Buchenwald and other camps, survivors held signs on which they had written “never again”, and pledged to build a “new, democratic, and peaceful world”. Later generations have been encouraged to take on this pledge. Holocaust survivor Bob Behr’s hope is that younger generations “feel an obligation to humankind to do whatever you can to help people, to liberate people, to do something good for people”. Behr’s message is echoed in the mission statement of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum whose aim is “to encourage its visitors to reflect upon […] their own responsibilities as citizens of a democracy”. But how does this message resonate with the public today? My own research into young people’s reactions to memorial initiatives reveals powerful emotions and a commitment to social activism. However, the commitment to “Never again” reiterated by younger generations loses potency when it is not mirrored in the present; genocidal events keep occurring, most recently in Myanmar and in Syria.  In response to the rise of racism and of antisemitism in Europe, art critic Jonathan Jones wonders “why Holocaust memorials have done so little to prevent the return of Europe’s far-right demons?”  If the function of memorialisation is to ensure “Never again”, then it seems that memorialisation does not deliver on its promise. Perhaps it is time that memorialisation demands other responses. A far more honest response and a sobering one might be “Again and again”. Indeed, this phrase appears in visitors’ reactions specifically to artworks dealing with the Holocaust and is often followed by challenging discussions on human shortcomings such as cowardice, conformity, indifference, or passivity.

In The Drowned and the Saved, renowned writer and Holocaust survivor, Primo Levi observes that: “Human memory is a marvellous but fallacious instrument”. He continues: “The memories which lie within us are not carved in stone; not only do they tend to become erased as the years go by, but often they change, or even grow, by incorporating extraneous features.”  For Levi, admitting to the volatile nature of memory did not mean that memory should be discarded.  Instead, Levi invites us to scrutinize how the past is re-elaborated in the present. He warns that “the further events fade into the past, the more the construction of convenient truth grows and is perfected”.  The challenge set out by Levi is about deepening our understanding of what remembrance means in the present. If remembering is a process by which the past is reconstructed in relation to the present, then the failures of the present must be more fully and more compellingly integrated in memorial events. That memory is an imperfect tool for representing the past is something which public remembrance needs to acknowledge and deal with. This demands a different kind of education; one which enables young people to relate to remembrance as a phenomenon of the present, rather than the historical past.

We are at a critical juncture, approaching a time when witnesses of the Holocaust will no longer be amongst us to give a first-hand account of their past. Taking forward the messages inherited from survivors, memorial events should do more than re-tell their stories, and more than keep their memories alive. They must involve a more direct confrontation with urgent problems we face today. In Europe and elsewhere, intolerance towards difference is notable, hostility towards foreigners is growing. Knowledge-based on real evidence is giving way to simple belief based on untruths and half-truths, and fake news shapes crucial decisions about the future. Holocaust denials surface in public debates at an alarming rate. Holocaust distortions pass on as factual truth as the gap in historical knowledge grows wider.

Memorial initiatives can and should engage more daringly with such issues. At their best, memorialisation projects lead to self-reflective and critical acts of introspection. They do not shy away from being provocative, or from inviting one to take part in difficult conversations.  They can mirror back at us the failings of the present, together with our own limitations, prejudice, bias, and ignorance. Ultimately, memorial events should remind us of what remains important but is difficult to achieve: tolerance, fairness, justice.  Compelling artworks engaging with the Holocaust and indeed with the memory of other genocides are already doing this. It is time for public memorialisation to catch up.

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Why I did a PhD in my 70s

The rewards of taking on a major research project are enormous at any age. Dr Mairi McDonald discusses completing her PhD in Iberian and Latin American Studies at 72, which she is now turning into a book.

2018 was the four hundredth anniversary of the birth of the Spanish painter Bartolomé Esteban Murillo which seems to me to be the appropriate year to finish a PhD relating the artist’s paintings and their relationship with discourses on poverty in seventeenth-century Seville.

What use is a PhD to a seventy-two-year-old? Not much, you might think. However, the rewards are great: meeting the challenge of adding something new to a particular subject, the satisfaction of joining an academic community dedicated to the subject you are studying and also a huge amount of fun.

I started taking a variety of Open University courses in the history of art while I worked part-time at Channel 4 after leaving my full-time post there, then progressed to an MA Renaissance Studies at Birkbeck. A friend had strongly recommended this course and I was attracted by the range of subjects on offer, including the chance to pursue a module on Power and Control in Spanish Golden Age Art. My dissertation for the MA made me want to continue investigating the topic of seventeenth-century Spanish painting further and keep my brain functioning in old age. Since I had retired by then, and with the support of Dr Carmen Fracchia who had supervised my MA dissertation, I enrolled as a part-time PhD at Birkbeck in what was then the Department of Iberian and Latin American Studies. As a student of Early Modern Spanish art, I was the exception in a department where most PhD students were studying contemporary topics, but I found their enthusiasm and dedication stimulating. I also loved Birkbeck for the impressively wide range of students studying there and the fact that there were even a handful of people around my age. There were workshops to assist me at every phase of the PhD, from the initial stages of how to plan your work through to coping with the Viva. Above all, I received invaluable help and encouragement from my supervisor throughout.

The most difficult aspect of this work was not the research, or the writing up of my findings but learning Spanish from scratch. Learning a new language in my sixties was a tough proposition. Without Spanish, I could not read the seventeenth-century documents relevant to the PhD, such as sermons of the period, discourses on poverty, seventeenth-century chronicles on Seville as well as the writings of current Spanish scholars, none of which were available in English. Through courses at the Instituto Cervantes in London and some perseverance, I eventually attained a workable reading knowledge of Spanish.

Since surviving the viva and graduating at Birkbeck, I was invited to present a paper on Murillo and poverty at a prestigious symposium Murillo in Perspective which was held at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London earlier this year and am working on converting my PhD into a book, amazing opportunities for a seventy-two-year-old!

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Life in London as an international student

Yvette Shumbusho, an MSc Marketing Communication student from Rwanda, talks about arriving in London as an international student and what had made her feel so at home.

I arrived at Gatwick Airport on 15 September 2018, two weeks before the start of my MSc Marketing Communication at Birkbeck. The weather was chilly, serving as a reminder that I was no longer home in Kigali, Rwanda or even close by. The drive to my accommodation for the next year was longer than I had expected, I reached late in the evening, evidently postponing the sightseeing for the next day.

The following morning, I was awakened by the rays of sunlight from my window complementing my excitement of being in a new city. I got ready to explore as much of London as I could, starting off by shopping. No matter where you are from, shopping is a universal activity. There are a number of brands from the UK that I was especially excited to visit and purchase from. That same day I was taught how to use public transport and there were many similarities to the system back home. For instance, an Oyster card is comparable to that of Rwandan Tap and Go cards. Just as I was about to purchase one, I was informed about the Student Oyster card, reducing my monthly expenses!

The major cities of the world – New York, Milan, Rome, Paris – are known to be expensive and London is no exception. I was advised to look for sales and only shop then and, given that summer was coming to an end, there were quite a few around. For the next two weeks, I purchased all the necessities for my home and warm clothing for the upcoming winter period. The most thrilling part of this experience was visiting Oxford Street. It can be overwhelming for a newcomer but it was also exciting. I went to the cinema, shopped some more, ate oriental cuisines that were quite affordable compared to those back home. I felt right at home by the time I began classes – I adjusted so easily and most of the credit goes to London’s element of diversity.

There are a number of nationalities residing in London, and with each there is a piece of culture that has been embedded in that of the British. I was so accustomed to eating particular foods back home that I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to find it here. That is until I visited a market in Dalston, which consists of the spices and dishes from many countries in Africa – I have been grocery shopping there ever since. Honestly, London is a city that almost everyone can get used to, it’s a wonderful place!

There are many things I am yet to do, such as visit Hyde Park (for Winter Wonderland!), catch shows (The Lion King) and explore the museums. Given the continued advancements in technology, I’m kept up to date with events and fun activities to enjoy via an app called Visit London. In addition, the International Community as Birkbeck organises events that add on to the beauty of London and give you a sense of it all at a student-friendly price.

Further information:

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What is a vote of no confidence?

Dr Ben Worthy from Birkbeck’s Department of Politics explains why confidence is such an important part of being Prime Minister and what might happen when it’s no longer there.

Being prime minister is all about confidence. In fact, the British constitution is held together by confidence. Being, and staying, prime minister means you have to ‘command the confidence of the House of Commons’. You don’t have to have a majority (though that’s always nice) but you do need to able to get your votes through. The Cabinet Manual, which sets out the rules as to how government runs, states that:

The Prime Minister is the head of the Government and holds that position by virtue of his or her ability to command the confidence of the House of Commons, which in turn commands the confidence of the electorate, as expressed through a general election.

So to be thrown out without an election, you need to somehow lose that confidence.

The main way this can be done is if the opposition passes and wins a vote of no confidence. If a prime minister loses such a vote then, technically, they’ve lost the magic ‘confidence’ and something has to happen, whether their resignation or an election. So far, so simple. So, to illustrate, Jeremy Corbyn has said if May loses her vote on her crucial bill next week, Labour will immediately call for a vote of no confidence in the government.

The government can also do the opposite and call for a motion of confidence in itself. This makes a vote crucial, and was a way of making sure it’s MPs supported them. This is a good discipline device and has been used by ‘prime ministers down the ages to keep their backbenchers in line and say that “this vote really matters”’. John Major famously did it over Maastricht, as a way of saying to his party: ’support me or we lose power’. Neither of these, by the way, should be confused with a party vote against its leader, of the type that fizzled out against May recently.

So far, so simple (ish). So why aren’t both sides throwing around confidence or no confidence motions every few months when things get sticky? One reason is that they are seen as a weapon of last resort. Another is that to win a vote you need the numbers, obeying Lyndon Johnson’s first rule of politics to ‘learn how to count’. Politically, you shouldn’t call one unless you are pretty sure you can win. So Labour can call for a vote of no confidence but whether they have the numbers to pass one is another matter.

Most importantly, do they work? Well, sometimes. The last successful no confidence vote was in 1979, which led to the end of James Callaghan’s government (the government lost by one vote, legend has it because one MP was in the pub and didn’t get back to the House of Commons in time). Before that you have to go back to 1924 when the first ever Labour Prime Minister, Birkbeck’s own Ramsay MacDonald, was forced out by one.

Then things get more complicated. The Fixed Term Parliament Act has limited how no confidence votes can be called. It also means that if a government loses a vote there is 14 days before another, after which an election is called if that’s lost too.

So, If May loses a Labour confidence, let’s say next Wednesday, what happens then? The next 14 days could be very messy and confusing. Probably she would resign as Prime Minister, though she could stay as a caretaker leader. Another possibility is that someone gets an early Christmas present, and steps in as a temporary Tory PM to cobble together enough support to carry on.  Where would Labour stand in all of this, and should Corbyn get a chance? Because the rules aren’t set, no one is quite sure. A week is a long time in politics. Two weeks could be even longer. Catherine Haddon, who you should follow on twitter, is best placed to explain all the scenarios.

So one outcome of the next few days could be a vote of confidence. Yet no one knows, with any confidence, what would happen next if it’s lost. And all the time, the clock is ticking on Brexit.

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Birkbeck student overcomes dyslexia and the ghosts of her early education to celebrate graduation success

On Tuesday 6 November, Paola Torrani, who grew up being told she was too ‘stupid’ to go to university, graduated with a BSc Social Sciences with Social Anthropology from Birkbeck. She explains why this is only the beginning.

When Paola Torrani first visited London aged eighteen, it was as a student who felt let down by the education system and shut out from the career in Science she had always wanted. Her teachers, seeing that she was struggling to keep up with her peers, had branded her ‘lazy’ and ‘stupid’, even telling her mum that she would struggle to find work. With characteristic determination, though, Paola took a photo of the iconic Senate House building in Bloomsbury and sent it to her mum, saying “one day I will study here.”

Twenty years on, Paola is preparing to receive her award for BSc Social Sciences with Social Anthropology from Birkbeck, University of London, in the very place she first set eyes on all those years ago. “I couldn’t even speak English on that first visit,” she remembers, “so it’s surreal to finally graduate here.”

Fighting for an education

Growing up, Paola’s education was punctuated by failure. Having been repeatedly told that she was stupid by her teachers, she fought to continue her education in Italy and then France, but struggled to finish what she started. “I experienced failure, after failure, after failure,” she remembers, “but I didn’t want to give up.”

While she may have struggled in formal education, Paola has always had an aptitude for languages, which led her to move to work in London. She secured a role in marketing, but was left dissatisfied, saying “I felt bad using my skills to get people to buy more stuff!”

It wasn’t long before Paola began to suffer acutely with stress in that role, however it was on being referred to a therapist that she had her first real revelation. She explains, “My confidence was at a real low and I told my therapist that I was too stupid to follow a career that would really interest me. He was surprised and said that I seemed very intelligent to him, and suggested I take a look at Birkbeck, where he had studied Psychology.” Although the idea of returning to education was daunting, Paola was reassured to hear of Birkbeck’s diverse and inclusive student body, knowing that she wouldn’t be the only person returning to study after a gap. Still, it took her a year to pluck up the courage to apply. “I attended a Birkbeck open evening and was really inspired by how the lecturers talked about their subject,” she explains, “I knew that I’d enjoy being a student there.”

Seeing things differently

As a child, Paola was fascinated by people who were different from herself and their rituals and dynamics, well before she had heard of anthropology. Having previously tried to teach herself about the topic, she realised she’d gain so much more from going to university. It was nerve-wracking returning to study, but she soon felt comfortable among her fellow students, many of whom have become lifelong friends.

Despite enjoying her course, Paola soon began to experience the familiar struggle to keep up. This time, though, things didn’t end in failure. A turning point came when a friend on her course suggested that Paola might have dyslexia and encouraged her to arrange a test. “The support from the disability team was amazing,” says Paola, “they arranged for me to see an educational psychologist and I discovered that I was dyslexic.”

Although relieved to understand why she struggled with reading, Paola still found the demands of study alongside work very tough. The usual concerns that might face a part-time student, such as time management and returning to study after a gap, were compounded by the fact that English was Paola’s fourth language and she needed additional time to work through the course materials. “It felt like I was working forty-eight hours a day at times,” she remembers.

With the support of her lecturers and a very understanding tutor, Paola received the help she needed to complete her degree. She explains “for me, studying at Birkbeck taught me to see the world differently. Partly because I was studying anthropology, but also because I developed critical thinking skills that I’d never had to use before. Birkbeck taught me the academic skills I needed so well that I wrote my 11,000 word thesis in five days – previously I struggled to complete a 2,000 word essay over three weeks! I ended up getting a first for my research, which really proved to me what I was capable of.”

A lifelong learner

Studying at Birkbeck may have changed Paola’s life, but she didn’t have to wait to collect her degree for those changes to start to take shape. Two years into her course, she left her job and took up a position as a project manager at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. She now uses her marketing skills to promote the research taking place at the School, and volunteers on equalities and ethics committees to use her skills for social good. She explains “I don’t have a job now, I have a career. I love the team, I love what I do and I feel like we’re contributing to society.” But Paola’s passion for education doesn’t stop here: she still sees a tutor and is now teaching project management skills to doctoral students, as well as co-writing a book on project management for health research. When her mum texted her the picture of Senate House that she had sent all those years ago, it felt like she had come full circle.

Paola took a photo of Senate House when she first visited London, saying “One day I will study here.”

She says: “Birkbeck helped me to discover a side to me that’s always been there, but that I’ve never been allowed to show before. I’m not going to stop here – sometimes it’s just about having the courage to achieve, with the right people behind you.”

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Birkbeck’s autumn telephone campaign: meet the student fundraisers

Say hello to Birkbeck’s student callers who will be working on the telephone campaign to raise valuable funds for bursaries, facilities and support services.

The Birkbeck autumn telephone campaign has now begun. A team of dedicated Birkbeck student fundraisers, new and returning, will be contacting alumni over the next five weeks to fundraise for College priorities impacting the student experience and student support. 40% of Birkbeck students require some form of financial assistance, and often this support is crucial to these students being able to complete their studies. Alumni support helps to ensure that current and future generations of students have the best facilities, support, advice and career guidance during their time at Birkbeck.

Tara Millington, Regular Giving Officer at Birkbeck has said: “Our telephone campaigns are a real testament to the generosity of Birkbeck alumni, as well as how engaged Birkbeck students are. Each caller has their own unique reason for wanting to take part in the campaign, and they can receive invaluable life and career advice from alumni who want to share their stories. Each campaign, more and more alumni pledge their support to the College. This makes a huge difference for current and future students here at Birkbeck. Not only do the callers gain valuable fundraising experience, they have the opportunity to speak to donors who can help shape their student experience.

The Autumn campaign will run between 31 October and 1 December – if you’d like to receive a call from one of our students, please get in touch with Tara Millington (t.millington@bbk.ac.uk).

Alex, BA Global Film, fourth year
“I chose to study at Birkbeck because it is a university for mature students, and students working at the same time. I wanted to participate in the telephone campaign because it’s important to fundraise for Birkbeck to continue a high level of education, and to provide funding and help to those who need it.”

Aleks, LLB, first year
“I chose Birkbeck mainly because of the School of Law faculty – they are researching issues and subjects that I am passionate about. I will be receiving mentoring from alumni later in my program, so I think it is important to keep them involved and interested after they leave. I’m looking forward to having an active role in growing and helping Birkbeck through the telephone campaign”

Ayelen, PhD Psychosocial Studies, first year
“I wanted to take part in the telephone campaign to give back to Birkbeck, and to learn about fundraising more generally. I chose to study at Birkbeck because the professors are exceptional – there’s a great Psychosocial Department and fantastic treatment of students. I am really looking forward to having the opportunity to speak to Birkbeck alumni.”

Clifford, BSc Financial Economics and Accounting, first year
Fundraising for Birkbeck is important to raise money for the College’s various bursaries and scholarships, to enable a wider variety of people to change their lives through education. I chose to study at Birkbeck because I work full time, and this is the best place to participate in an evening degree … also, my mum is an alum!”

Edwin, MA Text & Performance with RADA, second year
“I wanted to participate in the Telephone Campaign because Birkbeck has contributed significantly to advancing my knowledge and skills in my chosen field (Theatre & Politics). I want to talk to alumni who have shared my experience, and to hear their stories.”

Francesca, MA Museum Cultures, first year
“I wanted to participate in the telephone campaign to improve my speaking skills – Birkbeck is a great place to study and not a lot of universities do my course. I am most looking forward to meeting new people and being part of a team.”

Hannah, MA History of Art, first year
“I chose to study at Birkbeck as it suited my lifestyle, and the courses elective modules and work placement interested me. Fundraising is important to enhance the student experience, I wanted to take part in the Telephone Campaign as I felt I would thoroughly enjoy being a part of it! I’m looking forward to raising funds for Birkbeck.”

Harry, MSc Information Technology, first year
“I am studying at Birkbeck as it has accessible evening and part-time courses. I wanted to take part in the telephone campaign to improve my understanding of fundraising and to help Birkbeck – fundraising is important to ensure that the university continues to grow.”

Joseph, MSc International Development, first year
I am interested in diversifying my experience as a fundraiser and meet like-minded people. I understand that funding is not always easy to find and it is important for Birkbeck’s sustainability.“

Natalie, BA Linguistics and Japanese, second year
“I applied to be part of the call team as I found the nature of the job interesting, I like conversing with people. What I’m looking forward to most about this role is the sense of personal achievement and growth, contributing to future developments at Birkbeck”

Ngozi, BA Human Geography, second year
“I am taking part in the telephone campaign because it seemed like a good opportunity to learn new skills and raise funds for the university as well as the students. I loved the unconventional layout of Birkbeck – it seems to be the right fit for me.”

Ryan, MA Creative Writing, first year
“I think fundraising for Birkbeck is important as it helps keep us a competitive university and makes current student experience even better. I’m looking forward to reaching out to successful alumni – I really love to hear about people’s personal success.”

Shakeela, BSc Social Sciences, first year
“I wanted to take part in the telephone campaign as I like to speak to alumni and find out about their experiences. It was also a way to meet a variety of students I wouldn’t have met before. I feel fundraising for Birkbeck is important as it encourages continued support for the projects here, some of which I’ve benefitted from myself.”

Thomas, MA Philosophy, second year
“I wanted to be part of the Birkbeck Telephone Campaign to gain experience working in a university and speak to interesting alumni. Fundraising for Birkbeck is important as it allows people from a less advantaged background an opportunity to study.”

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La Serenissima: five weeks in Venice

Uli Gamper, MA Museum Cultures student, discusses his summer as one of Birkbeck’s first recipients of the British Council’s Venice Fellowships. 

I was one of the lucky two students from Birkbeck’s History of Art department that was awarded a Venice Fellowship this year. The Venice Fellowship, a partnership between the British Council and Birkbeck, and other universities from all over the UK, supports students to spend a month’s time Venice during the Biennale di Venezia, one the world’s most renowned art/architecture biennials.

Inspired by topics encountered during seminars and lectures in my MA Museum Cultures, I formulated a research proposal around themes of cosmopolitan museology, representations of nationality and arising friction in the collision of local and global forces. The Venice Biennale and museums in general and the British Pavilion in particular were a rich pool for empirical research and observation on these subjects. Subsequently, I used the research conducted in Venice to inform the case studies for my dissertation.

I left for Venice in mid-May as I was part of the first group of fellows, working during the opening period of the Biennale. The great advantage of being part of the first group was to help to prepare the British Pavilion for the opening and meeting the team of the British Council that commissions the pavilion every year. Furthermore, Venice was packed with art, architecture and museum/heritage professionals from all over the world and hence it was a valuable opportunity to network. Last but not least, there were a plethora of great parties all over Venice during the opening week of the Biennale, and that was another unforgettable experience that we all hugely enjoyed.

My working week as a fellow was split into four days working at the British Pavilion. This consisted predominantly of engaging with the audience and introduce them to the installation. We also helped with the daily running of the pavilion as well as condition-checking the installation. The other three days we used to conduct our own independent research, which led me to visit most of the national museums in Venice and collateral events of the Biennale. Other highlights organised by the British Council were the staff seminars at the Peggy Guggenheim Foundation that we were allowed to attend. I had the opportunity to participate in a seminar with the head of exhibitions of the foundation that proved to be a very insightful experience.

Overall, there were many positive aspects about my time in Venice. I hugely enjoyed and benefited from being part of a group of 12 fellows from diverse academic disciplines such as Architecture, Fine Art and Graphic Design. This resulted in extremely fruitful exchanges and debates that informed my ongoing research positively. Apart from this benefit, I left with a bunch of incredible new friends. Venice itself was a bliss beyond words; the light, the sea, the absence of cars, the architecture I immersed myself and rested in awe in its shadow, all invaluable experiences and memories I took back to London with me.

Upon my return to London, our group of fellows continued the discourse and organised an exhibition in August, held at a temporary space in Shoreditch. And it didn’t stop there; The British Council is keen to organise another show in the new year, featuring the research outcomes of Venice Fellows. I didn’t imagine that so many further opportunities would come along from this encounter.

Yet again, and I couldn’t say it often enough, I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Birkbeck’s History of Art department for awarding me with this Fellowship and particularly to Sarah Thomas for being so supportive during the preparation for the Fellowship and after, many thanks!

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Why migration bans and restrictions on recruitment of workers to the Gulf States is a bad idea

Ghana’s government introduced a ban on the recruitment of workers to the Gulf region in 2017 in the hope of reducing exploitation and abuse of migrant employees. However, the ban does not address the underlying drivers of migration for young Ghanaians, and it is likely to continue with unintended consequences. Michael Boampong, PhD candidate in the Department of Geography says that instead, Ghana should ensure improved working conditions at home, coupled with greater legal protection for migrants abroad.

In 2017, the government of Ghana banned the recruitment of workers to the Gulf region. The ban was introduced due to widespread reports of abuse and exploitation of Ghanaian migrant workers in the region. The ban affects not only recruitment agencies, but also those who use their services, the majority of whom are young females. The Ghanaian media and unverified WhatsApp videos have often shown stories of young female migrant workers who have travelled to the Gulf States as domestic workers, working under inhumane conditions, often abused and unpaid for their work. Most recent is the horrific account of a young girl who returned from Kuwait to Ghana.

It must be acknowledged that the danger of being a migrant worker in the Gulf region is not peculiar to only Ghanaians. Media and rights-based organisations have documented the harsh conditions migrants experience in the region often due to the poor domestic labour laws of most of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. These countries have what is known as the “Kafala” visa system, whereby the employer pays the recruitment costs and consequently takes legal responsibility of the worker. This includes making decisions regarding working hours and conditions.  The worst aspect of the Kafala system, however, is that the migrant’s visa is then tied to that one employer – denying the flexibility of changing employment or risk invalidating the visa.

Nevertheless, in many developing countries like Ghana, the rise in youth unemployment rates, poverty and the important role of young people in household livelihoods – coupled with a sense of ‘making it through migration’ – remain major drivers for young people’s migration. There is no doubt that the young will be the most affected by this long-standing Ghanaian ban which has been in place since June 2017.

It is a timely effort for Ghana to take steps toward protecting ‘innocent citizens …from illegal employment agencies’. However, there are some reasons this prolonged ban is a bad idea, considering that the drivers of migration (e.g. unemployment) remain prevalent:

  1. An outright ban on recruitment criminalises the work of all recruitment and travel agencies. When this happens, young people are likely to find other options to facilitate their movement, including falling into the hands of human traffickers. Migration is likely to be riskier, and irregular migration could increase.
  2. Depending on their age and gender, individuals are likely to be expected to contribute to household income. This is often obtained through migration, hence migration becomes a livelihood strategy. Thus, a ban will affect the income of households who depend on migrant worker remittances. This is likely to be the case of potential and current migrant households, including those who have returned home but are unable to go back to the region to work due to the ban.
  3. Fundamentally, the ban also affects the freedom of young people to make decisions about their own lives, including the choice of work, travel, and how they obtain a livelihood. Migration is commonly perceived as a route out of poverty, and thus the ban removes the agency of young people.

So, what should be done?

The drivers of migration must be addressed. Given the poor job prospects in Ghana for both educated and uneducated individuals, many young people do not have another alternative but to leave the country. Therefore, the vital thing is to create economic and job opportunities for young people at home. This will offer them the choice of working in Ghana rather than taking the risk of moving to places where their human rights are likely to be abused. Further, it is essential to open up the space for registered labour market intermediaries or brokers, and private employment agencies to continue their work under strict government regulations.

There is also a need to strengthen information campaigns about the realities of migration to allow young migrants, including those in urban and remote areas, to make informed migration decisions. Added to this, there is the need to regulate and monitor the work of recruitment agencies to know what kind of information is offered to potential migrants.

Moreover, the Government must take steps to fine-tune the legal framework for migrant workers through bilateral arrangements. This includes exploring opportunities to establish new labour mobility agreements with countries that uphold human rights laws, including within Africa itself.

In essence, the ban on migrant workers recruitment in Ghana is unlikely to curb migration to the Gulf region. While a ban may appear to be a step in the right direction, it, in fact, it makes young migrants (particularly females) more vulnerable to clandestine travel agents, and increases migration through illegal channels, further exposing migrants to abuse and exploitation.

 

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‘As an international student, there was a lot of support from Birkbeck’ – an MSc student shares her experience

Nadia Raharinirina, whose passion for education led her to apply for Birkbeck’s MSc Education, Power and Social Changereflects on her reasons for choosing the College and the support she has received as an international student.

Before coming to Birkbeck, I ran the international exchange program at a local business school in Madagascar. My work gave me a global outlook by allowing me to build connections with overseas universities and meet students from all over the world, sparking in me a desire to learn more about education.

I chose Birkbeck because of its excellent academic and research reputation: the opportunity to study alongside other professionals at a research-intensive university was one that I couldn’t miss. Evening study was very convenient because it allowed me more time for other activities during the day, for which Birkbeck, with its easy access to restaurants, parks and historic locations, is perfect. The College and surroundings are a busy, cosmopolitan place with plenty of history to uncover too.

It takes a good deal of perseverance to apply for a Chevening scholarship, as the process takes a year. It’s exciting to prepare for such a life-changing opportunity, but it’s scary as well as you might not be successful. I’m so pleased that my efforts in applying paid off.

Being a Chevening scholar is one of the most prestigious opportunities I’ve ever had in my life. It has not only given me access to a renowned university in the UK, but allowed me to connect with future leaders from all over the world. Before Chevening, I didn’t know much about the UK, but my experience here has been priceless, not only because of the education I’ve received, but because of the people I’ve met who’ll be friends for life.

Birkbeck offers a range of accommodation for international students. I was attracted to the International Lutheran Student Centre for its vibrant, inclusive feel. For me, it was the perfect place because I could call it home. Students connect with each other through different events and activities, which is exactly what international students need: a local community.

I’ve had a really enjoyable year at Birkbeck. Evening classes allowed me to study alongside a part-time job and other activities during the day. The different workshops were extremely helpful for me as an international student to integrate into the College and reintegrate into the academic world. Birkbeck Talent allowed me to access a range of professional advice and opportunities, through which I found my part-time job. Their advice was so helpful in understanding and preparing for the professional world in the UK. I am especially grateful I can still benefit from their services even after my studies at Birkbeck. The library is a great space to study; it’s very calm with generous opening hours. As an international student, there was a lot of support from Birkbeck which allowed me to smoothly integrate into the academic world and the local culture.

During my studies in MSc Education, Power and Social Change, I learned about the dynamics of education in a globalized system, the different powers around it and its transformative potential. I was so inspired by how education can transform something, someone, and alongside my studies, I’ve been looking for ways to implement that. As education is my passion, strengthened by the inspiration of the support and opportunities Birkbeck and the UK gives to its students, I decided to create a platform, Madagrads.com, to encourage students in Madagascar to grow personally and professionally through the different opportunities around them. The goal is to help improve the lives of students in Madagascar and to create a better future for them. In the long term, my plan for the future would be a role as an advocate for education in one of the International Organisations such as the United Nations, to impact more lives, not only in my country, but also globally.

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. Reply . Category: Social Sciences History and Philosophy

Venice Biennale: creative research in the floating city

Danilo Reis, BA History of Art with Curating student, looks back at his five weeks as one of Birkbeck’s first recipients of the British Council’s Venice Fellowships.

The five weeks that I spent in Venice as a recipient of the British Council’s Venice Fellowship programme were truly life-changing. The fellowship, offered in partnership with Birkbeck, is an amazing platform for academic, social, and professional development. The opportunity to work at the prestigious Venice Biennale, while also conducting my own research allowed me to gain a valuable understanding of both the unique city of Venice and the Biennale.

From the very beginning, Birkbeck and the British Council offered me a lot of professional support. Birkbeck helped me with the preparation and planning of my research project, while the British Council offered training sessions in London and put Fellows in contact with renowned institutions in Venice, such as The Peggy Guggenheim Collection, which ran study trips and tours, the European Cultural Academy, which offered professional advice on our research projects, and the We Are Here Venice project, a really interesting initiative engaged with the socio-cultural preservation of Venice. I really enjoyed working with all of these institutions, and I particularly liked the aims and mission of We Are Here Venice. We were invited by the organisers of We Are Here Venice to actively engage with their projects and visit and work in their exciting studio, which was a really enriching experience.

The social element of the fellowship was another important aspect of this trip. Our group of twelve Fellows was very diverse, which made us stand out from other national pavilions of the Biennale. We all became friends very quickly and made really good friends with the workers of other pavilions. Every now and again someone posts a picture of our time in Venice on our group chat, which is normally followed by the recalling of beautiful memories and lots of heart emojis.

Being around so many creative and inspiring people made me want to engage with my research creatively. I had never been to Venice before so I did not know what to expect. Once I was there, I was amazed by the functioning of the city: the environmental challenges that the city faces, the use of boats as public transport, the overwhelming amount of tourists visiting the city, the particular geography of Venice… all these elements were immediate indicators of the uniqueness of Venice. From this, I started to think about the need to contextualise Venice according to the socio-political frame within which it operates, a subject which is not normally included in the many guidebooks which the thousands of daily visitors to Venice carry around. I felt the need to address this lack of socio-political contextualisation, to bridge Venice with Italy and with the rest of the world, perhaps in an effort to demystify the romanticism of the city. This meant that the themes of globalisation, capitalism and immigration also needed to be explored. Halfway through my stay in Venice, I met with two representatives of the European Cultural Academy. Their advice helped me to focus my research on the topics of politics, culture and society. I presented some of my findings to the British Council in my ‘AlieNation Playbook’. This was a conceptual book which I created by interacting with a standard guidebook of Venice and ‘subverting’ it. Through collage, I expressed my personal feelings in relation to the geopolitics of Venice, with a strong focus on the many issues faced by Venice and society at large.

I really enjoyed the whole experience and I wish I could express how much it meant to me, but it is very hard to express my gratitude with words. All I can say, finally, is that I really do hope that this fellowship programme continues for as long as the Venice Biennale exists. All the experience that I gained from working at a world-class art event, all the friends that I made, and everything that I learned with my research project made this experience a turning point in my professional, academic and personal life. I feel very grateful for having been given this opportunity and I do hope that many more students will be able to benefit from the Venice Fellowships in the future! I would like to say a huge thank you to Birkbeck and the British Council for an unforgettable experience.

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. Reply . Category: Arts