How Qatar ‘sports-washed’ its global image

by MA International Relations student Matthew Dare

In this blog post, I will discuss the questionable means through which Qatar altered global perceptions, and the global impact on the future of the sports industry.

The 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar promises to be a sporting experience like no other. Awarded under suspicious circumstances by disgraced former FIFA President Sepp Blatter in 2010, its build-up has been less than smooth. Such is the Middle East’s incompatibility with elite sports that the tournament has been delayed until the winter for player welfare marking a significant break with tradition. The state has also faced criticism for its deployment of slaves and reliance on migrant workers. Despite this, Qatar remains undeterred in its quest to deliver the 2022 World Cup. This blog explores why that is and how it is endemic of Qatar’s foreign policy mission to rebrand and establish itself as a global superpower.

What is sports-washing?

‘A process where states attempt to improve their image through involvement in the world of sport’. Here the iconic image and global brand power of sporting clubs, nations, and competitions are hijacked to whitewash against a state’s existing poor image. This is problematic as it creates sinister ulterior motives for sport’s governing bodies. Deciding where to host a competition is no longer about who can promise the best tournament. Instead, it involves decisions on ethics and rights. Furthermore, these decisions often involve a great deal of corruption calling their legitimacy into question. In the case of football, the true nature of the ‘beautiful game’ must be called into question. Manchester City have managed to reach the summit European football with the help and finance of the Abu Dhabi United Group led by the Abu Dhabi royal family. This partnership has been mutually beneficial. Manchester City have achieved a decade of footballing success and have seen significant investment in the blue half of Manchester.

Meanwhile Abu Dhabi have achieved great exposure, managing to market the country and its assets and detract from its history of inequality and oppression. Manchester City’s rise has come from ‘dirty money’ and their successes should be questioned. This provides a stain on the nature of football as a fair and equal sporting contest. Sports-washing is therefore something to be concerned about. Sport cannot be a vehicle through which states hide their oppressive nature. Authorities should do their utmost to limit its impacts and prevent this from happening in the future.

Why are Qatar so involved in Western sporting practices?

Qatar is a state of immense wealth backed by the world’s third-largest natural gas and oil reserves. It boasts immense futuristic cities in the middle of some of the world’s harshest deserts such as its capital Doha. The UN classifies it as a country of ‘very high human development’ with an impressive HDI score. It also financed oppressed and minority groups during the Arab spring. Despite this, Qatar’s international standing is less than favourable.

The gulf state’s dramatic rise came at the cost of its migrant work force. It’s believed 90% of its workers are migrants, most of which are slaves. They come from countries such as Nepal and Bangladesh in efforts to escape poverty yet are subject to great exploitation. Qatar has since been found guilty of mass human rights abuses. They also have great gender inequality.

Women are subject to oppression and censorship on almost all matters. They are restricted by ‘male guardianship laws’ and punishments are often fatal. Access to health care and education are also limited and, in some cases, prohibited. This is frowned on by Western culture which has condemned Qatar and distanced itself from their regime.

Qatar’s bid to host the 2022 World Cup and 2030 Asian games are attempts to distract from this. Through hosting the World Cup, Qatar will become a global hub for the world’s biggest sporting tournament. It will attract thousands of fans, tourists and journalists and provide a significant economic boost. Hence, it is a prime opportunity for Qatar to market itself to the West. This would complete Qatar’s transition to a global superpower within the international community.

How successful will this approach be?

This is a risky strategy. Many poorly organised or unsuccessful global events have left host countries in difficult positions. The 1976 Olympics left Montreal in great financial ruin that outlived any beneficial legacy of the games. In truth however, Qatar’s sports-washing agenda is already working. The state has been subject to global exposure for a decade before the tournament has even begun. In this time its image has begun to change with more and more people associating the gulf state with the football rather than its human rights records. It’s benefited from lucrative sponsorship deals with FIFA and UEFA and has seen successful ‘feeder events’ such as the FIFA Club World Cup in 2019 and 2020.


References

Figures

[1] Euronews, 2018, Russia hands over World Cup mantle to Qatar, Euronews. Available from: https://www.euronews.com/2018/07/15/russia-hands-over-world-cup-mantle-to-qatar Accessed: 18/06/2021.

[2] FIFA.COM, 2021, Education City Stadium, Qatar, FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022, Available from: https://www.fifa.com/worldcup/photos/galleries/education-city-stadium-qatar#education-city-stadium-qatar-x3153 Accessed: 18/06/2021.

Hyperlinks

[1] Laughland O, 2017, FIFA Official took bribes to back Qatar’s 2022 World Cup bid, court hears, The Guardian, Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/football/2017/nov/14/fifa-bribery-corruption-trial-qatar-2022-world-cup Accessed: 18/06/2021.

[2] BBC Sport, 2013, World Cup 2022: FIFA taskforce to seek new dates for Tournaments, BBC Sport Football, Available from: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/football/24401699 Accessed: 18/06/2021.

[3] Ganji S K, 2018, Leveraging the World Cup: Mega Sporting Events, Human Rights Risk, and Worker Welfare Reform in Qatar, Journal on Migration and Human Security, Vol 4, Issue 4, p. 221-259.

[4] Zidan K, 2019, Sportswashing: how Saudi Arabia lobbies the US’s largest sports bodies, The Guardian, Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2019/sep/02/sportswashing-saudi-arabia-sports-mohammed-bin-salman Accessed: 18/06/2021

[5] Conway R, 2014, FIFA Corruption Report: Who is to blame and what happens now? BBC Sport, Available from: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/football/30042309 Accessed: 18/06/2021.   

[6] Doward J, 2018, Amnesty criticise Manchester City over ‘Sportswashing’, The Guardian, Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/law/2018/nov/11/manchester-city-owners-accused-sportswashing-gulf-image Accessed: 18/06/2021.

[7] Hattenstone S, 2018, The UAE is trampling human rights, Man City must finally speak out, The Guardian, Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/nov/23/uae-human-rights-man-city-jailing-british-academic Accessed: 18/06/2021.

[8] Jacobs H, 2015, How Qatar got so rich so fast, Business Insider, Available from: https://www.businessinsider.com/how-qatar-got-so-rich-so-fast-2015-5?r=US&IR=T Accessed: 18/06/2021.

[9] UN, 2021, Human Development Report, United Nations Development Programme, Available from: http://www.hdr.undp.org/en/countries/profiles/QAT Accessed: 18/06/2021.

[10] Pattisson P, 2013, Revealed: Qatar’s World Cup ‘Slaves’, Modern day slavery in focus, the Guardian, Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/sep/25/revealed-qatars-world-cup-slaves Accessed: 18/06/2021.

[11] Grant H, 2021, ‘We’re treated as children’, Qatari women tell rights group, Rights and Freedom: Women’s rights and gender equality, The Guardian, Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2021/mar/29/were-treated-as-children-qatari-women-tell-rights-group Accessed: 18/06/2021.

 [12] Chalkey B, Essex S, 1999, Urban Development through hosting international events: a history of the Olympic games, Planning Perspectives, Vol 14, Issue 4, p. 369-394.

[13] Essex S, Chalkey B, 1999, Olympic Locations and Legacies: A study in Geography and Tourism, Pacific Tourism Review, Vol 3, Issue 1, p. 3-4.

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The UK government’s ‘new plan for immigration’ creates an unethical two-tier system of protection for asylum seekers

by Ceri Oeppen, Senior Lecturer in Human Geography, Sussex Centre for Migration Research

In today’s Queen’s Speech to Parliament, the UK Government lays out their agenda for the coming year.  One of those agenda items is their ‘New Plan for Immigration’. 

The speech will likely make much of the Plan’s stated aims to ‘promote legal pathways to protection’ and ‘protect UK borders’, but in reality, the Plan is full of discriminatory proposals that are highly unethical, and, I predict, will be subject to legal challenge.

The Queen’s Speech at the State Opening of Parliament, 2017. Photography by Roger Harris.

The Government’s ‘New Plan for Immigration Policy Statement’ sets out their plans, and was subject to a public consultation, which closed just three working days ago*.  We, at the at the Sussex Centre for Migration Research (SCMR), responded to this consultation in detail, in discussion with community partner Sanctuary on Sea, who also responded, because we are so concerned at the New Plan’s content.

We are not the only ones worried.  The UN Refugee Agency wrote a 35-page document covering their observations (the summary is here), concluding that “many aspects of the Plan do not respect fundamental principles of refugee law” (pg. 34).  Countless other refugee, migrant and asylum seeker rights groups, and migration studies academics have also expressed distress at the New Plan’s content. 

So, what are we so worried about?

Whilst the Plan proposes a number of changes to British immigration policy, most worryingly, it shows the government aims to penalise those refugees who arrive in the UK through irregular means (e.g. with smugglers) rather than recognising that, for many people from conflict-torn countries, this is the only possible way to enter the UK.  This is unethical, and in contravention of a good faith interpretation of the UN’s Refugee Convention (signed and ratified by the UK in 1951), making it potentially illegal too.

According to the Refugee Convention, asylum seekers should not be penalised based on their manner of arrival, and those recognised as refugees should receive the same rights and support as citizens during their stay. 

The UK Government’s New Plan for Immigration proposes lesser support, rights and protection to those who arrive in the UK via irregular means (i.e. smuggled into the UK), versus those who arrive through formal resettlement or family reunification. 

This will create a two-tier system, reifying the image of the ‘good refugee’ (one of the tiny minority who arrive through resettlement – 5,610 in 2019) vs. the ‘bad’ (those who through lack of other options arrive in the UK via the use of people smugglers). 

Whilst the New Plan claims that they aim to “break the business model of the people smugglers”, it is clear from countless first person, academic and journalist accounts that it precisely the existence of border controls, border policing and the lack of safe, regularised, routes that drives the business model of people smugglers.  They are the only option for all but the 0.5% of global refugees who are resettled from refugee settlements in lower/middle-income countries to higher-income countries. 

If you live in a country like Afghanistan, Syria or Somalia, or you’re ‘stranded’ in a detention centre in Libya or a refugee camp in Greece, you cannot just apply for asylum in the UK, even if you speak English and have family or others to support you in the UK.  You can only apply for asylum on arrival in the UK, and as you will not be granted an entry visa (precisely because you come from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Syria etc), your only option is to arrive through irregular means.  The more aggressively borders are enforced, the more likely you are to need the help of smugglers to enter the UK in order to exercise your right to claim asylum, despite the risks both financially and in terms of physical safety. The New Plan for Immigration proposes to penalise those who arrive in this manner, even if their asylum claim is accepted and their status determined as a refugee, by providing only temporary protection, and reduced access to other rights and support. This is in contravention of the Refugee Convention.

There are other issues with the New Plan: it does nothing to address the issues we see faced by those in the asylum system (destitution, a culture of disbelief, hostile environment, unsafe/unsanitary accommodation, serious damage to health and mental well-being), makes ample use of xenophobic divisive language, and conflates terms (asylum seeker, refugee, illegal immigrant, foreign national offender).  It also states aims to amend previous immigration acts, in order to enable the possibility of future ‘offshore’ asylum processing and accommodation.  Much like the extensively-criticised Sewell Report on race, the policy statement about the New Plan makes virtually no use of academic, or other independent research evidence about the impacts and feasibility of immigration policy, and fails to build on best practice advice from international bodies like the UN.

The vast majority of refugees remain in their country and region of origin.  If the UK government wants to live up to its aspirational image of ‘Global Britain’, the least it can do is support and protect those people who do arrive in the UK and claim asylum, no matter the manner of their arrival, and do so in line with the international standards of protection for refugees that the UK helped draft in the 1951 Refugee Convention.      

Adapted Image: Refugees on a boat, Mstyslav Chernov/Unframe, 2016. Overlaid with an excerpt from ‘Home’ by Warsan Shire.

*The consultation process itself has also been widely criticised, not least for closing just days before the Queen’s Speech, but also for not allowing enough response time, for pushing respondents to an unwieldy, unfriendly, internet platform, for asking (mis)leading questions and not enabling responses from those most affected (i.e. migrants, asylum seekers and refugees).

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Stories for justice: redefining the migrant ‘crisis’

by International Relations and Development student Maozya Murray

Whether fictional, biographical or mythical, stories wrap and encapsulate our entire lives. Constructing our waking identities and filling our dream space, stories build narratives, create meaning and justify decisions.

Storytelling is primal and archetypal, serving as a way to transmit important survival tips, valuable information and timeless wisdom from one community or individual to another. Today, stories are used to campaign for social change, create publicity, fundraising appeals, gripping news stories and so much more. In the framework of the refugee ‘crisis’, a positive representation of migration fosters empathy for displaced lives and connects us to our common humanity. As a powerful tool for changing mindsets, today, storytelling plays a central role in redefining the narrative surrounding the migrant ‘crisis’.

Research shows that when we bond with a character, in a story, our brain releases oxytocin, the neurochemical responsible for empathy, and narrative transportation. Empathy gives rise to understanding, in turn, changing our attitudes and shaping our behaviour. In regard to social justice, our connection to the participants factors largely in whether we choose to campaign, volunteer, or donate to a cause.

A study led by the cognitive scientist Veronique Boulenger revealed that the brain engages with emotive stories the same as it would with experience. In this way, effective storytelling replicates reality and enables us to become actors in the tale.

Refugee Solidarity Rally, Oneida Square Roundabout, NY. Image by Lilly Yangcen, WordPress

In the historical context, the anti-immigration sentiment in the UK is a relatively new story. In 1997, just 3% of the population cited immigration as an issue, and yet less than 20 years later, the figures raised to 48%. While immigration to the UK remained comparatively low, the years between 1997 and 2016 represented a shift in the way immigration was depicted.

The demonization of migrants in the media, film and political debate, drastically shifted public opinion by reshaping the narrative into one of fear and anxiety. Changing the story, gave legitimacy to the anti-immigration hostile environment, the Windrush Scandal and subsequent racial discrimination.  

The increasingly hostile narrative that surrounds refugees and asylum seekers is not reflective of the effects of immigration on the UK, but of the power of storytelling in shifting public opinion and consequently policy. In truth, most of the racist myths and rhetoric can be debunked by simple fact checks.

By redefining the story, we can return to a narrative of humanity and awareness for the millions displaced every year by war, persecution or violence.

‘The global solidarity crisis’ – a factual insight. Image by Amnesty International via Amnesty

In recent years, the fuelling of far-right nationalistic ideologies has seen media outlets metaphorically delegitimize and dehumanize migrants through ‘ideologically represented story lines’. Natural disaster, parasite, crime, and terrorism metaphors, are employed to suppress empathy and compassion for migrating people, and evoke fear for security and livelihood.

A study that analysed 57 media articles over a period of 2 years (2015-2016) revealed that negative metaphors make up 67% of the collected data. These imaginary story lines establish a xenophobic narrative that deepens the divide between ‘us’ and ‘them’, and justifies harsh immigration policy. They may just seem like words, but certain metaphors are ‘deeply entrenched in our collective unconscious’ and create myths and stereotypes that have far-reaching consequences for migrant lives. In this way, negative storytelling is used as a tool to further the agenda of anti-immigration politics.

Like Starlings, migration is a fundamental part of our nature. Greg Kear via fineartamerica

As a pillar of anti-migration sentiment, stories play a vital role in shifting the narrative. By knowing someone’s story, we build relationships with strangers, allowing us to stretch our moral sensibility – thus motivating us to act in the name of social justice. Giving a platform to refugee tales can be an effective way to do this, by engaging people’s natural and customary care for each other. Through the amplification of refugee voices in film, theatre, public events, spoken word, or media outlets, we can break the divide between ‘us’ and ‘them’.

Storytelling connects humanity and elicits empathy and solidarity.

As our primary method of communication for over 40,000 years, it is an engaging and powerful tool in the fight for social justice. Transcending border, nationality and religion, stories unite us in the understanding that our similarities are more fundamental than our differences – that ‘differences’ are constructed and propagated to keep us afraid and apart.

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Marketizing the environmental crisis – a step by step recipe

by International Relations student Sara Monteiro

Basic recipe and main ingredients

Turning any crisis into something profitable usually follows the same basic recipe, with the following main ingredients:

  1. Discourse
  2. Media
  3. Co-option
  4. Politics

Mix these in a large bowl of International Capitalism, season to taste (more or less authoritarian/democratic/etc.) et voila! A delicious profit cake. Depending on the amounts used, it can serve transnational sized classes.


The CO 2 question as a practical example:


1. Global CO 2 emissions are too high due to the growing industrialization of the ‘underdeveloped’ countries
2. Campaigns for a sustainable economy, advertisement of Eastern countries emissions in comparison to the West, etc
3. Partnerships between NGOs and corporations for sustainable businesses.
4. Policies and agreements created to develop a Green Economy

Decoding the recipe

Ingredient no 1: Discourse

A specifically constructed narrative is essential in drawing the desired scenario, which usually consists in a partial truth flavored with a biased interpretation of it. Example:

● CO 2 emissions are too high – true

● Due to the growing industrialization of the ‘underdeveloped’ countries – limited analysis that doesn’t consider either the retroactive effects of the high levels of industrialization in the Global North, nor the growing emissions of Western industries located in countries of the Global South

Ingredient no 2: Media

A focused approach on the part of the Mass Media is key in spreading that specific narrative. Said scenario is then normalized through a re-framing of the problem in a unilateral way, hiding the other sides of the matter. Example:

● Green economy implies that a capitalist system can be sustainable, although capitalism is, by definition, unsustainable, since it aims to indefinite growth and thrives on uneven development

● The total number of CO 2 emissions is a very misleading statistic, since it hides how much of those emissions are due to foreign industries for instance, or how much each citizen is responsible for on average, etc

● As an example, the total values after 2016 were 9839mtCO 2 for China, almost twice as the US 5269mtCO 2. However, the value per capita in China is 7.2mtCO 2, which means that in reality Chinese citizens are responsible for less than half of carbon emissions compared to Americans, which produce 15.5mtCO 2 per person 2

Ingredient no 3: Co-option

In case it’s not clear enough by now, ‘co-option’ here reads as corruption , and refers to when the merging/cooperation between organisations makes possible the pursuit of a given goal without the interference of bodies with conflicting interests. Example:

● Agreements between corporations and conservationist organisations pass the idea of redemption and help mistaking methods of ‘compensation’ of emissions, (like offsetting projects) with the business model / method of production actually becoming greener

● Conservation then becomes a tool for facilitating the usage of land in the Global South to seemingly reduce Global North’s emissions and make impact assessments seem more favorable, when in fact the issue is only being moved around, not solved

Ingredient no 4: Politics

A range of adapted policies provides the practical tools to be used towards achieving a specific goal and thus benefiting a specific group of people. Example:

● Programs such as REDD seem to aim discouraging deforestation 3

● In reality, it targets the final balance associated with a company’s
deforestation/forest degradation, thus incentivising the trading of carbon stocks. In other words, as long as you plant a bunch of trees somewhere else, you’re fine destroying a centenary woodland, or a tropical rainforest and keep growing your business


What makes this possible

This recipe is only possible, of course, within a neoliberal capitalist context, which progressively turned us from a human society into a “market society” 7. A society where capital is prioritized over society itself, and financial markets are more important than a nation’s “real economy” 4 and the quality of life of its citizens.

Commodification of everything

We arrived at such an extreme of capitalism that we commodity – literally – everything 7 . From nature itself – not only raw materials, but land, water and even air – to the most abstract services and/or ‘products’, like our own time and sweat (i.e. labour), and even our body organs!

Normalizing the notion of Nature as a commodity 6 is one of the main contributors to the current environmental crisis. Simultaneously, it helps masking the root causes of this crisis, and gives way to notions such as ‘Green Economy’, which incentivizes the green-washing of businesses and industries rather than the implementation of real solutions, both to the environment and people’s lives.

What about solutions?

Solutions entail primarily a reform of our socio-political system, and only then technological development, as a complement.

As suggested above, the climate crisis and the modern capitalist system are intrinsically connected. What this means is that the most efficient way to solve either climate change and social injustice, is to tackle both at the same time! Models of a Green New Deal developed in the US and UK are thought for that.

Of course, in the long run, the most efficient solution is to find a more cooperative system, based on a local and cooperative economy organized around smaller clusters of people, like the grouping of cells within our body that allow organs to function efficiently and thus take part in sustaining the wider mechanism of our body.


At least for now, a planned transition to a more sustainable lifestyle through an integrated program that takes into account not only the final goal, but also the process of transition itself, would be a good start. For this we have the tools, we just need the will to use them.



References

  1. Ghosh, I., 2021. All the World’s Carbon Emissions in One Chart. [online] Visual Capitalist. Available at: https://www.visualcapitalist.com/all-the-worlds-carbon-emissions-in-one-chart/ [Accessed 19 October 2020].

  2. The World Bank, 2021. CO2 emissions (metric tons per capita) | Data. [online] Data.worldbank.org. Available at: https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/EN.ATM.CO2E.PC?end=2016&name_desc=false&start=2016&view=bar [Accessed 19 October 2020].

  3. WWF World Wide Fund for Nature; IIASA International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (2015) WWF living forests report: chapter 5. Saving Forests at Risk., Gland: WWF – World Wide Fund for Nature.

  4. Strange, S. (1998). Mad money. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

  5. Watson, M., 2021. Karl Polanyi; The Great Transformation and a new political economy. [online] University of Warwick. Available at: https://warwick.ac.uk/newsandevents/features/polanyi [Accessed 6 November 2020].

  6. McAfee, K., 1999. Selling Nature to Save It? Biodiversity and Green Developmentalism. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 17(2), pp.133-154.

  7. Marx, K. ‘The fetishism of the commodity and its secret’ in Marx, Karl, (1976) Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, London: Penguin, pp. 163-177.
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How Sharing a Meal Can Satisfy our Appetite for Connection and Heal Wounds of Social Division

Written by Ella Green of Sussex International Development.

Communal consumption cultivates connection

Eating always has, and always will be, a human ritual. It is essential to our humanity: it is what makes us human. From pan to plate, the product of the cooking experience is greater than the food upon which we feast. Sharing food fills not only the stomach but the heart.

Throughout history, eating together is well documented. In fact, the word companion has its roots in the Latin phrase com panio, meaning with bread. So, believe it or not, a friend or companion is actually just someone with whom you share your bread. Sharing a meal has an immense social power. The benefits go beyond the biological. Through sitting down and eating with someone, the divisions of difference can be somewhat dismantled.

In the words of ‘life chef’ Leon Aarts: ‘Sharing a meal has power to connect you with people from other countries, other cultures, the other side of your street, or even your family.’ But can the commonplace rituals of cooking and consuming combat the effects of the hostile immigration environment?

The Home Office has made the UK hostile

‘When you’re an asylum seeker, you can’t work and your social life is almost nothing. You feel like you’re useless’ – Noor

Life as a migrant in the UK is tough. Barriers exist at every stage of integration and migrants are deprived of human rights. One of the most harmful hurdles is the ban on working. Refugees seeking asylum are not entitled to work in the UK. This leaves many people in precarious situations, where they live in poverty. The government gives asylum seekers just £5.39 a day to live on. Covering the costs of living in a city like London is almost impossible.

Source: Refugee Action, 2018
Source: Alisdare Hickson, 2017

Alarmingly, 71% of the British public believe that asylum seekers should have the right to work. From this we can conclude that the government is not reflecting the opinions of the people. Instead, they are creating a culture of exclusion. And even when people’s asylum claims or migration status are accepted, the struggle continues. Many migrants find that their qualifications don’t count or they’re English language skills aren’t high enough.

People also find themselves living under a volatile immigration status. The threat of detention or a change to their visa is always on the horizon. Paulette, from Jamaica, worked for 5 years as a teacher in South London. One day, the Home Office made changes to her visa requirements and she was informed that she must have extra qualifications in order to extend her visa. After this, Paulette and her young daughter lost their home and source of income and became susceptible to deportation.

Many living under hostile immigration policies, feel devalued. Arriving with burning ambition, experience and skill, these are left to dwindle. Most migrants desire purpose but are met with prejudice. Additionally, Post-Brexit plans will make it even harder to migrate to the UK, and many migrants will be classified as unskilled.

Source: Phil Thomas, Flikr, 2011

And it’s not only migrants who feel the burn of the Tory government’s hostility. Marginalisation is rife amongst native English nationals. The strains of austerity mean society is characterised by inequality. For many, life consists of poverty, social isolation and poor mental health.

So, where the void between people is seemingly growing, is food the answer to our problems?  

Sharing a meal can satisfy our appetite for connection, direction and solidarity

According to Leon Aarts , ‘We had more in common than our differences.’ When Leon, sat down to share a meal with refugees in the Calais ‘Jungle’, he realised that through the simple act of eating communally, social divisions can be crushed. From there, he bought back to the UK the concept of Superclub Compassion.

Likewise, in response to the hostile environment, a multitude of grassroots, social enterprises are flourishing in the UK and beyond. Migrateful, Superclub Compassion, Supper & Stories, JUMA Kitchen, The Jollof Café and Al Shalmi Kitchen all put connectivity through food at the heart of their operation.

These organisations have created collective spaces which are fuelled by conviviality, hospitality and care. They focus on our commonalities not our contrasts. This is demonstrated in the fact that, despite their notorious brutality, the refugee and volunteer-led kitchens in Calais have even been known to feed the police. Therefore, the impact of together spans far and connects even the most divided. In fact, it has also been proven that sharing a meal improves happiness, health and wellbeing.

A clear case of connecting migrants with people from diverse background is the initiative Migrateful. Migrateful works by paying migrants from as far as Syria Eritrea and Sri Lanka to run cooking classes.  Although some may have unstable immigration statuses, they offer some of their chefs that do not have the right to work a weekly solidarity grant to support them with their essential needs. Migrateful also invests in training their chefs, so they can deliver high quality lessons to the public. The experience is about mutual learning- the chefs teach people to cook food from their home countries, while at the same time, they develop skills, such as English language. Everyone then sits down to dine together, sharing life stories and laughter.

Migrateful cooking class. Source: Migrateful, 2020

Other groups work in a similar way. When the government isn’t welcoming or integrating migrants, these initiatives reinstall the sense of self-worth and purpose that people crave.

And these spaces allow for self-expression, healing and storytelling. Stories & Supper, for instance, give migrants a place to share their histories. In a simple mealtime setting, the silencing of migrant voices is resisted. Narratives of refugees and migrants as passive and in need of saving are slowly grated away. Migrants take the lead and their agency is nourished. In these environments, prejudices melt away and the conventional space where you expect to share a meal with friends or family is filled with strangers.

And the impact flows in all directions. Cross cultural exchange is facilitated by the universality of food. Cooking seems to cultivate compassion, connection and cohesion. At its best, food becomes a uniting force, in the midst of a lonely and hostile world.

Sadly, appetites for human connection may only be partially satisfied. The wounds of a society divided by race, gender, sexuality, religion and more, can only be partially healed.

 But, at the end of the day, one thing everyone has in common is eating. As Majeda, a Syrian chef at Migrateful, says: ‘I believe there is a relationship between cooking and love.’

Ella Green is a finalist in International Development at the School of Global Studies, University of Sussex.

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