The University of Hull is in a unique position to consider the effects of climate change as a driver of modern slavery, having two institutes dedicated to the study of these distinct but interconnected topics. On 11 October 2021 the Wilberforce Institute hosted a virtual conference to formulate an holistic approach to understanding this nexus. The event was supported by Anti-Slavery International and co-organised by Chris O’Connell of Dublin City University. Professor Trevor Burnard, the Wilberforce Institute’s director, welcomed the conference as ‘the start of several conversations about climate change and modern slavery’. Hull’s Energy and Environment Institute, a world-leader in researching sustainable solutions to climate change, was also represented at the event by its director, Dan Parsons. Professor Parsons noted how the UK in particular has a ‘moral responsibility to act’, given that as a country it has the fourth largest total historical cumulative CO2 emissions, and that much of the nation’s wealth has been built on a combination of slavery and high-emitting industrial practices.
Throughout the day, academics, practitioners and people with lived experiences of environmental change and slavery came together to share their research, practical solutions, and hopes for the future. Key-note speaker, the Bolivian Indigenous rights leader Wilma Mendoza Miro, described how various exploitative and ecologically damaging practices are encroaching on Indigenous lands. She concluded that a new approach to policy-making is urgently needed – one which puts human life, not wealth-creation, at the centre of decision-making.
Jasmine O’Connor OBE, the CEO of Anti-Slavery International, described how her organisation recognises the potential of climate change ‘to drive slavery on an unimaginable scale’. Anti-Slavery International is pushing for a just and fair transition to a carbon neutral world, which puts decent jobs at the heart of the transition.
Other participants described various exploitative labour contexts around the world, from highly polluting brick kilns in South Asia, to fishing off the coast of Ghana, to deforestation in Brazil. The theme of climate-induced migration and its risks came up numerous times. While slavery is often considered a problem of the past, and climate change a threat in the future, both issues are converging in the present day to create an ecological and human disaster.
The conference concluded with participants signing up to a letter directed at the President Delegate of the COP26 climate change meeting in Glasgow, highlighting the relationship between contemporary slavery, environmental destruction and climate change, and calling for a just transition.
The full report of the conference, including summaries of all the presentations and further discussion of the issues at stake, is now available as a free PDF here
The eruption on 9 April of La Soufrière volcano on the Caribbean island of St Vincent followed months of smoke plumes and other warning signs. At the time of writing, some 20,000 people have been evacuated from their homes, about one fifth of the island’s population. Some are temporarily housed in shelters, others on cruise ships or neighbouring islands. On 14 April, the United Nations launched an emergency appeal after shelter capacity was breached and supplies of drinking water and other essentials ran low. Overcrowding also threatens to spread Covid-19 among the displaced.
To anyone with a long interest in the region or of volcanology, this may all sound familiar. In 1995, La Soufrière’s namesake – the Soufrière Hills volcano – erupted on the island of Montserrat, another former British colony in the same island chain. The southern half of the island, including Montserrat’s capital, were evacuated several times before temporary resettlement eventually became permanent. Around two-thirds of Montserrat’s original population of 10,600 inhabitants eventually relocated overseas, most in the United Kingdom [UK].
The volcanoes themselves also seem to be following similar patterns: eruptions of ash, debris and gases following a period of seismic activity and heavy ash falls that blight everyday life and pose a risk to health. Montserrat’s Soufrière Hills lava domes continue to rumble to this day, although the last major eruptions occurred between 1995 and 2010. Likewise, La Soufrière seems set to pose a threat to Vincentians for some time to come. Yet in my own research into the disaster on Montserrat, I found that neither the UK Government (Montserrat is a British Overseas Territory) nor the Government of Montserrat had been prepared to respond to an eruption, despite warnings from scientists, eruptions on neighbouring volcanic islands, and increased seismicity. Considering that St Vincent suffered three major eruptions in the twentieth Century, and like Montserrat is subject to other natural disasters such as hurricanes, the lack of preparedness and international support appears inexcusable.
To minimise disruption from displacement, and prevent more serious harms such as trauma, exploitation and poverty among displaced people, temporary accommodation must provide for an adequate standard of living. Despite St Vincent’s history of volcanic activity and months of warning signs, it appears that the government did not have enough shelters, hygiene kits or beds, and no adequate contingency for providing clean water and sanitation. The Montserratian government made similar oversights 30 years ago; as a result, 19 people who had returned to the relative comfort of their homes in the exclusion zone were killed by a pyroclastic flow on 25 June 1997.
The inadequate response of the UK Government to an unfolding catastrophe in its overseas territory caused further hardships on Montserrat. My analysis of Hansard records shows little interest in the situation among UK parliamentarians and government until the tragedy of June 1997 forced the issue into the spotlight. By this time, islanders had struggled on in cramped and insanitary conditions with limited access to food, education and health care, for almost two years. Eventually, the British government opened an assisted passage scheme to help Montserratians leave the island, with several thousand ultimately relocating to the UK. Yet the privations and indignities continued when many of the evacuees, who were supposed to be treated as British citizens, were denied National Insurance numbers and other basic support in the UK. Meanwhile the impacts of the late-1990s eruptions continue to be felt on the island to this day, with many Montserratians still lacking adequate housing and employment opportunities.
As the UN launches its emergency funding appeal, Britain, the former colonial ruler of St Vincent, has pledged just £200,000 of support. It is inevitable that the crisis on St Vincent, like La Soufrière itself, will rumble on for some time to come. To prevent a severely reduced quality of life for the relocatees, and potential tragedy if people opt to return home rather than suffering the misery of inadequate shelters, the British government must do more. The international community too should consider routes for safe and legal passage off the island for those who choose to leave, either temporarily or permanently, to reduce pressure on the limited available services. Such relocations should be carried out with dignity and with respect for the wishes of the evacuees.
Montserrat and St Vincent and the Grenadines sit in an increasingly vulnerable position as climate change warms the neighbouring seas and air. More forceful hurricanes and rising sea levels put the islanders at greater risk from future natural disasters. Heavy storms triggered by climate change can also increase the risk of, and dangers from, volcanic eruptions in the region. The sad inevitability that natural catastrophes will become more severe and frequent should prompt policymakers in the Caribbean nations and their former colonial rulers to step up their disaster preparedness and response. Sadly, for the currently displaced population of St Vincent, the window of opportunity may already have been missed.
CALL FOR PAPERS: Wilberforce Institute Workshop, October 11, 2021.
Slavery is often considered to be a problem of the past, while climate change is seen as a threat to our future. Yet the two issues present a real threat in the here and now, and often interact with exploitative and dangerous consequences.
Climate change poses an immediate and existential threat to many of the most marginalised communities on the planet. All over the world, the impacts of this global emergency are being felt right now in the form of both sudden-onset disasters and slow-onset events. When combined with ongoing deforestation, pollution and resource scarcity, the impacts of these occurrences, which are making livelihoods ever more precarious for millions of people in the poorest countries, lead to increased levels of migration and displacement.
This situation has clear implications for development and human rights. In the words of former UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty, Philip Alston, climate change is ‘likely to challenge or undermine the enjoyment of almost every human right in the international bill of rights’. Among the human rights issues that emerge most strongly are those linked to exploitation such as forced and unfree labour, human trafficking and slavery.
Meanwhile, research demonstrates that slavery in industries such as mining, fishing, brick-making and timber production can raise greenhouse gas emissions and drive other forms of environmental degradation. It has even been suggested that the climate crisis could be averted completely by putting an end to contemporary slavery.
Yet to date, the relationship between climate change and contemporary slavery has received relatively little attention in the policy, advocacy and academic fields. Furthermore, mainstream approaches to both issues have traditionally favoured technocratic or legalistic approaches that place these issues within ‘siloes’, disconnected from their political, social and economic contexts.
On Monday 11 October 2021, the Wilberforce Institute with support from Anti-Slavery International will host a one-day inter-disciplinary and inter-sectoral workshop to break down these siloes and explore the relationship between these twin ills. Submissions are welcome from all sectors, including academics, activists, NGO practitioners, policy makers, journalists, PhD students, and others.
We welcome proposals relating to all aspects of these complex and wide-ranging issues, including intersecting or intervening themes such as: migration and displacement; conflict and insecurity; land, livelihoods and natural resources; ethnicity, gender and race; colonial and neo-colonial legacies.
We are interested in submissions that contribute to breaking new conceptual, methodological, and empirical ground in this topic area, and in particular those that advance novel recommendations for tackling these issues at the levels of policy and practice.
What are the harms inherent in human migration? Who are the victims and who is responsible? Does it make a difference whether somebody is fleeing environmental catastrophe rather than persecution or conflict? These are some of the questions I am grappling with in my PhD research, which seeks to understand the difficulties faced by migrants, particularly children, in the context of climate change.
My approach is somewhat unorthodox. I am trying to answer these questions by looking to the past, using case studies that are not directly connected to changes in the Earth’s climate. The first case study concerns the ‘boat people’ migration from post-war Vietnam (c.1975-1992), which is generally ascribed to political causes but also had environmental roots. The second is that of Montserrat, specifically the evacuation of more than half the island’s population following a series of catastrophic volcanic eruptions between 1995 and 1998. In what sense can these histories be considered ‘useable’, and provide an insight into future climate migration? For me, the answer lies in a perspective called eco-global criminology (EGC).
Like all branches of criminology, EGC is concerned with harms, victims and perpetrators. It seeks to predict future risks (to the environment, humans and animals) and develop solutions to prevent the worst environmental crimes occurring. Unlike many other branches of criminology, however, it is not limited to harms which are illegal. It also scans the global horizon for acts which are ‘lawful but awful’, which hurt the environment and by extension humanity, but are not strictly criminal. An important aspect of EGC is the transnational nature of these harms, and climate change is a truly transnational problem.
The two case studies, Vietnam and Montserrat, represent geographical regions with a history of major human migration and environmental degradation. In both cases, the people who fled their homes in the twentieth century, including large numbers of children, experienced human rights violations at the hands of the state and other actors.
Many of the children who fled volcanic eruptions in Montserrat came to the UK. Their arrival here often occurred after multiple relocations on their home island and in the Caribbean region. On arrival in the UK, some spent months, even years, in insecure and poor quality accommodation. The policies designed to prevent them leaving Montserrat in the first place, and later to protect them on their migratory journey, often failed to uphold their human rights. As a result, many of the children faced issues including poverty, insecurity, racism, trauma, family separation and a lack of educational attainment.
For all its failures, the evacuation of people from Montserrat was, to some extent, an example of planned and assisted relocation. For the boat people on the other hand, grave uncertainties, including a high chance of death, attended their irregular departure from Vietnam. Thousands were turned away by neighbouring states, resulting in many migrants perishing at sea. Others faced serious human rights abuses in camps and holding centres as they awaited resettlement.
By understanding the patterns of risk and harm that affected these migrants, EGC can help us to predict the risks that displaced persons may face in the future. Importantly, it also gives us the opportunity to prevent harm, by putting in place policies and programmes today that allow people to adapt to their changing environment, and/or protect them if they are forced to move. Vietnam and Montserrat are already experiencing climate change-related degradation and are forecast to experience worsening impacts in the coming decades. It is therefore possible that both countries will see a significant uprooting of their populations in the near future.
Today, Montserrat faces an increasing risk of strong hurricanes and, thanks to the destabilising effects of heavy rainfall, further volcanic activity. EGC can use the lessons of the past to plan for the future; to propose better policies to help Montserrat’s current generation of children remain in their homes, or in the worst case, to migrate safely and with dignity. Similar comparisons and lessons can be drawn from the Mekong Delta in Vietnam, where wartime environmental destruction led to massive food insecurity and was one push-factor in the boat people migration. Today, as flooding, drought and salinisation sweep through the Delta, similar issues threaten to uproot and scatter the rural poor. These examples of the ‘useable past’ provide the benefit of hindsight, and EGC compels us to anticipate and mitigate future harms to prevent another human tragedy.
In 1959, the environmentalist Peter Farb suggested that ‘life is like a delicate fabric’, presenting a romanticised vision of the interdependencies of the human and natural worlds. But his ultimate conclusion had a more ominous overtone:
The wonder is not that so many threads are necessary in the fabric, but rather than the fabric manages to exist at all. (P. Farb, Living Earth, 1960: 164)
When environmental harms pull at these threads, there is a grave risk that the structure will ultimately disintegrate. Both Vietnam and Montserrat have faced historical periods when the fabric of life certainly appeared to be falling apart, with both the natural world and human society hurtling towards a dangerous threshold. Climate change represents a similar existential threat today. Using an EGC approach may help prevent repetition of some of humanity’s past mistakes, as a small contribution to our collective battle against the gravest risk we face.
Humanity, it seems, is capable of grappling with just one crisis at a time. Worldwide searches on Google for ‘climate change’, fairly constant since the beginning of the year, fell dramatically after 14 March 2020 when the world was getting to grips with COVID-19.[i] Despite being a climate change scholar, I played my own tiny part in this trend, frequently being distracted from my studies by breaking news of the pandemic.
My research topic is child exploitation in the context of climate and environmental change. My hypothesis is that, as climate change alters people’s environments and pushes them to migrate in precarious circumstances, opportunities for child trafficking, child labour and other forms of exploitation will increase. Human migration is one aspect of the wider climate crisis, which until recently held top spot in the public psyche for ‘Catastrophe Most Likely to Destroy Us’. The recent groundswell of interest was partly due to Greta Thunberg’s headline-grabbing emotive speeches and her adventurous exploits, such as sailing across the Atlantic to attend the climate summit. Nevertheless, public engagement in the topic has been steadily rising for years, as tales of rising seas in Asia, drought-stricken farmland in Africa, and instances of flooding closer to home began to make regular headlines.
The advent, therefore, of the compelling and tragic COVID-19 drama being played out in real-time is doubly bad news for those of us who want to keep climate change high on the agenda. No doubt, halting the pandemic will take all our efforts. Yet policy-makers and researchers alike must keep a weather eye on our changing climate to avoid missing crucial deadlines for mitigation and adaptation.
The postponement of the Conference of the Parties (COP) in Glasgow, UK, this year is a case in point. Top climate experts urged UK Prime Minister Johnson to keep to the original timetable for the meeting, arguing that the momentum for real global action would be lost if the talks were moved back to 2021. ‘Cancelling it immediately might mean action on climate change gets ignored this year and people on the frontlines in poorer countries can’t afford that’, argued climate advocate Mohamed Adow. Yet, along with the Tokyo Olympics, the Cannes Film Festival and Glastonbury, postponed it was.
COVID-19 may be the biggest threat we face today, but climate change remains the biggest threat we face tomorrow. Our understanding of the nature of the latter relies on constant research, not only on weather patterns, but on social, economic and ecological trends. Monitoring of meteorological systems may stall due to the inability of scientists, particularly in developing countries, to take measurements in the field. Surveys on climate-related environmental damage have also been delayed, and a major five-year Nasa project to monitor storms in the stratosphere has been suspended indefinitely.
Academic research is also jeopardised by the current crisis. Uncertainties around funding, restrictions on travel, as well as the current ban on academics meeting face-to-face to contribute ideas and work together on shared projects, mean major delays to planned research and the likelihood that some potential ventures will never get off the ground at all.
My own research centres around the experiences of child migrants, including those travelling to Europe from Viet Nam. To future-proof my research plans against further travel bans, I have shifted my focus to those migrants who are already on my doorstep. With the assistance of UK-based community organisations and NGOs, I plan to trace two separate diasporas to record the experiences of migrant children. If we are lucky enough to see free movement reinstated within the following year, then I retain the option of expanding my research to other parts of Europe.
Meanwhile, two academic conferences that I planned to attend, on slavery and migration, are likely to be called off, and a PhD workshop organised by Wilberforce Institute students, including myself, will be postponed. Keeping in touch with the research community and building one’s academic network, which is crucial to all in academia but particularly to new research candidates, will require creative solutions. By its nature, doing a PhD can be a largely solitary process, and this is now being exacerbated hugely by circumstances of lockdown and quarantine. Zoom and Skype are lifelines in the new social-distancing era, allowing the continued free-flow of ideas as well as maintaining a sense of community and solidarity in what can otherwise be a very lonely time.
The irony is that, while I have tools at my disposal to adapt to the current landscape, my research subjects may not. The two pillars of my study – climate change and migration – will ultimately be altered by the current pandemic. Factoring in, or perhaps filtering out, the ‘coronavirus effect’ will be vital to my research. For example, it will be important to differentiate between migrants’ experiences before and after COVID-19 and evaluate possible changes to the climate regime as a result of the pandemic, in order to make predictions about future trends and policy needs. In these uncertain times, this will be my greatest research challenge.
[i] Google trends analysis for all searches of “climate change” worldwide between 10 January and 10 April 2020.