Review of recent publications

Dr Lorena Arocha

Lecturer in Contemporary Slavery

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

lorena.arocha@hull.ac.uk

Today Dr Lorena Arocha summarises the outcome of her collaborative research project with The Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

Lorena Arocha, Meena Gopal, Bindhulakshmi Pattadath, and Roshni Chattopadhyay, ‘ “Ways of Seeing”—Policy paradigms and unfree labour in India’, Anti-Trafficking Review, 15 (2020)

In 2019, a collaborative project between the Advanced Centre for Women’s Studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences and the Wilberforce Institute focused on exploring worker-driven initiatives to tackle exploitation in India. Many activists and organisations generously contributed to the project. In our recently published article, we trace the trajectory of different initiatives to address unfree labour and their impact on workers’ capacity to aspire to and exercise their rights in India. We attempt to understand the dimensions and effects of different ‘ways of seeing’ precarity and exploitation within the larger context of economic policies, social structures such as caste-based discrimination, gender-based violence, and state indifference.

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit India, we tried to contact all contributing activists and organisations to find out how lockdown was affecting their work and impacting people already in precarious and exploitative work. Here we spotlight the work of two organisations that contributed to our project – Aajeevika Bureau and Sangram.

Aajeevika Bureau was set up in 2005 and works in the south Rajasthan-Gujarat migration corridor. It offers rural migrant workers not only direct services, support and protection, but also uses advocacy and research to push for legal reform and better policy implementation, building capacity among migrant workers, especially through its efforts to mobilise and organise workers into collectives. Since the beginning of lockdown, they have been recording and publicising cases of stranded migrants, providing and distributing food supplies and other essentials, raising funds through various crowdfunding initiatives, informing migrants and others what services are available, supporting existing structures among rural families to assist in containing the virus and warding against economic collapse, running a helpline, increasing solidarity and collaborating  with intellectuals and other commentators on social media campaigns, videos and webinars and joining forces with other workers’ platforms. Aajeevika Bureau launched a petition to the Prime Minister’s Office to help transport migrants back home in security and dignity, given the chaotic results during the Shramik Special Train scheme.

Thanks to their efforts, we know how employers used the lockdown to defraud workers of their wages, how workers are running into debt to buy food or medicines or travel back to their home states and the discrimination they face when trying to obtain food rations or medical assistance, with fatal results. Aajeevika Bureau also mounts pressure against state government decisions which favour businesses over workers, as with the cancellation of trains in the southern state of Karnataka at the behest of construction businesses, trapping migrants in, or the order by the northern state government of Uttar Pradesh, imposing a 12-hour shift for workers in industrial units. On International Labour Day, Aajeevika Bureau launched a research report, ‘Unlocking the Urban’. In the report, they painstakingly remind us that, though documenting the effects of the pandemic is important, we should avoid short-sightedness and see the crisis as an opportunity for making visible long structural exclusions. Using the twin framings of political economy and citizenship rights, they show how the ‘sedentary bias’ of most public provision policies in India allows central and state governments to make circular migrants invisible.

Sampada Grameen Mahila Sanstha or Sangram is an organisation which was established in 1992 in Sangli, in the southern state of Maharashtra. It works through a series of collective empowerment groups for socially and economically stigmatised communities, like sex workers and transgender groups. It is a women-led, rights-based network with a firm recognition of the structural inequalities at the heart of what these groups experience, including gender-based violence and discrimination. Sangram emerged at the time of another pandemic, that of HIV/AIDS, and are thus well versed in mobilising these collectives to address public health emergencies.
 
Sex workers and transgender groups have been gravely affected by the lockdown, not only because they have lost their source of income and might become homeless as a result, but their choices are often stark, when return to home states might mean facing violence and ostracism. And yet they were among the first to be aware about the risks posed by the virus and to implement measures to stall its spread as early as February 2020. Unable to access any social welfare scheme or any of the relief assistance provided by the government, they have been left to fend for themselves. Without non-governmental organisations and groups like Sangram, who have been raising funds and distributing food rations and medicines, this collective would have been completely isolated. Sangram is part of other sex workers’ collectives who are mobilising for advocacy purposes and organising webinars to voice in their own words the experiences of lockdown. Without this support, and in the face of campaigns that identify these groups as spreading the virus, isolation, anxiety over the future and hunger are leading to debt and suicide.

As indicated in our article, our pilot research suggests that ‘ways of seeing’ workers and their conditions matter. These ‘ways of seeing’ have distinct results for workers. Never have these been more stark than since the pandemic hit, as demonstrated by what happened to the millions of invisibilised migrant workers in India and reflected in the labour law changes the current government is staunchly pursuing. Paying attention to ‘ways of seeing’ is crucial, as these lead to different dispositions and strategies in challenging and re-imagining workers’ positions and futures.

Wilberforce Institute Webinars at the Freedom Festival

Saturday 4th and Sunday 5th September, 2020.

Whilst September marks the return to learning in British schools and universities, for the City of Hull it also heralds the beginning of a four-day festival that has grown to become one of the cultural highlights of the year. Since 2007 the Freedom Festival, beginning on Friday 4th September this year, provides the opportunity for artists and champions of freedom in all its forms to raise awareness about human rights. Whilst this year’s activities are centred firmly on virtual cultural gatherings, the programme provides something for everyone.

The Wilberforce Institute has played a key role in supporting the festival since its foundation during the Bicentenary of the Abolition of the British Slave Trade in 2007. This year we are delighted to be contributing four ‘Freedom Talks’ that are part of their exciting programme. From the director of our Institute, to PhD students at the beginning of their academic journey, members of the Institute are looking forward to sharing the fruits of their research with audiences around the world. All four events are free to attend, delivered online, and don’t require any booking. In this blog we aim to provide you with a taster of these activities that we hope will encourage you to join us to find out more.

  • Black Peril

Throughout this summer, British streets, squares and bridges that were the scene of violent race riots in 1919, were transformed into dynamic stages, galleries and plinths to creatively explore this past. It’s easy to get the idea that mobs of ‘woke’ millennials are suddenly forcing Britons to confront ‘diversity’ for the first time. However, from Glasgow to Barry (via Hull), and indeed Chicago and New York the entire western world was engulfed in racial conflict over 100 years ago. The backdrop of today’s civil unrest, statues being torn down and serious soul searching across Britain, mean that there has rarely been a more opportune moment to explore ignored British history, radically challenging the way ‘British’, ‘White’ and ‘Working-Class’ identities have been constructed. As Soweto Kinch has argued, ‘1919 established and entrenched hierarchies of racism that have yet to be undone’.

Two times Mobo Award winning, Mercury nominated British Saxophonist Soweto Kinch will be talking to Dr Nicholas Evans from the Wilberforce Institute at the University of Hull about the Race Riots that took place in Hull in 1919-1920. This talk precedes the online performance of #BlackPeril2020 for five nights between Monday, 14th and Friday, 18th September 2020.

Watch at https://www.freedomfestival.co.uk/freedom-talks-black-peril-2020/ on Saturday, 5th September 2020, 1-2pm.

Join the live Q&A at @WilberforceHull or @FreedomFestHull on Saturday, 5th September 2020, 2-3pm using the hashtag #FreedomTalks.

  • Tacky’s Revolt

This webinar assembles a stellar cast of academics, all with specialist knowledge in the area, to discuss the largest slave revolt in the eighteenth-century British Atlantic world, an uprising that laid bare the interconnectedness of Europe, Africa, and America, shook the foundations of empire, and reshaped ideas of race and popular belonging. Chaired by Diana Paton, William Robertson Professor at the University of Edinburgh (author of The Cultural Politics of Obeah), five academics discuss their understanding of Tacky’s Rebellion.

The panellists include: Vincent Brown, Charles Warren Professor of History at Harvard University (author of Tacky’s Revolt); Edward Rugemer, Associate Professor of History at Yale University (author of Slave Law and the Politics of Resistance); Lissa Bollettino, Associate Professor of History at Framingham University (author of the forthcoming Slavery, War and Britain’s Eighteenth Century Atlantic Empire); Robert Hanserd, Assistant Professor of History at Columbia College, Chicago (author of Identity, Spirit and Freedom in the Atlantic World); and our very own Trevor Burnard, Wilberforce Professor in the Wilberforce Institute (author of Jamaica in the Age of Revolution).

Erica Charters, Associate Professor of History at the University of Oxford (author of Disease, War and the Imperial State), will offer a final commentary.

Watch at https://www.freedomfestival.co.uk/freedom-talks-tackys-revolt/ on Saturday, 5th September 2020, 3-5pm.

Join the live Q&A at @WilberforceHull or @FreedomFestHull on Saturday, 5th September 2020, 5-6pm using the hashtag #FreedomTalks.

  • Falling through the Net

Around the world it is the most vulnerable who are often the victims of coerced labour. Such bondage is nothing new, and yet explorations of why children are especially at risk from exploitation has not received as much scholarly attention as other aspects of slavery studies.

Three members of the ‘Falling through the Net’ research cluster at the Institute, James Baker, Jasmine Holding Brown and Saphia Fleury will each talk about their individual projects in this webinar. James’ focus is on how heritage has been utilised to preserve and represent the experience of forced child emigration to Australia. Jasmine is looking at child rescue in Canada – the development of social movements aimed at ‘rescuing’ children, the agencies involved and the ideologies underpinning their practices. Saphia’s research concerns migration in the context of environmental change, particularly climate change.

Watch at https://www.freedomfestival.co.uk/freedom-talks-falling-through-the-net/ on Sunday, 6th September 2020, 1-2pm.

Join the live Q&A at @WilberforceHull or @FreedomFestHull on Sunday, 6th September 2020, 2-3pm using the hashtag #FreedomTalks.

  • Modern slavery in Humberside

The Humber Modern Slavery Partnership is a strategic partnership of front line organisations across the Humberside Police area dedicated to tackling all forms of modern slavery. Over 60 agencies have joined together to fight slavery and trafficking, and their Coordinator Andrew Smith and Vice Chair Alicia Kidd explain how forms of modern slavery are found in this region.

In this webinar, they discuss the local picture of modern slavery, looking at who the victims are and what they experience, how they become exploited, how they manage to leave the situation, what happens to them once they are out of exploitation and what the practitioner response looks like. They also consider the impact of Covid-19 and how this has changed the way that exploiters operate.

Watch at https://www.freedomfestival.co.uk/freedom-talks-modern-slavery-in-humberside/ on Sunday, 6th September 2020, 4-5pm.

Join the live Q&A at @WilberforceHull or @FreedomFestHull on Sunday, 6th September 2020, 5-6-pm using the hashtag #FreedomTalks.

Image by kind permission of Soweto Kinch.

Covid-19 and the Online Sexual Exploitation of Children

Loria-Mae Heywood

PhD student

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

l.heywood-2016@hull.ac.uk

During the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic, ‘stay at home’ measures have paid significant dividends in reducing disease contagion and rates of infection in areas where they have been heeded. While such measures should continue to be encouraged until it is safe to venture out, they have simultaneously been matched with increased risks to children of online sexual exploitation.

Online activity and increased risk to online sexual exploitation

Following worldwide lockdown measures and attendant increases in screen time on the part of children, there have been significant increases in reports of the suspected online sexual exploitation of children – a term denoting the third-party engagement of a child in online sexual activities. Such activities could include an online predator encouraging and receiving from a child a sexually explicit image which is then distributed to child porn groups. The online sexual exploitation of the child could likewise involve the use of an initial sexually explicit image sent by the child as a tool to threaten him/her into sending additional photos and/or money or else face the risk of the exposure of such images to family, friends and/or other members of the public. The risks posed to children from online exploitation during the Covid-19 pandemic have been compounded by a reduced capacity of technical staff to monitor and respond to both real and potential cases, as some content moderators work from home.

As seen in a U.S. context, the National Centre for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) is said to have recorded a 106% increase in suspected cases of child sexual exploitation (via CyberTipline reports) when March 2019 and March 2020 reports were compared. Canada has similarly seen a spike in online reporting with its online sexual exploitation of children tipline – Cybertip.ca – recording a 6.6% spike in reports in April when compared to the three previous months. While such figures are not representative of actual confirmed cases of online child sexual exploitation or the extensiveness of the online risks posed to children from around the globe, they do show an alarmingly higher reporting pattern than other reporting periods, demonstrating increased possibilities for the exploitation of children. Serving as a complement to the increased reporting of the online sexual exploitation of children has been evidence of the increased demand and access to sexually explicit content featuring children. The Indian Child Protection Fund (ICPF), for example, has reported that following the imposition of restrictive lockdown measures on March 23, 2020, there was an increased search for online content using featured words and phrases such as “child porn”, “sexy child” and “teen sex videos” between March 24 and March 26, 2020. The European law enforcement agency, Europol, has likewise indicated a rise in those seeking child abuse material online.

Shared responsibility for the online security of children

The right of the child to protection is enshrined in international law, most notably under the landmark child rights convention – the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) – under which most states are legally bound. Amidst other specific expressions in favour of the protection of the child, an unmistakable balance has in some instances been made between a recognition of the duty of the state towards children, and a recognition and consideration of the role of parents in the care, maintenance, and upbringing of the child. For example, Art 3(2) of the CRC states that “States Parties undertake to ensure the child such protection and care as is necessary for his or her well-being, taking into account the rights and duties of his or her parents, legal guardians, or other individuals legally responsible for him or her…”. In light of the current pandemic and the increased risk of children to online sexual exploitation, the international legal juxtaposition of the protective duties and considerations of states towards children and the responsibilities of parents and guardians towards them serves as a reminder of the shared efforts that need to be taken towards the protection of the child. The need for multiple stakeholder involvement in the protection of the child is further reinforced by the recognition provided in the Preamble of the Convention on Cybercrime of (i) the need for co-operation between states and private industry in combating cybercrime and (ii) the belief that an effective fight against cybercrime requires increased, rapid and well-functioning international cooperation in criminal matters.

Bolstering action

In times of normalcy as in times of turmoil the greatest test of humanity is often how we treat and respond to the most vulnerable. As nations and people grapple with Covid-19, associated health concerns, and changes to accustomed lifestyles, care needs to be taken to ensure that the protection of children is given priority, and that specific, strategic and concerted attention and action are directed towards preventing and effectively responding to the online sexual exploitation of children. In the latter regard, action could include, but should not be limited to: the fostering of open communication with children by parents and guardians and the use of parental controls on devices used by children; the provision of training on online safety to children by educational establishments;  government efforts to ensure that child protection teams are equipped to raise awareness and provide protective support to children and families, even if working remotely; industry efforts to install barriers that would limit the avenues through which online predators could gain access to children; and civil society efforts to report real and suspected cases of the online sexual exploitation of children to local authorities and site administrators, while also desisting from sharing sexualised content of children to unofficial parties.

As we face an unprecedented health crisis, there is some strength and comfort that could be drawn from the fact that fervent and effective action in the face of adversity is by no means unprecedented!

What would you do to survive? Voluntary enslavement and the fear of death

Dr Judith Spicksley

Lecturer in Economic History

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

judith.spicksley@hull.ac.uk

The arrival of COVID-19 has not only delivered us a sharp reminder that human existence is fragile and impermanent, but raised it to a new level of priority, as politicians in many parts of the world privilege the survival of their citizens in ways that only a few months ago would have been unimaginable. From the opposite perspective, we as citizens expect it. The role of government is in the first instance to protect those it serves from external threat.   The classic statement of this is perhaps Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, which describes a world of unrelenting insecurity in the absence of a government able to protect its citizens from each other as well as from foreign attack. As we now know only too well, that attack can take biological as well as military form.

I’ve been trying for a long time to understand why societies in the past not only allowed the enslavement of some of their citizens but legislated for it. Roman civil law is interesting in this context. It ruled that slaves, or servi, were given this title because generals in war did not kill their prisoners but allowed them instead to survive (from the Latin servare). This linguistic derivation may have been spurious, but it seems that those who were saved from death were understood to owe their lives to those who spared them, and as a result became slaves for the rest of their lives.

This brings me back to today. Though there is no sense that we owe our government a debt for saving our lives, those who leave hospital having beaten COVID-19 are keen to reveal how much they owe to the medical staff who brought them through. There is no understanding that such a debt requires repayment, however, nor would the medical staff expect it: the utterance is an expression of gratitude rather than a recognition of obligation. Those who feel particularly strongly have been known to act, usually by engaging in money-raising ventures for organisations that saved their lives or the lives of their children, but we all know that a life debt can never be adequately repaid.

Or do we? What if we were able to offer up our lives in exchange for the opportunity to survive? What would that look like? In reality, as the Roman example above reveals, we already know – enslavement.  The idea of slavery in exchange for survival is a consistent theme throughout the period in which slavery existed as a legal institution. Those taken in war tended to have slavery thrust upon them, but there were also cases in which such actions were undertaken voluntarily. Some of this, as we might expect, took place in a religious context. In the demotic papyri of Ancient Egypt we find a woman offering herself, her children, and her children’s children to a deity to secure her good health, for example. But illness could also encourage individuals to enslave themselves to healers as a way to access the medical care they needed.  Chanana, who examined slavery in Ancient India, found stories in the ancient texts of a mother who offered herself as a slave in return for the cure of her eye disease, and a sex-worker who did the same to save her life. Widespread episodes of infectious disease could also instil such high levels of fear that individuals were prepared to give up their freedom for the chance to stay alive. ‘People caught in an epidemic offer themselves to Jivaka, the famous physician, if only he were to treat and cure them.’ (See D.R. Chanana, Slavery in Ancient India, New Delhi; People’s Publishing House, 1960, 67.).

Such practices offer a whole new slant on the fear of death and the power of medical knowledge, as well as a reflection on the distance we as a species have travelled.  Not all the stories have concrete evidential bases in the form of contracts or agreements, but they point to the existence of an idea in which control over the life of an individual could be exchanged for the opportunity to live. And it’s not just that; such stories indicate that in life-threatening circumstances, a transfer of this sort could have been expected, even demanded. For much of human history, it seems that a loss of authority went hand in hand with survival, and those who faced death with no power to evade it often had little alternative but to accept enslavement, if they wanted to remain alive.

Image: Anthony Wildgoos, In Divine Meditations on Death (1640) https://search.proquest.com/docview/2240871183?accountid=11528 (accessed July 25, 2020).

The Impact of Covid-19 on Child Carers in the UK

Saphia Fleury

‘Falling Through the Net’ PhD Research Cluster

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

s.fleury-2019@hull.ac.uk, #FallingThroughTheNet

There are an estimated 700,000 young carers in the UK. These children already face huge responsibilities within their families and are at a higher risk of mental ill-health and lower educational attainment than their peers. Due to the nature of caring, it is likely that many of these children will be looking after a relative who is vulnerable to Covid-19. The lockdown and resulting economic downturn have put these children and their families at increased risk of vulnerability, including exploitation and abuse, and make it more difficult for them to realise their human rights.

Mental health impact
Research on mental health in the general population found that anxiety and depression spiked following the lockdown announcement in late March. Child carers are already at heightened risk of low self-esteem, anxiety and depression, so may be considered extremely vulnerable to worsening mental health at this time.

Research on carers’ experiences, conducted in the early stages of the UK lockdown, found high levels of anxiety amongst carers. The mental pressure of isolation, not being able to see friends or go outside for a “breather”, plus the stress of supporting a family’s everyday needs in difficult circumstances, will inevitably increase during the lockdown period. This may be compounded if household income is reduced during or following the lockdown due to underemployment or austerity measures.

Food and other essential goods
In theory, supermarket delivery slots have been reserved for the most vulnerable. However, The Guardian newspaper found that “large numbers of disabled and older people are being excluded from the scheme due to the highly selective criteria”; these criteria may impact on child carers.  Penalties for shopping for fewer items, plus delivery charges, increase the overall cost of shopping online. Equally, delivery services rely on access to the internet, email and a credit or debit card, which young carers may not have. Poorer families are less likely to have been able to “stockpile” essentials at the start of the outbreak and may have subsequently struggled to buy basic goods. These issues are compounded for child carers, who are already more likely to experience poverty than other children.

Families on low incomes are disadvantaged by the rising cost of some items and the need to shop frequently for smaller amounts of goods. Children may be afraid to leave the house to shop in case they contract the virus and become ill themselves, or pass it to vulnerable members of their household.

While some carers noted that they were receiving practical and emotional support from their local community, this is ad hoc and cannot be counted on as a long-term solution. Due to stigma, fear, or lack of social networks, child carers may be less likely or able to seek practical support within the community.

Accessing healthcare
Despite government assurances that the NHS is still open for business, fear of contracting Covid-19 appears to be keeping people away from hospitals. Child carers face a difficult decision if they see a decline in the health of a relative, which may be compounded by long NHS 111 waiting times and the unavailability of face-to-face GP services. This responsibility is likely to put enormous strain on the mental health of the child carer, as well as putting the health and wellbeing of their family members at risk.

Education
Child carers’ education already suffers because of their caring responsibilities. Child carers miss an average of 48 days of school and may struggle to find time to concentrate on homework. In the absence of a parent or teacher to guide them, these children may see a further decline in their ability to learn. This will be compounded by additional stresses and highly time-consuming activities such as shopping for essentials (see above), brought on by the circumstances of the lockdown. In this way, child carers face a double-hit in terms of access to education.

Vulnerabilities
Child carers tend to be highly competent, organised and capable, often as a result of the skills they have acquired from their caring responsibilities. But they may also have mental or physical disabilities, be refugees or members of minority groups, experience child poverty or be the victims of exploitation or abuse.

Indeed, some of these characteristics may be exacerbated by the lockdown itself. Children who are driven further into poverty, mental ill-health and isolation by the lockdown situation may become more vulnerable to situations of exploitation and abuse. In the worst cases, these situations can manifest as sexual and economic exploitation, including forced criminality, which have serious long-term effects on the health and wellbeing of the child.

It is important to contemplate these intersecting sources of vulnerability when considering the impact of Covid-19 on child carers. Being forced by the lockdown to stay away from school, friends and the community at large may mean that children who are at risk may not be seen and offered support. Above all, despite their capabilities, they must still be considered as children, with all the rights and protections due to those under the age of 18.

On the Ground: Front Line Observations

Dr Alicia Kidd

Postdoctoral Researcher

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

alicia.kidd@hull.ac.uk

Andrew Smith

Coordinator

Humber Modern Slavery Partnership and the Wilberforce Institute

a.smith9@hull.ac.uk

Through our associations with modern slavery partnerships and front-line practitioners across the country, we have been able to access some of the direct observations that have been made regarding the impact that Covid-19 has been having on vulnerable populations. It is key to note that many of these experiences will not be caused entirely by Covid-19, but will be a result of an amalgamation of the impacts of the disease, coupled with wider political, economic and societal structures that tend to most significantly impact those in lower socio-economic groups.

Impact on modern slavery support services
The government has announced that anyone in National Referral Mechanism (NRM) safehousing will not be required to leave the safehouse for three months in light of the heightened risk they would face as a result of Covid-19. The modern slavery helpline and Salvation Army referral line remain open and it is still possible to refer people to the NRM in the current climate.

However, Covid-19 has put significant strain on a large proportion of first responder organisations, victim care contract providers and third sector organisations who support victims of modern slavery. This has led to reduced services, furloughed staff and a closure of drop-in centres, making it much more difficult to offer direct support to those who need it. Face-to face visits are now only made on very rare occasions, with support workers remaining at a safe distance from the clients, and most check-ins are conducted over the phone. Many clients rely on gas and electricity cards which have to be topped up at shops. With many of these shops now shut, clients are unable to top up their cards and are faced with limited gas and electricity supplies.

Counselling and support services have decreased, as have the number of staff able to work simultaneously in safehouses, meaning an increase in lone working. This is to the detriment of victims and survivors, as well as to those working to support them.

Impact on work
We are identifying that in light of Covid-19, low paid workers are being sacked rather than receiving statutory sick pay. The closure of restaurants, carwashes and nail bars is also resulting in the eviction of workers from their accommodation. These workers are then reporting as homeless, which is pushing them into desperate situations in order to find work to be able to survive, therefore increasing their risk of exploitation. Coupled with this risk is the reduction in labour regulation inspections as a result of social distancing, meaning there are fewer checks to ensure worker welfare. We are also aware that exploitative labour has moved away from those businesses that have shut as a result of Covid-19 and is now moving into agriculture and packing which are getting busier. Soup kitchens have been identified as locations for labour force recruitment and county lines dealing.

Agencies supporting sex workers are reporting that, while the paying for sex has reduced as a result of social distancing, workers are now predominantly moving on to webcam work. Some of the workers have no recourse to public funds, no job security and now no income source. 

Impact on those with substance misuse issues
As a result of Covid-19, extremely vulnerable cohorts have faced real difficulties in obtaining prescriptions for methadone, etc. Those who are struggling are finding supplies of alternative drugs to use in place of these and, as a result, are vulnerable to dealers, drug debts and unsafe substances. Drug users who are isolated, who may be substituting drugs and subsequently overdosing and becoming unwell, have less access to emergency care because of isolation and a lack of ability to contact those who can help. The Wilberforce Institute and local partners have already identified that there has been an increase in known drug users dying alone whilst isolated from their support networks as a result of Covid-19.

Some support agencies are reporting an increase in clients’ alcohol consumption, with a correlated increase in aggression by clients, both towards other clients and towards support staff. There has also been an increase in self-harm and suicide attempts.

Local businesses forced to close during lockdown
Local businesses forced to close during lockdown

Racial Precedents to COVID-19

Jasmine Holding Brown

‘Falling Through the Net’ PhD Research Cluster

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

j.holding-brown-2019@hull.ac.uk, #FallingThroughTheNet

As part of the ‘Falling Through the Net’ cluster my work examines children and childhoods that are exposed to exploitation. In the first six months of my PhD the focus of my research has shifted, more than once. Currently my interests lie in exploring ideas relating to rescue: the rescuers and the rescued.

The two central topics of my comparative study, British child migration and Indigenous Canadian child removal (between 1850 and 1970) were, on the surface at least, supposed to ‘save’ children from something: poverty; sin; poor parenting; limited social and economic opportunities; indigeneity. Frequently these ‘rescued’ children were placed in highly exploitative and harmful situations.

To stretch the initial analogy further though, there are children that these particular ‘nets’, however poorly designed, were never designed to catch. I suggest that by looking closely at the particular characteristics of the ‘rescued’, including the ‘non-rescued’ and the ‘rescuers’, we can attain a clearer understanding of the social dynamics at play. The intersections of class, gender and race in the development of policies drastically altered the lives of hundreds of thousands of children, and left many in mass unmarked graves. I intend to explore the underexamined role that ‘white womanhood’ played in the formulation of these child-focused social movements, and their relation to broader settler-colonial projects.

Ultimately, I am interested in the relevance that these issues have to contemporary practices and the protection of ‘vulnerable’ children and young people, dilemmas regarding the ethics of intervention, the distribution of resources and how ‘best interests’ are conceptualised.

The current global health crisis has brought some of these vulnerabilities into stark relief, exposing the rampant social and health inequalities that exist within societies. Despite children being one of the least affected groups in relation to the virus itself, the wider implications of the COVID-19 disease pandemic will undoubtedly impact some young people more than others. This includes the inability to access outdoor spaces and the internet;  reduced contact with support services; and the increased pressures of lockdown on family dynamics for the estimated 2.3 million children in England considered to be at significant risk, but not currently receiving support from social services.

In addition to class distinctions, racial disparities in relation to COVID-19 are now being discussed openly. Analysis conducted by The Guardian called for the recognition of race, and racial inequalities as risk factors for COVID-19. Afua Hirsch, writing in the same newspaper has been highlighting these concerns since early April, when the emerging data appeared to corroborate what many suspected, that individuals from black, Asian and ethnic minority (BAME) groups are dying in significantly greater numbers relative to their representation in the population as a whole: in the UK this means a 27% higher rate than would be expected. An official inquiry into the issue was recently announced.

The statistics for black American deaths are even more telling; in Chicago black people constitute a third of the population but accounted for 72% of deaths at the beginning of April. It will be some time before we fully understand the correlation between BAME individuals and COVID-19, although it’s likely that socioeconomics, housing, high-risk occupations and higher levels of co-morbidities will be factors. It suggests that the tragic consequences of COVID-19 will also be felt disproportionately by the children of racial minority groups.

The social determinants of health are perhaps even more apparent, when looking at the potential impact COVID-19 could have for Indigenous communities. In Canada, especially areas without access to clean running water, frequent hand washing is not always feasible. Social distancing and isolation are not viable choices in overcrowded living arrangements, and where there are chronic shortages of adequate housing. A significantly higher proportion of the population have underlying health conditions, and there is a very high prevalence of respiratory illnesses. Inuit children, for example, suffer from tuberculosis at 300 times the rate of non-Indigenous Canadians, and, experience the highest rates of chronic respiratory disease in the world. These issues are compounded by limited access to healthcare services, with some remote areas only accessible by air, and others having no resident medical personnel. For these communities the impact of COVID-19 could be devastating.

The legacies of colonialist and racist mentalities have been exposed, in some quarters, in the ways in which the current pandemic has been articulated. Historically, Indigenous children were used as guinea-pigs for experimental and often brutal treatments. An idea invoked recently by a French doctor suggested a potential vaccine could be trialled in Africa. The Bacillus Calmette-Guérin vaccine, commonly known as the BCG, which is currently being examined for its potential use against COVID-19, was tested on Indigenous children in the 1930s to counter ‘Indian tuberculosis’, an example of racialised and pathologizing language that echoes the current American President’s use of the term ‘Chinese virus’.

Brandon Sanitorium for Indians, Brandon, Manitobe, Canada. November 1947.
Racially segregated hospitals originally operated to contain ‘Indian tuberculosis’.
Library and Archives Canada: Available here

From a personal perspective the pandemic has, to some degree, limited my ability to access resources. It has made connections with others more difficult to achieve, and it means events have been cancelled or postponed. They are difficulties though that seem largely trivial, given the struggles many people are facing to access even basic sanitation in order to protect themselves.

Research in the Time of COVID-19

Saphia Fleury

‘Falling Through the Net’ PhD Research Cluster

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

s.fleury-2019@hull.ac.uk, #FallingThroughTheNet

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.

A protester holds up a sign during a climate demonstration in London, UK.

[i] Google trends analysis for all searches of “climate change” worldwide between 10 January and 10 April 2020.

Researching Forced British Child Emigration

James Baker

‘Falling Through the Net’ PhD Research Cluster

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

j.baker-2019@hull.ac.uk, #FallingThroughTheNet

I am one of three funded PhD researchers within the Wilberforce Institute’s ‘Falling Through the Net’ research cluster concerning child migration. My particular area of interest is the forced emigration of British children from the United Kingdom to Australia during the twentieth century. Many of these child migrants had previously been raised within the British care system and were coerced to migrate abroad with the promise of a better quality of life. However, many child migrants were treated poorly, and have shared their experiences of abuse and exploitation while in care overseas.

My dual affiliation with the University of Hull’s Department of History and the Wilberforce Institute has granted me a unique vantage point from which to analyse this topic. Not only have I been able to research the testimony and experiences of former child migrants, but I have also been able to explore how this movement fits into broader issues of slavery and exploitation around the world, both in historic and contemporary societies. This interdisciplinary framework has also helped me to understand that in this case and many others, forced emigration, poverty and exploitation are all one singular human rights issue. This is particularly true in the case of children where discussions surrounding their protection and rights is a relatively recent development in international law.

Events this year, and in particular following the worldwide outbreak of COVID-19, have brought many new challenges into my research process. As a student in my first year of research, this was the academic year for me to begin to present tentative ideas at conferences and create networks with researchers in similar fields to mine. However, the cancellation of academic conferences across the board, coupled with travel restrictions both domestically and overseas, have meant that many of these plans are on hold. Fortunately, conferencing apps such as Skype and Zoom, in addition to social media networks including Twitter, have enabled me to remain in contact with my fellow researchers at the Wilberforce Institute as well as to discover any new opportunities to discuss research in online academic forums.

This global disease pandemic has also witnessed the rapid digitisation of archival material by the National Archives and other such repositories, in addition to books and journal articles being made available online to a wider audience. There are however still a number of limitations that are still present in my current methodology. Digitising archival material is a gradual process and much of what I will need to not currently online, and a number of relevant museum exhibitions that were due to open this academic year have been postponed indefinitely. This includes Departures – 400 Years of Emigration from Britain, an exhibition concerning British immigration worldwide due to be held at the Migration Museum in Lewisham, London. It is also impossible to know how long certain restrictions will last and the extent to which this will impact any field work I decide to conduct in my second year of research. These are all factors that I will need to find ways to remedy in the coming months.

Arguably the most profound impact of COVID-19 has had in relation to this topic has been in the process of reuniting former child migrants with their families. In March 2020, the Child Migrants Trust announced that all prospective travel linked to the Family Restoration fund would be halted with immediate effect. The trust, alongside the national governments of Australia and the United Kingdom, have done excellent work in reuniting former child migrants with their long lost families in recent years. This process can already be a difficult one for many former child migrants as some were long unaware that they had living relatives, and sadly the Family Restoration Fund came too late for others whose parents and siblings passed away before they had the chance to reunite.

The emotional toll of bringing families together has been exacerbated by the uncertainly surrounding COVID-19 and the restrictions that have been put in relation to overseas travel. Given the advanced age of many of these former migrants, these restrictions are understandable and have been put in place with their best health interests at heart. Safety is of course the first priority in these difficult and unprecedented times. Let’s just hope that in the technological era that we live in, former Home Children will be able to find new ways to connect with their families and that their voices to continue to be heard in the ongoing process of reconciliation.

A local memorial dedicated to child migration in South Australia.