Criminology, climate change and the ‘useable past’

Saphia Fleury, ‘Falling Through the Net’ PhD Research Cluster

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

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.

15 May 1984 – Vietnamese refugees wait to be rescued by the USS Blue Ridge from a 35-foot fishing boat 350 miles northeast of Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam, after spending eight days at sea 

Children Falling Through the Net

James Baker

‘Falling Through the Net’ PhD Research Cluster

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

Saphia Fleury

‘Falling Through the Net’ PhD Research Cluster

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

Jasmine Holding Brown

‘Falling Through the Net’ PhD Research Cluster

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

Charlotte Russell

Wiseman PhD Research Scholarship

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

The Wilberforce Institute is home to a number of students whose PhD research focuses on child migration and exploitation, in both historical and contemporary contexts. Four recently came together to explore the connections and the points of difference between their studies. James Baker, Jasmine Holding Brown and Saphia Fleury are first year students in the Falling through the Net cluster, and Charlotte Russell is in her second year. They share their thoughts below.

Our connections:

All four of our research projects are concerned with the situations and processes, emerging in the context of migration, that place children at risk of exploitation. Although approached in different ways, and applied in disparate geographical, cultural and historical contexts, there are common concerns relating to issues of vulnerability and victimhood.

Vulnerabilities are understood, in part, as a condition of childhood, since to varying degrees children depend on adults for protection and survival. However, settlement in unfamiliar territories brings with it cultural and linguistic displacement and furthers the risks of exploitation. This raises important concerns regarding children on the move, who not only have specific needs but are also the bearers of rights.  This in turn focuses attention on the power differentials between adults and children and the relationships between children and the state. It is notable in all our projects that the experiences of migrant children are varied and complex, but also, crucially, that their perspectives are often missing.

Victimhood represents the second of our common concerns. We all seek to balance the acknowledgment of vulnerabilities with the risk of imposing culturally determined images of victimhood upon migrant children. In managing these issues our work is linked by a critical approach, not the notion of ‘victim’ in itself, but to the imposition of a particular form of passive victimhood upon children who have experienced or are experiencing trauma or harm in relation to forced migration.

Our differences:

James and heritage

My particular focus is on how heritage has been utilised to preserve and represent the experience of forced child emigration. As a historian who is interested in memory studies and public history, I am concentrating largely on how museums and memorials have chosen to represent the topic of forced child emigration from Britain to Australia. This research raises a number of important issues; not only do I need to investigate the role that former child migrants themselves have played in defining their own heritage, but I also need to understand how the wider public relates to this history and their contemporary moral judgments of child migrant schemes. I will also be looking to make a comparative analysis of the British and Australian heritage regimes at large, in addition to how the creation of heritage markers in relation to the Home Children can facilitate the wider process of historical redress and reconciliation.

Jasmine and rescue

My project focuses on child rescue – the development of social movements aimed at ‘rescuing’ children, the agencies involved and the ideologies underpinning their practices. I am looking at forced child migration (from Britain to Canada) and compulsory residential schooling (for Indigenous Canadian children) in the 20th Century, to explore the ways in which these drastic, and, ultimately harmful practices were legitimised. Factors that were significant in cementing these forms of ‘child rescue’ include, I suggest, the assumed moral authority of white middle-class philanthropists, religious institutions and other agencies of the state, in addition to the alignment of child rescue with imperialist and colonial political agendas, namely white settlement and assimilation. These cases raise important questions about the nature of the ‘parent state’: who is entitled to act on behalf of children; how are these arrangements constructed, which potentially conflicting interests do they also serve, and to whom are they accountable?

Saphia and the environment

My research looks specifically at modern-day child migration in the context of environmental change, particularly climate change. In my analysis of legal frameworks for the protection of children, I found that, while sufficient legal protections do exist, these are frequently not applied to children on the move. Moreover, there is a protection gap for people migrating as a result of environmental change, who do not fit the category of ‘refugees’.  As a result, many are pushed into exploitative situations, or suffer abuse or an inability to realise their human rights. As climate change reduces the number of people who can sustain a livelihood at home, we might expect the international community to provide support and sustainable solutions for those who need to move. Yet in the context of climate change, the issue of ‘agency’ becomes muddied; more so when considering the decisions made by children who leave their homes in search of a better life.

Charlotte and encampment

In my research, the refugee camp becomes the focus of attention as I assess the role of power and responsibility in the management of such camps. My study seeks to evaluate how these power dynamics, operating within the boundaried and politically contested zone of the refugee camp, influence the embodiment and enactment of a rights consciousness among the young refugees living within them. Children who have experienced or are experiencing trauma suffer the imposition of a particular form of passive victimhood or harm in relation to forced migration. As a result, a key issue which my work aims to address is the effective representation of the experiences of young refugees in camps, without homogenisation or groupism. I’m seeking to balance evidencing young refugees’ expressions of agency with the acknowledgement of their complex and varied individual experiences of ‘childhood’.

Thank you for your interest in our research. We will be adding other blogs as our work develops.

Children photographed as they prepare to leave Britain in the 1960s.