When we first formed our West Kent anti-slavery team, one of our new members asked me how do we know where we should commit our time and energy when there are so many pressing issues out there. At the time she was, and still is, very much involved in charitable work to combat climate change and to help with the refugee crisis. My on-the-spot response was to say that all these crises – modern slavery, climate change and the refugee crisis – are interlinked. The same evils lie behind all of them – greed, a lack of compassion for our fellow man and planet, a lack of appreciation of God’s creation, selfishness and indifference. At the time I had studied some of Kevin Bales’ work (Kevin Bales is Professor of Contemporary Slavery at the University of Nottingham, co-author of the Global Slavery Index and co-founder of Free the Slaves) on the links between modern slavery and environmental destruction, so I knew there was a physical link as well as a spiritual one. However, in this year of the UK hosting the G7 and COP26, more and more charities and agencies are now talking about these links.
In his book, “Blood and Earth: Modern Slavery, Ecocide, and the Secret to Saving the World”, 2016, Kevin Bales estimates that slave-based deforestation is responsible for the emission of 2.54 billion tons of CO2 each year, a lower amount globally than only China and the United States. Therefore, he proposes that there is an inseparable nexus between modern slavery, environmental destruction and climate change.
Anti-Slavery International has published two reports this year on the links between modern slavery, climate change and the refugee crisis (the first with Dublin City University entitled “From a Vicious to a Virtuous Circle: Climate Change, Environmental Destruction and Contemporary Slavery” and the second with International Institute for Environment and Development entitled “Climate-Induced Migration and Modern Slavery – A Toolkit for Policy-Makers”). In April of this year, I attended a webinar hosted by Anti-Slavery International called “Climate Change, Modern Slavery and a Just Transition”. Jennifer Townson, the UK Envoy for Migration and Modern Slavery, spoke during the webinar and mentioned the statistic that, globally, approximately 12.2 million workers are trapped in modern slavery in environmentally degrading activities. She talked about extractive industries, such as mining and oil and gas, and industrialised agriculture being responsible for about half of global carbon emissions and more than 80% of biodiversity loss. She went on to talk about the vicious cycle, where those displaced by climate change may be trapped in forced labour in these industries, which leads to further climate change and more migration.
Another speaker at the webinar was Carolina Rudnick from Fundación Libera contra la Trata de Personas in Chile. She talked about exploitation of the planet and people being driven by over-production and over-consumption, which is driven by our current economic capitalist system. She believes we need to radically re-think supply chains and radically re-think what consumption means to us.
Her views echoed the words of Pope Francis in his 2015 encyclical (“The Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home”): “When human beings place themselves at the center, they give absolute priority to immediate convenience and all else becomes relative. […]The culture of relativism is the same disorder which drives one person to take advantage of another, to treat others as mere objects, imposing forced labor on them or enslaving them to pay their debts. The same kind of thinking leads to the sexual exploitation of children and abandonment of the elderly who no longer serve our interests. […]In the absence of objective truths or sound principles other than the satisfaction of our own desires and immediate needs, what limits can be put on human trafficking, organized crime, the drug trade, commerce in blood diamonds, and the fur of endangered species?” He questions the rationality of fighting to save the planet while ignoring the plight of human beings: “It is clearly inconsistent to combat trafficking in endangered species while remaining completely indifferent to human trafficking, unconcerned about the poor, or undertaking to destroy another human being deemed unwanted. This compromises the very meaning of our struggle for the sake of the environment”.
Since 2016, when I first heard about modern slavery, I have been encouraged by the amount of awareness that has been raised. When I mention modern slavery to family, friends and acquaintances, they no longer look at me as if I have lost my mind. More often than not, they have read about it in the newspapers, seen a documentary about it, heard about it on “The Archers” or seen a dramatised version of it on “Shetland”. However, the awareness of the links between modern slavery, climate change and the refugee crisis are still little known, even amongst people working to combat modern slavery.
As a result, I was happy to see a post about it from Hope for Justice on their Instagram page in June of this year. I quote from their post: “The deadly triangle between modern slavery, environmental destruction and climate change has accelerated. The traffickers are contributing to environmental destruction through the labor they force their victims to do, impacting vital ecosystems. This ‘impact’ is increasing climate change where we are seeing extreme weather events accelerated, increasing people’s vulnerabilities such as homelessness and joblessness, which contribute to the risk of modern slavery and human trafficking. And the cycle begins again. This #WorldEnvironmentDay we ask you to think about the deadly triangle. A world free from slavery would be a world in which the climate crisis too might look very different.”
It is time for people working on climate change, the refugee crisis and modern slavery to start working together. These overwhelming problems are inter-linked and by opening our eyes to the common threads between them, we might see a way of curing the causes of these crises and not just mitigating the symptoms.