As world leaders gathered in Glasgow for COP26, JCWI brought together activists and campaigners at the forefront of the struggle for racial and climate justice.

Too often, discussions about climate change are rooted in racism and fear – it’s common to hear people say that we must take action to combat the climate crisis to prevent more people from being displaced and seeking refuge in countries like the UK.

But the truth is that the richest 1% of the world’s population cause twice as much carbon dioxide as the poorest 50%. And that same poorest 50% – 3.5 billion people – live overwhelmingly in the countries most vulnerable to climate change, meaning that they are bearing the brunt of a crisis they did not cause.

Here in the UK, too, we’re seeing communities of colour disproportionately affected by pollution and the climate crisis.

At this critical time for migrants’ rights, and for action on the climate crisis, it’s more important than ever to talk about the connections between climate and migrant justice, with people of colour and migrants leading those conversations.

So on 11 November 2021, in the midst of the COP26 negotiations in Glasgow, campaigners at the forefront of these struggles came together for a lively discussion.

The panel was chaired by the wonderful Karen Larbi, founder of POC in Nature, an online platform dedicated to helping people of colour explore the healing power of nature, environmental justice and land-honouring ancestral traditions. We were joined by over 100 audience members from across the UK and further afield, who shared some hopes and fears ahead of the discussion.

"I hope for wider understanding and acceptance of the links between climate, race and movement of peoples"

Our first speaker was Angela Fonso, an activist from Clean Air for Southall and Hayes (CASH). CASH are a group of local residents of London’s Southall who are fighting development at a toxic gasworks that has caused dangerous levels of air pollution, affecting the health of the local community.

“We feel that nobody in authority is taking us seriously. I would describe Southall as a migrant town – we are diverse, although predominantly of South Asian origin. We feel fundamentally that what is happening is environmental injustice, and environmental racism.

“The local council have gaslit us. We were told in 2018 that the pollution we’re experiencing would clear in a few days. This hasn’t happened – it’s been going on for at least 4 years.

“Money is viewed as more important than human health, and the health of the environment. The canal that runs next to the site is being polluted – run-off from the site is entering the water, and we’ve seen dead birds, dead fish, dead vegetation.

“As campaigners, we are not going to stop. I've got no choice but to be on the forefront as a Black woman. There are times when I'm struggling with my health, and I know the pollution is affecting it. But I bring it back to basics: if I can't go to work, I can't pay my rent, and I can't look after my children. So I cannot step away from this battle. Because it's not just me - there are so many people in the same position, facing multiple disadvantages."

Next up was Yvonne Blake, fresh from a non-stop week of campaigning on the ground in Glasgow, the site of the COP26 negotiations. Yvonne’s voice was hoarse from a protest earlier that day on Glasgow’s Kenmure Street, where earlier in the year thousands of local residents came together to stop the Home Office from detaining two of their neighbours.

Yvonne is a co-founder of Migrants Organising for Rights and Empowerment, a migrant-led grassroots organisation based in Glasgow that campaigns for migrants’ rights to education, employment, decent housing and dignity.

“The Hostile Environment is designed to strip people of their dignity and their humanity. It’s designed to make us feel less than human.

"And we cannot speak about the climate crisis without speaking about migration. The climate crisis is a racist crisis, because certain people do not have access to the most basic things. We don’t have access to clean air, to health, to the ability to thrive.

“Some of us have even been denied the ability to dream. When you’re unable to access the most basic things, your ability to thrive and to dream is restricted.

“When we speak about the climate crisis, it has to be centred around the people, the communities, that are most marginalised. Our question needs to be: why are the people who have contributed least to the climate crisis – people from the Global South, people who look like me – paying the most for it? These are the questions we need to ask.

“It’s a beautiful thing that, since COP26 is happening in Glasgow, we’ve been able to mobilise so many people. We had half a million people out on the streets, we’ve had migrant-led blocs. We’ve seen so much resistance – and that’s the beautiful thing about our communities. We are people who’ve always resisted, and always fought for future generations and for ourselves.

Protesters at Kenmure Street in Glasgow, protecting a neighbour from detention by the Home Office

“People have been saying that we are now in Code Red when it comes to the climate crisis. But for us, Code Red is nothing new. We’ve been living in Code Red since Europe invaded Africa. Today, Haiti still has to pay colonial taxes to France – if that is not Code Red, what is? Less developed countries have to pay extortionate interest on loans from the IMF, so they’re not able to develop their infrastructure – if that is not Code Red, what is?  

“That’s why the conversations need to be led by the most marginalised people. And we’re not marginalised because we are victims – we are marginalised because there are systems of oppression that are designed to ensure that our voices are not heard.”

Our final speaker was Flora, an activist with All-African Women’s Group, an inspiring group of women asylum-seekers and migrants fighting for justice and equality.

“We are here because corporations and Western governments are still robbing our countries. Our group is organising to win our cases, and to end deportation, destitution, detention and the Hostile Environment.

“We can’t deal with the environment without dealing with people. Once people are aware and well, and have everything they need - security and a home - then they can take care of the rest.

”We won’t compromise. We won’t accept so called voluntary returns or the demand for just a limit on detention. Close down all detention centres!"

Speaking about the diversity of tactics that our movement can and should use in the struggle for justice, Yvonne stressed the importance of education:

“We need to first know our rights, in order to campaign for our rights to be protected. For us, education is key – knowledge is power. We need to be educated about the issues that impact us. So when we realised that Glasgow was going to host COP26, we started holding workshops around the theme: Climate Justice is Migrant Justice.

“I knew in my spirit that the climate crisis is a legacy of colonialism – I’m sure every Black and brown person knows that. But the language that’s usually used is designed to exclude us from the conversation. So I learned how to articulate the links between those things.”

The conversations were wide-ranging and come at a critical time in the struggle for climate and migrant justice - watch the whole panel back below now.