Hostile Environments: The Oil Industry, Ecological Crisis and Migration

What has oil extraction got to do with migration to the UK? Birmingham volunteer worker Rosemary Crawley tells the story of one woman driven to leave her home in the Niger Delta, and her experience as she came to seek security in Britain.  

Sanctuary and hope

Women with Hope, a small Birmingham charity for women caught up in the UK immigration system, includes within its purposes the provision of a safe space in which women can relax, learn and reflect. A wealth of evidence testifies to the particular harms and disadvantages faced by women migrants, both in terms of their experiences in their various countries of origin and in the countries in which they subsequently seek sanctuary. Immigration detention and not being believed are just two of the additional traumas that so many women face once they arrive in the UK. Their need for a safe space to talk about these and other experiences and be heard is extremely important. It was in just such a space that Gloria’s story of life in the Niger Delta emerged.

Gloria is a member of Women with Hope and she told a recent meeting the story of her village in the local government area of Ughelli in Nigeria’s Delta State. Village people in Ughelli rely on fishing and horticulture for their existence and are very much affected and disadvantaged by oil spills from local drilling operations. Fish in the river are dying and the soil is damaged to such an extent that the usual staple crops cannot be grown. Many people like Gloria herself have left the area to seek a better life elsewhere, although Gloria still has relatives including her mother, trying to live in the village.

The effects on local women who are left behind are quite devastating and they remain in need of help and support. It was that particular need that Gloria was highlighting in her story. Her aim is to galvanise support here in the UK to help the women still living in the Niger Delta to have a better life, but of course she is quite unable to do any of that herself until she completes her own difficult journey through the UK immigration system, and achieves documented status.

Her story raises a number of issues, including two that have relevance for community and personal security. One is the responsibility of the drilling companies towards the local communities in which they work. The other concerns the way in which we in the UK treat people from environmentally degraded regions who have come to this country to seek a better life.

Hostile environment: Niger Delta

Extractive industries are responsible for half of the world’s carbon emissions, contributing to the climate emergency which threatens the security of the planet. Wilderness identifies seven ways in which drilling harms the environment: drilling disrupts wildlife habitat; oil spills can be deadly to animals; air and water pollution hurt local communities; dangerous emissions contribute to climate change; oil and gas development ruins pristine landscapes; fossil fuel extraction turns visitors away; light pollution is impacting wildlife and wilderness.

There is also a devastating impact on the human security of communities living in the areas of their operations. In the Niger Delta, which ranks 12th globally in terms of known hydrocarbon reserves, pollution from over 50 years of oil operations has degraded the environment and destroyed livelihoods. Pollution is a huge issue for the environment there. Since 2014 the Italian oil giant Eni has reported 820 spills in the Niger Delta, with 26,286 barrels or 4.1 million litres lost. Since 2011, Shell has reported 1,010 spills, with 110,535 barrels or 17.5 million litres lost. That’s about seven Olympic swimming pools.

This presents massive problems for the communities that live in the Delta, including for their livelihoods as fishers and farmers, for their health, and for their food security. According to a study conducted by public health scientists Best Ordinioha and Seiyefa Brisibe, oil spills there could lead to a 60% reduction in household food security and were capable of reducing the ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) content of vegetables by as much as 36% and the crude protein content of cassava by 40%. These could result in a 24% increase in the prevalence of childhood malnutrition.

Oil companies have a moral obligation to address all local harms and detriments resulting from oil spillages, regardless of who they believe to be responsible for any one particular spill. In reality, spills simply could not occur if there was no drilling in the first place. Oil spills do not just threaten local communities and environments; they are a threat to us all. In the Global North we tend to treat climate change as if it were still a threat that we might possibly avert, without any recognition of the fact that the security of the Global South is already severely undermined by its effects.

In this respect it was heartening to read last month that a Dutch court ordered Royal Dutch Shell’s Nigerian subsidiary SPDC to pay compensation to farmers in the Niger Delta for massive oil spillages from its pipeline. Other court cases against foreign oil companies for their actions in Nigeria are in progress in Nigeria and Italy. We can only hope that the amount eventually fixed will be in keeping with the damage caused.

Hostile environment: UK

My second concern is the treatment of new migrants to the UK within an asylum and immigration system that is openly and avowedly hostile and is also inhumane with its insistence on referring to those seeking refuge and a better life in the UK as illegal. The system itself, the media and a number of politicians demonise migrants with scant regard for the circumstances in which migration is taking place. It is rarely if ever popularly reported or discussed that the degradation of the environments that many are leaving behind is a result of the needs, wants and greed of the Global North, of which the UK is part. Or, indeed, that much of the despoliation is committed by UK-based corporations with close links to successive governments.

Instead, the immigration system and large sections of the public are content to ignore important drivers of migration and leave far too many migrants existing in a limbo of uncertainty without permission to work for many years. The effect of this is damaging to their physical and mental health, degrading at a personal and individual level and it also deprives them yet again of opportunities to improve their own lives and make the contributions that so many are desperate to make towards the improvement of the lives of those left behind, the focus and emphasis of Gloria’s story.

This year, the year that the COP-26 climate change conference is due to take place in Glasgow, provides the UK Government with an ideal opportunity to take a more comprehensive approach to its involvement in the worldwide extraction and burning of fossil fuels. Greening the environment is not just a matter of reducing UK carbon emissions, it is a matter of survival for so many. If politicians and the wider community would only join up the dots they might see the links between desired standards of living in the Global North and the ability to live at all in the Global South. They would also see the connection between Home Office treatment of newcomers and the potential impact of the overseas aid budget on degraded environments. Perhaps a start might be made by ending the false distinction between ‘genuine asylum seekers’ and ‘economic migrants’, classifying the latter as little short of criminal.


Rosemary Crawley is a volunteer worker and trustee of Women with Hope and also a member of the Quaker Asylum and Refugee Network (QARN).


The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership.


Image CreditAn oil spill from an abandoned Shell Petroleum Development Company well in Oloibiri, Niger Delta, Dec 2019. Omolade Adunbi via Wikipedia.

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