From Iraq to Nigeria, British fossil fuel companies are killing young people of colour

From Iraq to Nigeria, British fossil fuel companies are killing young people of colour
UK companies like BP and Shell have inflicted decades of environmental violence against communities of colour in their relentless pursuit of profit. The only way to stop these deaths is to dismantle the industry, writes Hannah al-Khafaji.
5 min read
22 May, 2023

Two weeks ago, a young Iraqi named Ali Hussein Juloud, died from leukaemia aged just 21.

He lived next to the Rumaila oil field in Basra province, where BP have been illegally and unnecessarily releasing toxic gases into the air, known as flares, which have caused a huge increase in childhood cancers, most significantly leukaemia. The oil flares are within 3 kilometres from Ali’s family home, even though Iraqi law states they should be no closer than 10 kilometres.

Under Poisoned Skies, a documentary about Ali and other Iraqi children with leukaemia, uncovered a report by the Iraqi Health Ministry which suggested air pollution from the oil fields was responsible for a 20 percent increase in cancer in Basra over just three years.

The level of cancer is so severe that cases of cancer are being deliberately underreported, and in 2018 the Iraqi Prime Minister issued a memo gagging public officials from speaking out on the effect of pollution on public health. Researchers are also prevented from entering the area to measure pollution levels, and BP does not calculate pollution from its flares in Rumaila in its annual reports.

"Corporations' disregard for human life constitutes an ongoing form of racism and colonialism whereby the lives of young people of colour, specifically, are meaningless to the white capital class"

BP has refused to pay Iraqis compensation for life-saving medical treatment, instead forcing their loved ones to launch crowdfunding campaigns on their behalf. But even if BP paid the compensation they owe, it would not be enough. The corporation is forcing families to choose between leaving their homes and land or watching their children get sick and die.

Two months ago, 14,000 Nigerians – mostly from the Ogale and Bille regions of the Niger Delta – brought a case against Shell to London’s High Court. They argue Shell is causing pollution to their water at over 900 times safety levels.

Infants born in the region were found to be twice as likely to die in their first month – amounting to 11,000 premature deaths every year – whilst the average life expectancy there is 10 years below Nigeria's national average. Shell is claiming that it is not legally obligated to clean up its oil spills or pay compensation to families.

Two years ago, Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, a 9-year-old Black girl from a working-class family in Lewisham, was the first British person to have a coroner list air pollution as a cause of death.

The coroner ruled that her asthma was triggered by “exposure to excessive air pollution”, which far exceeded lawful levels. A UK government report recorded that the worst air pollution in London is found in areas where the proportion of white people is lowest, suggesting that systemic racism was a factor in Ella’s death.

Although there are many causes of London’s pollution, the largest factors were transport and heating systems, two sectors which British fossil fuel corporations are deeply embedded in. In addition, British fossil fuel companies have lobbied successive British governments to prevent or slow down progress on cutting fossil fuel emissions which could have prevented Ella’s death.

What do all these untimely deaths all have in common? The actions of British fossil fuel corporations.

These corporations’ harm to human life, particularly the lives of young people of colour, cannot be written off as accidents or the result of insufficient environmental regulations. In all three cases, pollution levels were found to be illegal.

Corporations’ disregard for human life constitutes an ongoing form of racism and colonialism whereby the lives of young people of colour, specifically, are meaningless to the white capital class. Young peoples’ right to live free from preventable childhood cancers is systematically overshadowed by the relentless pursuit of profit for British-based corporations.

British corporations’ entitlement to the resources, land, and lives of people of colour is an ongoing legacy of Britain’s long colonial history of stealing resources, destroying environments, and murdering local communities.

Those of us living here have a responsibility to draw attention to their corporations’ actions around the world, protest their ongoing environmental violence in Britain and abroad, and work to expose and counteract unethical governmental lobbies.

No more children of colour should have to become “accidental activists” or “heroes”, as Ali and Ella have been described in the media. They had the right to a full childhood, to not suffer from frequent hospitalisations, and to not become symbols of climate injustice. Their families had a right to see their children become adults, not news headlines.

And who knows how many more children have died whose names never reach the news? The fossil fuel industry’s murder of people of colour must stop.

When climate activists occupy Britain’s roads, protest at sporting events, and cause public disruption, they are condemned in the British press as “destructive”. But what is more destructive to a family than the death of a child? What is more destructive to communities than the deaths of huge numbers of babies?

If we want these deaths to stop, we must support those protesting and organising against the fossil fuel industry, and remember that the lives at stake here are not just those in the future – they are also the lives of young people of colour being so cruelly taken right now.

The global fossil fuel industry must be dismantled immediately, because with each passing year the industry has more blood on its hands.

Hannah al-Khafaji is an MA student in Middle East Politics & Arabic at the University of Exeter. She writes predominately on decoloniality, gender, and post-2003 violence in Iraq.

Follow her on Twitter: @hannaalkhafaji

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.