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Hull PhD student explores impact of 1995 Montserrat eruption on families

On July 18, 1995, the Soufrière Hills volcano on the Caribbean island of Montserrat began a two-year-long spell of eruptions.

The event - which began 25 years ago this week - killed 19 people, and forced two-thirds of the island’s entire population to flee their homes and the island itself.

As a British Overseas Territory, thousands of those whose lives were torn apart by the eruptions arrived in Britain as evacuees. Across the UK, a number of towns have thriving Montserratian communities today.

Twenty-five years on from the first eruption on Montserrat, new research into the devastating impact these natural hazards, and climate change, can have on communities is being led by a University of Hull PhD student.

Saphia Fleury, working with the University’s Wilberforce Institute and Energy & Environment Institute, would like to speak to people affected by the events of 1995-1997, who now call Britain home.

She said: “My research is focused on the impact on children who are forced to migrate due to climate change or natural hazards.

“In the case of Montserrat, many families were initially forced to move to a different part of the island following the eruptions, before opting to leave the island altogether as life became too hard. Many of these families came to the UK, and still live here today.

“These days, their experiences and the difficulties they faced are rarely discussed. In some ways, they were expected to just get on with life. For the children affected by the eruption, their lives will have been profoundly changed by moving halfway around the world, yet today their stories are largely untold.

“I would like to speak to people who came here as children from Montserrat, to see what lessons can be learnt from their evacuation and resettlement in Britain. By learning from the past, we can hopefully put in place better structures to support children and families displaced by natural hazards in the future.”

Mrs Fleury’s PhD research looks to explore the experiences of children forced to leave their homes due to environmental and climate change, and what policies governments can put in place to help them.

It is hoped learning from past events, such as Montserrat, can help communities prepare better immigration and climate policies in the future.

Alongside her studies on Montserrat, Mrs Fleury is also researching the lives of children in Vietnam, forced to move out of areas hit by climate change such as the Mekong Delta and surrounding regions prone to flooding.

Dan Parsons, Director at the Energy & Environment Institute at the University of Hull, said: “Montserrat is a prime example of a natural hazard resulting in a significant displacement of people.

“We expect climate change to result in similar population displacements, from extreme heat and drought in many areas, lack of drinking water, flooded coastal zones, and exacerbated food insecurity – climate change over the next 50 years will drive an unprecedented migration of, largely vulnerable populations, at the global scale.

“People are attempting to adapt to this changing environment, but many are being forcibly displaced by the effects of climate change and climate-related disasters, and are needing to relocate in order to survive.

“These displacement patterns, and competition over depleted natural resources, will unfortunately compound pre-existing vulnerabilities in these populations.”

Mrs Fleury spoke to a former teacher from Montserrat, now a university lecturer in the UK, who had followed the progress of children who moved to Britain in the 1990s. Her research revealed some interesting findings.

“She looked at the attainment of the children, and in many cases, it had trailed off,” Mrs Fleury said.

“These children were treated as being incapable in our schools. Some were held back a year and given English speaking lessons, even though on Montserrat the first language is English.

“The standard of education in Montserrat was excellent – in some cases better than our system here – but that was not understood. A lot of these children found that their education suffered from the move. This is the sort of thing I am keen to explore more.”

Mrs Fleury is hoping to speak to individuals who can share personal memories and documents from the time of the eruptions – such as diaries, letters and photographs.

She is particularly keen to hear the experiences of former child evacuees from Montserrat.

If you experienced the eruptions on Montserrat or know anyone who travelled to the UK as an evacuee, you can contact Mrs Fleury via email, at s.fleury-2019@hull.ac.uk or via social media on twitter @EEIatHull.

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