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Forced labour in Channel Islands during WWII – it happened then, and it is happening now

Posted on Friday, August 21st, 2020

By Claudia Hyde, René Cassin alumni

“Remember that you were once slaves in the land of Egypt” Deuteronomy 15:15

Slavery is central to the Jewish experience. We speak on Pesach of our ancestors, enslaved in the land of Egypt. In fifteenth-century Spain, Jews attempting to flee persecution and violence were punished by enslavement. But the fact of the enslavement of Jews on British soil less than a century ago, as well as the way we could benefitting from slavery happening today, remind us that liberty is hard-won and perilously fragile.

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Forced labour during the Holocaust is well-documented. After the outbreak of war, the Nazi regime set up camps, which used slave labour to produce materials for the war effort such as quarrying and armament manufacture. The Channel Islands were no exception. In June 1940, after the withdrawal of British troops, the Nazis invaded the Channel Islands. Following the invasion, the German occupiers made extensive use of foreign labourers.

There are no precise figures available as to how many forced labourers were imprisoned on the Alderney Island in total, as recent research suggests that there were significantly more forced labourers on Alderney than post-war reports stated. It is estimated that approximately 10,000 Jews, predominantly those deported from France, were imprisoned on the Island.

Labourers included Soviet citizens, Jews, Prisoners of War, and political prisoners. The workers all suffered from maltreatment, including brutal beatings and a lack of food, and some slave workers were murdered. Jews and Soviets were especially badly treated.

Albert Eblagon, who became President of the Alderney Survivors Association, was imprisoned and enslaved at the Norderney camp on Alderney. Albert, a French Jew, was a publisher’s salesman until his arrest in France and deportation to Alderney. In an interview, in 1982, he described his experiences at the camp, including witnessing fellow prisoners being beaten and starved to death: 

We arrived at night and disembarked on 15 August 1943, at three o’clock in the morning. In the darkness we were forced to run the two kilometres to Camp Norderney, while the German guards continuously stabbed into our backs with their bayonets while also kicking us all the time.’

On 9 May 1945, the Channel Islands became the last place to be liberated from Nazi Occupation.

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Following the horrors of the Holocaust, the international community was galvanised to take action to prevent genocide, slavery and other atrocities from taking place again. A series of international legal instruments were adopted, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the UN Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons (1949), the first international legal instrument which spelled out states’ responsibilities to prevent slavery and punish people who enslave others. In the UK, the law on slavery is found in the Modern Slavery Act 2015, the provisions of which include an increased maximum sentence for traffickers, protection for victims and the establishment of an independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner.

However, despite these efforts, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that 24.9 million people worldwide are in forced labour. Moreover, research from ‘The Conversation’ found that slavery is still legal in nearly half the countries in the world. In 94 countries, you cannot be prosecuted and punished in a criminal court for enslaving another human being.

One of the most notorious recent examples of this failure is in China, where up to three million Muslim Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and other Muslim minorities in the Xinjiang province are currently being detained in internment and labour camps. A report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute estimates that more than 80,000 Uyghurs have been transferred from Xinjiang to factories across mainland China, where they are subject to conditions that ‘strongly suggest forced labour’. This same report found links between forced labour in China and well-known brands such as Apple, Nike, Gap, Samsung, Uniqlo, BMW and Huawei.

Furthermore, there is a fear that many of us in the UK may be inadvertently contributing to this market. A recent investigation by the New York Times revealed that Uyghur forced labourers may be detained at present for the purpose of producing PPE in response to rapidly rising global demand for face masks. The investigation suggests that the workers there are not there by choice, and the products of their forced labour are being shipped to consumers in the USA, Europe and several other international locations.

The legacy of the Holocaust is one that continues to live on in memory and has been the foundation of our framework for the preservation of human rights. After the Holocaust world leaders were united in their resolve to ensure these atrocities never happen again. This legacy is one that grants the Jewish community the weight of experience and moral responsibility to speak out against the atrocities committed against the Uyghurs, a situation that has the potential to become one of the worst human rights catastrophes of this century.

Find out more about the Uyghur Crisis by reading our briefing paper, available here.

An in-depth look at China’s systematic oppression of Uyghur women is available here

Join René Cassin, the Jewish voice for human rights, in taking action to stop Uyghur persecution. We have compiled a list of ways you can get involved, starting today, available here.