COP21 and the invisible jungle of Calais
On 7 December, while participating in events surrounding the 21st Conference of Parties regarding Climate Change (COP21), I had the opportunity to join a group that included an artist, several documentarians, activists and Gulf Coast frontline leaders Juan and Bryan Parras, in visiting The Jungle – the ‘refugee camp’ in Calais, France.
Our intention was to witness first-hand the migrant crisis now happening across Europe, as people flee from the devastating effects caused by climate change, economic disaster, and the resulting rise in terroristic activities in their countries.
Over 7,000 people from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Ethiopia and Eritrea live in the 15-year-old encampment. The asylum-seekers usually stay for several months while trying to relocate to a new home somewhere in the world. In The Jungle, most are trying desperately to reach England, where, it is rumoured, applications are processed faster and work is more easily available. Calais is the closest point to that destination. Many are killed along the way.
When we first arrived at the camp we were introduced to Amir, who had travelled over three months to The Jungle from drought-ravaged Ethiopia. Eighty-five per cent of Ethiopians live in extreme poverty; this is in direct correlation to the effects of climate change.
Amir seemed happy to see us, and shook hands enthusiastically. Afterwards he led us to a multi-layered, tarp-covered dwelling. The one-room building was about 3 metres by 2.5 metres, with a small woodburning stove in the corner, and served as a kitchen/dining area for Amir and several others. Amir and his friends made us each a cup of warm tea, garnished with harvested wild mint. It was a welcome refreshment on the chilly day.
Amir offered to take us down to the art installation to speak with the directors. As we walked we were told that it was very hard travelling as an undocumented black man outside of the camp. He explained that he often felt a responsibility to the younger boys, who did not understand why they were sometimes met with disdain. They struggled as to ‘why they are not seen as brothers’ to those living in the area surrounding The Jungle.
Worse than suspicion, recent attacks on The Jungle, which included teargas attacks by French authorities, had left them with little doubt of their not being wanted.
War and violence is another reason that many are in the camp. Darfur, a region of the Sudan, has been devastated by armed conflict since 2003. Ethnic cleansing within the region has caused continued displacement. Yet again we see that violence is exacerbated by climate change. The region continues to suffer desertification – a type of land degradation that includes the loss of water source, vegetation and wildlife due to drought conditions. This leaves the population vulnerable to disease, poverty, and the rise of terrorism, as cultures compete for resources.
Art is everywhere in The Jungle. Everything from political statements, to encouragement, to beautiful murals meant to remind people of their homelands or of the beauty that is life. The art installation is shaped like two jungle gyms overlapping each other and covered in plastic. In the smaller dome at the front, there are photos with quotes of former and current camp residents. Inside the big dome are beautiful works of art by both a professional artist and from residents of all ages. This is where regular camp gatherings and some classes are held.
At the Art installation, we learned that the ground we were on was once a toxic waste dump. ‘That is why the French let us stay here,’ we were told. Evidence was easy to find: exposed asbestos lies on the ground in several places around the camp. A report released in September by the University of Birmingham cited health complaints among the residents, including stomach and respiratory illnesses, as well as skin diseases.
Living conditions in The Jungle are harsh. Aside from the lack of adequate shelter, food cannot be easily prepared or stored properly. There is approximately one toilet per 75 residents, and there is no way to wash linens and clothing. Water is scarce and researchers have found fecal contamination in at least one of the five communal taps. The area surrounding the camp appears to be industrial, with smoke stacks clearly visible. ‘I’ve [been] coughing,’ Marya, a mother of five, told me. Pointing to the smoke, she added, ‘It makes (the) children sick.’
I met Marya by the makeshift playground in the part of the camp for women and children. She had travelled alone from Iraq with her three youngest children. Tears filled her eyes as she explained in broken English that her two older children had been killed by a bomb, just prior to her travel. She took my hand and set it on the head of her youngest son, who was about three years old, pointing to the others – about five and seven respectively – her voice cracked and she put her hand to her heart. ‘All I have now,’ she said.
There are children of all ages here. As we walked the labyrinth of paths, the sound of their laughter filled our ears. Despite the harsh conditions, children can be seen running and playing, like all children do. One little girl challenged me to a hula-hoop contest, which she won easily. The child pictured here was shier, and stayed close to his father who gave us permission to take a picture. Children in Calais often suffer from malnutrition and weather exposure, and many continue to deal with the emotional trauma of war and violence in their homelands, as well as from their journeys to the camp.
Back in the men’s portion of the camp, we came across a short row of community-run restaurants and small stores in an outdoor market. The Jungle has become a community of its own, with entrepreneurs hoping to raise enough to aid them in their travels. Here we bought chicken dinners for two euros each from the chef pictured. The food rivalled the best that I have eaten in the US.
Mothers, children and families who are unable to afford food from the market are served by volunteers from a community kitchen. On the day that we were there, the director said that she and others presently feed 300 hot meals twice daily to the camp’s most vulnerable families; they also deliver groceries to 50 more.
Many of the residents had promising careers in their homelands. We spoke with a dentist, a physicist, two attorneys, a professor, a nutritionist, and an artist, among other professionals.
Mehti, who we met while helping in the kitchen, had been a music producer in Iraq. When we began to talk, he started by apologizing for his English, which was actually quite good. The soft-spoken and handsome 25-year-old told us of his enjoyment of music, his appreciation of reading, and how doing so helped him with his English. Unfortunately, he had no books, so a friend of ours gave him the one she had carried with her to the camp.
He took the novel softly, opening the pages with the sort of gentle touch that only someone who has a great love for books would. We told him that we had heard that there was a library in the camp and asked if he had ever been. His eyes lit up, but he said no, he had not.
After a little investigating we learned where the library was, and went with Mehti to visit it. Walking into the little room, we could see many books were available, although the volunteer on duty told us that they needed more, and in particular English and French language books and dictionaries.
Mehti ran his fingers along the shelves. He picked up several books and cradled them smoothly. That was the last time I saw him, there among the books.
Next to the library was the schoolhouse. Here, adults are taught to speak and read English and French by volunteers. There is little to no education for the children, and many women do not feel comfortable joining the men in the classroom. Often small groups of women will gather with their children around a volunteer to learn, focusing on languages in the areas to which they hope to eventually relocate.
I first met Naqiv near the library. He is 22, tall and lean. He walked up to me and asked for a cigarette. As I moved to give him one he ducked to escape the camera of a documentary filmmaker who was doing an interview a few metres from us. I was still holding the cigarette as he ducked behind a building and waved for me to come to him.
‘My mother,’ he said, motioning to the camera.
‘Oh,’ I responded, ‘you don’t want your mother to know that you smoke?’
‘She doesn’t know that I am here,’ he explained.
He went on to tell me that whenever his mother calls him, he would tell her that he is ‘fine, going to university, living a good life with a car and surrounded by good friends,’ who love him and take care of him.
It’s a lie. Naqiv has been in The Jungle for two months. He came from Afghanistan, where he had attended a university and worked as a pharmacist in a US prison.
‘When the Americans went out, the Taliban came in,’ he said. ‘My oldest brother was taken into custody and murdered. The brother older than me barely escaped, but I haven’t heard from him. We don’t know where he is.’
‘My father went missing, and during this time my mother sent me away. She said “Run, or they will kill you.” They stayed, my mother and my little sisters, they are there alone now.’
Tears filled his eyes as he added, “I don’t know what to do. I am alone. I did everything right. I went to school, I worked from sun-up to sundown, but what do I have now? What is life without my mother? She is everything.’
His body slumped forward, lost in his own pain and loneliness.
I put my arm around him, because I had nothing to say. To tell him that everything would be okay would sound hollow and I didn’t know if it was true.
At the day’s end, we packed up and made our way back to Paris and to COP21 – a place where the world’s leaders were gathered to discuss the climate and the actions that would need to happen in order to save our planet. Not one migrant from The Jungle attended, not one was represented. Yet these are the sacrificial lambs of climate change. According to a volunteer who had been in the camp for two weeks, the population had grown by 1,000 people in that same amount of time.
This is an edited version of a blog post that previously appeared on Bridge the Gulf. Edited and crossposted with permission of the author.