When I first turned into the Calais refugee camp, I saw a black man giving another a shave, the barber’s blade up against the other’s neck, sans any shaving cream.
Behind them stood a tent, with the words “Darfur is Bleeding”, spray-painted in dripping red.
I nodded, then stopped myself -- because I didn’t want the fellow whose neck was getting such a close shave to have to nod back. I walked inside the Sudan region of the sprawling camp of endless tents, home to over 6,000 migrants (nicknamed “the Jungle”), where people from Sudan, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Syria, Iran, Iraq and other war-torn, terrorized countries, are biding their time until they can jump a lorry (truck) to the UK, or find some other sanctuary.
Young men from Sudan greeted me (giving a jovial “hello!”, not the “bonjour” I’ve been so accustomed to in Paris) and made room on a bench in front of their tent, giving me a cup of a sweet coffee in a tulip-engraved china cup. They shared their stories in basic English, about how the roaming militia will take everything from you, “your car, your money, your farm, your nice house.”
Soon, they had to go--a meeting was taking place about what to do for the two Sudanese who were recently killed, one a 16 year old boy who was run over by a van, trying to make it into the high speed tunnel that connects France to Britain.
I wandered further. Everyone I asked say they’d been here 2-3 months--fleeing war, terror, Taliban, ISIS--loss of family, loss of everything. I met Afghans fleeing the Taliban (“The taliban come out at night, when the army helicopters fly out”), Eritreans scared of their totalitarian government--where you can be conscripted indefinitely, and more Sudanese who are fleeing a never-ending civil war (“I lose my family. Right now I’m alone, here, or in Sudan”.)
‘Peace’ and ‘Freedom’ are spray-painted on tents--not unlike the kind of signs you see at the Place de la Republique.
I took a lot of deep breaths.
The small band of fresh-faced UK Médecins Sans Frontière (Doctors without Borders) volunteers I ran into told me how people are seeking to get to the UK, where some have family, and where they can try to seek asylum. Although asylum has its risks, in case you’re denied. “Even if they get here, they may get sent back. So most won’t ask for asylum, out of that fear. It’s easier to disappear.”
One of the MSF volunteers mentioned that they had one psychologist at their clinic to help people deal with the traumatic experiences from their home country, from the journeys they took, and from an uncertainty for the future.
When you couple terrorism and climate change, you’re pretty much left with nowhere to go, except as far away as you can get.Squalor covers the mud-ridden dirt paths, a sea of tents rolling over dunes in every direction. The camp is hemmed in by a barbed wire suburbia on one side, and a barbed wire raised highway on another, with perched gendarmes looking down. As winter’s bite gets stronger, the main form of insulation was blue, white, and green tarps, which were roped over the tents, often making for cave-like entrances.
Looking out at the sea of tents, I was reminded of President Obama’s words at the kickoff to the COP21 climate summit, where he saw a “preview of one possible future” where “submerged countries” and “fields that can no longer grow” coupled with already heated unrest will “trigger new conflict, and even more floods of desperate peoples seeking the sanctuary of nations not their own.”
It seemed to me I wasn’t just seeing that glimpse: I was seeing a fully ripped open portal of a ghastly future that had already arrived.
Climate change wasn’t on the lips of anyone in the camp. And yet:
- In Syria, from 2006-2011, over half the land witnessed “the worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilizations began in the Fertile Crescent many millennia ago.”
- In Ethiopia, in mid-2011, the region missed two of its rainy seasons, which led to the worst drought East Africa has seen in 60 years. Eritrea went along for ride, with up 2 out of 3 Eritreans were going hungry.
- In Pakistan, in 2010, approximately one-fifth of country’s total land area went underwater (an area bigger than the size of Texas). Close to 2,000 lives were lost, and 6 million were displaced.
- And in Afghanistan, the country is blessed with successive rounds of vicious flooding and record drought -- over 90 percent of farmland was hit by drought in 2011, threatening more than 7 million Afghans across the country. (And don’t forget the oil wars).
- Prior to the genocide of Darfur in 2003, the Sahara desert spread like a spectre of death, 60 miles over 40 years, from northern Sudan, into the South, with rainfall dropping up to 30% over the same period.
Indeed, if you look at Notre Dame’s climate vulnerability index, almost all the countries represented in Calais are in the red (meaning they’re “very vulnerable to climate change and ill-prepared to deal with its impact.”)
It’s not that climate change sends people packing per se, it’s more that it’s that much easier for extremism and the scapegoating of minority groups to get toeholds when the people are desperate and resources are spread unimaginably thin.
Back in 2007, UNEP’s Director looked at the start of the Darfur genocide and said, "It doesn't take a genius” to show that “as the desert moves southwards there is a physical limit to what [ecological] systems can sustain, and so you get one group displacing another."
When you couple terrorism and climate change, you’re pretty much left with nowhere to go, except as far away as you can get.
A minister in Pakistan put it this way: “The infrastructure of this province was already destroyed by terrorism. Whatever was left was finished off by these floods."
For nearly a decade, the US Military Advisory Board has been warning that climate change is a “threat multiplier.” Dept. of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warned in 2014 that a more volatile planet “will affect national security” and has “the potential to exacerbate many challenges, including...terrorism.” He added, “We are already beginning to see some of these impacts.”
In the last hours of the climate talks, negotiators are still debating whether they should include “promoting work on climate change displacement” in the final treaty.
When I asked Amram, a 16-year old refugee from Afghanistan, if he had a message for world leaders gathered in Paris, he said he did. “They must finish ‘the jungle’ and divide the people and get the stronger countries to take people in.” Amram added, “You can solve this problem. You can make room.”
All photos by Joe Solomon.