The Government’s response to the refugee crisis in Europe may be slow, but grassroots action has sprung up fast. Hannah Dunleavy spoke to a group of young people about what they’re doing to assist refugees in Calais.
This house is full.
I walk through a narrow passageway of a lounge, knee-deep in boxes of food, and bags labelled ‘Men Shirts Medium’ and ‘Socks’. In the 20 minutes I’m there, the front door goes twice. The people of Cambridge have been generous.
In the kitchen I meet Freya Aquarone, who’s studying sociology at Magdalene College, and her boyfriend Calum Harvey-Scholes. They booked to drive to Calais 10 days before and have been overwhelmed by the response to their request for donations.
Freya says: “The media had started to cover the situation more and I’d seen a couple of stories about people going over independently and I thought, that would be something we could do. It’s so close by – just two hours down the road and a ferry. So we got in touch with a friend, David Grace, who has a car, and said if we collect some stuff, how about you drive us down? One of the things they say is don’t go alone because they need manpower unloading at the other end.
“I remember saying, ‘We’ve only got 10 days; we’re not going to get enough stuff.’”
That one-car journey has now been upgraded to a six-vehicle convoy, which is due to leave the day after I visit.
Calum says: “We came up with a list based on feedback from people who’ve been out there and advice from charities in Calais to point out the really high-priority stuff – but people have brought other stuff which is really useful, like candles and wind-up torches.”
“A couple of days ago I heard they were really short of waterproofs,” Freya adds, “because it’s all very well having clothing, but if it’s tipping down with rain… so we put out a request on social media.”
“People talk about immigration but I don’t see it as a political thing. I see it as a people thing. They are human beings. Whatever you think about governments, people have basic human needs and they’re not being given it.”
Social media, so often the villain of a story, has done its job nicely here.
“At the start we did some flyers and got about 30 responses from 200 flyers which is pretty good, but as soon as we started using social media, things really kicked off. It’s how we got extra cars. People were saying, ‘Just take my car.’
“I’m just a student in Cambridge, but I’ve been really impressed by the sense of community here.”
Also in the house, helping to sort donations, are Charlotte Fraigneau, a student, and Tess Mangan from the nearby Black Cat Café, which acted as a drop-off point for donations.
“People talk about immigration but I don’t see it as a political thing” Tess says. “I see it as a people thing. They are human beings. Whatever you think about governments, people have basic human needs and they’re not being given it. Focus on that.
“I’m sure that, ultimately, people would rather be in their own homes, in their own beds, living their own lives.”
Freya agrees: “Immigration isn’t really an issue I’m particularly concerned about but a lot of people are. But that doesn’t mean you can’t offer humanitarian assistance. Long-term migration issues do need to be tackled and questions do need to be asked, but in the meantime you can’t just wait. People are dying right now and we need to do something about it.
“In the past, we seem to have been able to see things an ‘an emergency’. In the Second World War we shipped loads of kids out to stay with families. It’s not unprecedented to take people in the short term.
“I think the point for me is David Cameron has said he’s going to take people in but only from existing UN refugee camps, and I understand that it’s to discourage people from making that dangerous journey, but you still have to accept that there are people right now in Calais. What do you do with them?”
But the tide of public opinion is changing, which goes some way to explaining the sheer volume of ‘stuff’ cluttering up Freya and Charlotte’s house. They all agree it’s the result of the publishing of the tragic photograph of Alan Kurdi’s body washed up in Turkey, but voice sadness that “it had to take that”.
Freya adds: “Everyone feels hunger, everyone feels cold, everyone feels homesick and scared, regardless of your gender or age and I think it’s something we have to get over, this idea that we see men in a different light.”
Out of the kitchen window, I can see another huge pile of bags and boxes. If Freya and her team have learned as they go along, what advice can they offer other groups hoping to help the residents of the camps in Calais?
“We’ve learned that people are good,” Tess says immediately.
Freya agrees: “In practical terms, I’d say, if you use social media, prepare to unleash a flood. I’m lucky enough to be a student who hasn’t had to work full-time this summer, and this has been a full-time job. You need to have time, a team of willing friends and family.
“Be really clear from the start what you’re not going to take. We’ve got items that the charities told us they cannot take – including shorts and a bikini – but the charities are so short on space.”
“David Cameron has said he’s going to take people in but only from existing UN refugee camps, and I understand that it’s to discourage people from making that dangerous journey, but there are people right now in Calais. What do you do with them?”
Freya and her team were in touch with L’Auberge des Migrants, which takes clothes and distributes them. It passes the food on to Salam Calais, which gives it out to people in the camp.
Charlotte also dealt with another group, Secours Catholique. She adds: “They told me they will have their new storage facility built by the end of October and they are concerned that everyone is coming now and they won’t have space to store it and then no one will come later in the year when they will run out of food and clothes again in November.
“You have to book and tell them you are arriving, so there can be people there to unload and organise.”
“That’s important,” Freya adds. “We booked this 10 day ago and it’s vital to book because if you turn up unannounced it is really problematic. It’s really important to think about the future now.”
If you would like to get involved in helping people in Calais, please go though one of the official groups. Details of how you can help can be found here:
Information on the sorts of items needed in Calais can also be found here:2699 Views
Hannah Dunleavy is the deputy editor of Standard Issue. She likes whisky and not having to run anywhere.