As the media’s gaze has shifted from the camp at Calais, it’s becoming increasingly hard for the refugees and volunteers to survive. Let’s not turn a blind eye, asks Isabel Fay.
Calais, a three-hour car ride from where I live in south London, is not just the go-to place for booze cruises and teenage penpals called Delphine. It also has a 9,000 strong camp full of people who have had to run for their lives.
If you’ve read about the refugee crisis in Calais and felt despair, bewilderment and hopelessness, there’s one thing you don’t need to feel – helpless. There are heaps of things you can do, from tiny easy things to bigger but by no means difficult things, and I’d bloody love to tell you about them.
A bunch of us recently returned from another stint of volunteering with utterly enriched souls… but no car and empty pockets. We had no choice but to ditch our broken car in Calais and spend a small fortune getting home; the silver linings were the incredible South Sudanese refugees who spent hours working on the car, calling all over camp for tools and more manpower.
Their kindness was unreserved. I mean they totally failed to fix it, but they tried so hard. Simply because they wanted to help us, just as we had wanted to help them. I’ll return to that, but really it’s not about our knackered car.
As the media’s gaze has turned away from Calais, I find that loads of people are surprised to hear the camp is still there. Half of the camp was bulldozed with almost no notice in February; makeshift homes and meagre possessions were simply flattened in a brutal attempt by the Calais authorities to get rid of those seeking refuge – where they thought people would go I don’t know. But everyone just moved into the other half, making conditions unbearably overcrowded. And the Calais authorities are threatening to bulldoze again.
But here’s the crux: this is not a refugee camp; it is a camp full of refugees. That is a life-changing distinction. If it were an official refugee camp, organisations like the UN and aid agencies like the Red Cross could be there providing manpower and finances. But ‘The Jungle’ is classed as an illegal settlement, regardless of the fact it’s full of people who have fled from wars and atrocities.
Thanks to this red tape, the only people who can help are grassroots organisations powered entirely by volunteers and donations. The stark reality is, if we all look the other way, people will starve, right there, in the town of booze cruises and penpals.
Each day an average of 70 men, women and children arrive in the camp, tired, hungry, often alone and desperate for help. Forty-five per cent are from Sudan, 30 per cent are from Afghanistan, just 3 per cent from Syria, with others from Pakistan, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Iraq.
“I promised myself that after this trip, I was going to stop going on about Calais for a while. Fuck. That. I’m not going to shut up. I’m going to get louder.”
There are 865 children in camp; 676 of them are completely alone. The youngest unaccompanied child is eight years old. The youngest child in camp is just four months old. As soon as by next month, they expect the numbers in camp to swell to 10,000. It beggars belief.
Prior to this stint of volunteering, we’d raised some money and gathered some donations; we arrived at the warehouse with 17,000 tea bags and the cash we’d raised from an online fundraiser and pub quiz to give to small but mighty Katarina, one of the many (extra)ordinary long-term volunteers, who has given up her whole life to live there and work tirelessly to help people seeking refuge.
In a beautiful twist, Katarina had no idea we were bringing money, so when I said, “We have some cash for you,” she was surprised and pleased. When I added, “Nearly four and a half thousand euros,” she burst into tears of joy but mostly relief. Because, for the first time ever, they had to stop food distribution a few weeks ago. It’s unthinkable but true. As the media’s attention has drifted away from this humanitarian crisis on our doorstep, donations have dropped dangerously low.
Refugee Community Kitchens in one corner of the warehouse make around 2,500 hot meals a day. This is to feed those who queue (often for hours) in the Calais camp, some volunteers, and it also sends 800 hot meals, three times a week, to the Dunkirk camp, a 45-minute drive away. Incredible.
It’s all made with food bought by ad-hoc cash donations, in a makeshift kitchen in the corner of a vast warehouse. A warehouse that’s piled high with STUFF that has also been kindly donated. Tents stacked as high as a two-storey house, box after bin bag after suitcase full of donated clothes.
On first sight it looks like the day is already saved, enough stuff for everyone! But once you knuckle down to your allocated job you realise that people’s kindness can so easily miss the mark – because the stuff is wholly unsuitable.
My fella had a frustrating and often futile task. He was on tents. In the blistering sun, he painstakingly put up donated tents, often without instructions, checked them all over for holes and missing parts, then packed them away again. How many tents were good? One four-man tent and one single-man tent. TWO tents. TWO TENTS. All the others were ripped, or had parts missing, or were filthy and irreparable.
This is a case of people letting their wonderful willingness to donate get in the way of practicality. These tents are going to be somebody’s only home for who knows how long, and an irreparably ripped tent is, at best, going to get ditched as soon as possible in favour of one that doesn’t leak; at worst it’s an insult.
The unusable tents were stripped for parts, but the manpower involved in doing that is really wasteful when there is so very much to do. Don’t let this deter you from donating much-needed items though! It’s simply a question of thinking, “Would I give this to a friend going camping for a long time in a wasteland,” before you do. One good item is worth infinitely more than 10 shoddy ones and will make a world of difference to someone.
My friends and I were on a production line in the Calais Kitchens section, bagging up food parcels of beans and lentils for 1,780 people. These once-a-week parcels, given along with firewood to cook on, are vital, not least to feed people, but also to give the recipients the dignity and opportunity to cook for themselves and others for a few days; it means they don’t have to queue for hours every day simply to eat.
This hard graft went by for us in a flash, so before we went home, we headed to camp to take part in English conversation practice at Jungle Books Library tent.
“M and K showed us the fresher scars and bruises inflicted by French police when they’d been caught trying to make it to the UK. How many times have you been tear gassed, I asked. They just laughed; countless.”
The outskirts of camp, just off the motorway slip road, are guarded by police. The police are well known for their ruthless violence. With alarming regularity they beat refugees, fire rubber bullets and use tear gas indiscriminately on men, women, children, refugees and volunteers alike.
These police told us we were not allowed to park there, and I wasn’t going to argue. So we went under the underpass to park on a kerb. KERPLUNK. Something fundamental snapped off the front of the car. A terrible noise and fumes filled the air. Once we’d established it probably wasn’t going to explode, we were stuck.
Locals mostly won’t go to the camp. How’s this for a violation of human rights – most of the time even ambulances won’t go to camp. Just let that sink in.
So, in embarrassingly lesser first-world problems, the chances of roadside assistance were looking slim. But ‘S’ came to our rescue (I would love to share names and some of the many selfies the refuges who helped us wanted to take, but any picture can scupper an asylum claim, so the few included have faces blurred out).
He came, smiling, on his bike and got stuck right into fixing the car, no questions asked. Spanners appeared, more help appeared; they worked on the car for nearly three hours.
As they worked we met M and K, who could say a sum total of five words in English. That didn’t stop us: we sat in the dust and mimed for a while, then we hit on using Google translate and got stuck into an intense two-hour conversation, slow, stilted, and some of it lost in translation.
Both had fled South Sudan, fled being forced to fight for violent regimes they don’t believe in. K’s wife and child were thankfully alive but his mother had been killed. He had been tortured and showed us the terrible scars snaking across his back.
M had (brace yourselves) seen his wife and child executed in front of him. But his younger child had hidden during the attack and he had managed to stash his remaining child with his mum before he fled. He had no idea if they were dead or alive.
Both showed us the fresher scars and bruises inflicted by French police when they’d been caught trying to make it to the UK. How many times have you been tear gassed, I asked. They just laughed; countless.
In the face of all this horror, the only time they got angry was when I tried to tell them that not everyone in the UK is kind and accepting of those seeking refuge. They just wouldn’t hear it. No, the UK was kind, they would be safe there. I am filled with horror at the many ways this image may one day be shattered.
“The stark reality is, if we all look the other way, people will starve, right there, in the town of booze cruises and penpals.”
It was clear that the car was a goner. We had to run for the most expensive train journey of our lives and say a heartbreaking goodbye. We, with those golden tickets – our passports, won by accident of being born in the right place at the right time – could go home to our children and homes.
We are still in constant contact with M and K continuing those conversations; I have since topped up their mobile phones with credit and they have been able to call home. And here is the news: M’s surviving child and mother are alive. ALIVE. Not safe, in terrible peril in fact, but alive, and he was able to speak to them for the first time in months. He was able to send me a photo. He finally had a precious photo of his surviving child.
I promised myself that after this trip, I was going to stop going on about Calais for a while. Fuck. That. I’m not going to shut up. I’m going to get louder.
The day after I returned home, French riot police went into camp and started arresting anyone who had started a ‘business’ (e.g. selling naans they make on a hotplate bought with saved rations). They confiscated everything ‘business owners’ have. Riot police stormed the Kids Cafe that gives free food to unaccompanied minors and confiscated their food in bin bags. They arrested the man in charge of the cafe, the man who feeds children who are utterly alone, for free. It beggars belief. After a nail-biting trial, a judge in Calais has just ruled that the cafe and other ‘businesses’ should remain open, at once both a huge and tiny victory.
Life for those in camp is on a knife-edge, every day. We are all just humans looking for a little humanity. Let’s not look the other way.
If you’d like to donate, I am going again in two weeks. I have a fundraiser here: let’s make Katarina weep with relief again.
If you’d like to help, there are LOADS of things you can do! From completely free things you can do sitting on your bum right now, to harder but by no means hard things. Below I’ve written a (non-exhaustive) list.
Tell people: The Calais camp has slowly dropped off the media’s radar. The more people who know, the more who can help! Sharing is definitely caring.
Buy tents: You can buy new items for refugees from the French camping company Leisure Fayre. They ship these items direct to the warehouse for distribution. After such horrifying journeys, ending in a rat-infested makeshift camp, a brand spanking new tent or sleeping bag will quite literally make someone’s day.
Donate secondhand items: You can find grassroots organisations who are collecting secondhand items like camping equipment and clothes on this map.
Collect items yourself: Nothing close by? Really truly, consider doing it yourself. If it feels daunting, start small: just ask your friends for some good quality items and drive them over to Calais. You can find out what is needed most here. If you intend to take donations to Calais please email Isabel at L’Auberge des Migrants first to let them know you are coming.
Raise money: Set up a fundraising event like a pub quiz or party; you’ll be astonished how many people would love to donate some of their hard-earned cash. The constant challenge to keep everyone fed is entirely fuelled by ad-hoc cash donations. It takes roughly £21,000 a week to feed everyone seeking refuge. Every penny counts. Once you’ve collected the money, you can donate it here to be spent on food and you will feel your soul become gigantic.
Top up phones: What’s the first thing you’d grab if you had to flee your home? Probably your phone, it’d be your lifeline. This fantastic Facebook group called ‘Phone credit for refugees and displaced people’ has tonnes of ways you can help to top up refugees’ phones and allow them to call loved ones.
Volunteer: There are TONNES of voluntary organisations in Calais; all opportunities to help are listed here.
I volunteer with L’Auberge des Migrants who collect donated items and distribute them, alongside Calais Kitchens who package up food parcels and make hot meals for the camp. You can volunteer for as little as a day, and you really will make a difference. Everything you need to know about volunteering at L’Auberge is here, including accommodation options.
Write to your MP: It has been three months since the landmark Dubs Amendment passed in parliament promising to bring unaccompanied minors to the UK, but to date we have taken NONE. It’s shocking. At the time of writing, 676 unaccompanied children in the ‘Jungle’ will go to sleep yet again in a state of fear, uncertainty and without protection. Please write to your MP and demand swift action on our promise. You can find your MP’s address here.
Also consider signing this UNICEF petition.
Going to a festival? Consider staying behind an extra day to help collect the tents people leave behind! Join this Facebook group for details.