Calais Blogs

Calais Update: another death at the border, an end to the “winter truce,” and a new asylum system for France

The situation in Northern France remains acute, following the end of the so-called “Winter Truce” and the destruction of people’s possessions and shelters. The community is mourning the loss of another young man’s life, who was critically injured in an incident on the port bypass. Our partners at the Refugee Info Bus write with the latest news from the ground.

 

Another Death at the Calais border 

Image: La Voix du Nord (who are still incorrectly reporting that the young man was 16 years old)

A young man has died following an incident on the port bypass in Calais on Friday 23rd March, 2018. He was hospitalised and placed in a medical coma in Lille. He passed away from his injuries on Wednesday 28th March, 2018.

 

He was born in Eritrea in 1996, although other sources have already incorrectly reported that he was 16. Details of the incident itself are unknown, but it is yet another unnecessary death in Calais which has been caused by the risks that individuals take in attempting to cross the border. The lack of safe and legal passage for people trying to reach the UK has led to over 200 deaths since 1999, according to L’Auberge des Migrants. Trade continues on unhindered as yet another young man fights for his life at the roadside.

 

European citizens can cross the English Channel quickly and with ease, and yet this is a privilege not afforded to our non-European friends, leading people to take dangerous and, as we have seen far too many times, sometimes fatal risks. People would not put themselves at the mercy of smuggler gangs in Libya, risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean Sea in sinking boats or try to reach safety in refrigerated trucks if it wasn’t seemingly better than what they left behind.

 

Eritrea is a country in turmoil, and has been described as Africa’s North Korea. Despite only having a population of 5 million people, it has generated one of the world’s largest refugee populations, according to Meron Estefanos, an Eritrean journalist and activist who writes on the situation in Eritrea and of Eritreans around the world.  In March 2018, the UN Human Rights Council held a dialogue on human rights abuses in Eritrea, which details that “in 2016, the Commission of Inquiry on Eritrea had found reasonable grounds to believe that crimes against humanity, namely, enslavement, imprisonment, enforced disappearances, torture and persecution had been committed since 1991”.

 

Of all the atrocities taking place in Eritrea, be it against dissident politicians, independent media professionals, religious leaders and community elders, it is the plight of the youth that is the most harrowing. Meron Estefanos, 2018

 

Calais: The Truce is Over 

In Calais, the so-called “Winter Truce” has ended on April 1st, 2018. This means that the sporadic emergency shelters opened over the winter months on particularly cold nights will no longer be opened, and that the 700+ refugees sleeping rough in Calais are condemned to the streets and the woods. However, even while the “Truce” was in place, shelters were opened sporadically, were run poorly, and only housed a fraction of the refugee community in Calais. Despite Macron’s promises that there would be no people sleeping on the streets by Christmas, the shelters were not even open on Christmas Day, and hundreds of refugees in Calais have not spent even a single night inside over winter.

 

In Dunkirk, the state opened an emergency accommodation centre for the entirety of winter — a gym which accommodates around 200 people. The gym will temporarily stay open past the April 1st cut-off date, which is good news for those already inside. However, for new arrivals to the area, or for those who did not manage to get a place inside over winter, sleeping outside remains the only option. Many people, including women and young children, are sleeping in the street outside the gymnasium, denied entry to the warm and dry accommodation behind guarded doors.

Accommodation centre for 200 refugees in Dunkirk. Not pictured: the many others sleeping rough directly outside its doors. Image: Delta FM

The CRS (French riot police) continued their dismantlement operations across the city last week, culminating in an eviction of the camp at Rue des Verrotiéres. Over 40 police officers and employees of the local authorities removed and destroyed what little shelter the communities living there had established in the preceding week, including a large tent that had served as a makeshift mosque.

 

The dismantlement took place at the same time as the state-funded food distributions located nearby, meaning that a number of the people we support had left their belongings in order to eat breakfast, only to find all of their belongings had been confiscated upon return. To quote the prescient words of an Eritrean minor, issued at the outset of the state-funded food distributions: “that government gives us food with one hand, and takes our tents with the other”.

 

Even more worryingly, we have heard numerous reports that the Police aux Frontiéres arrived just minutes before the onset of the dismantlement, detaining up to 20 people, the vast majority of whom were released from the detention centre immediately, forced to return to their living area by foot, a journey which takes several hours.

 

Volunteers at the L’Auberge des Migrants/Help Refugees warehouse responded, as we do following every dismantlement, by distributing tents and bedding to those without shelter, in spite of the police summons issued to four volunteers the previous week for replacing confiscated tents.

 

A New Asylum System in France

According to InfoMigrants, a new system of asylum is to begin in France in May 2018. People seeking asylum in the Paris region will have to begin the process by calling a telephone helpline run by OFII. The only languages available will be English, French and Arabic. The move is in order to reduce the number of people turning up at Padas (“platform for asylum seekers”) which cannot cope with the current number of requests.

 

However, France Terre d’Asile, the organisation which runs Padas in Paris, claims that the hotline is too complicated for people trying to claim asylum.

 

“This doesn’t make things simpler,” says director Pierre Henry. “I don’t think that this helpline is a good model for helping asylum seekers access their rights. I fear that at least some migrants will struggle to understand this service”.

 


This article was prepared by our partners, Refugee Info Bus, and originally published on Medium

Highlighted reading:

Meron Estefanos: “Eritrea’s New Normal: The Tragedy and Struggle for Change”

UN Human Rights Network: “Human Rights Council holds enhanced interactive dialogue on the situation of human rights in Eritrea”

Help Refugees continues to support displaced communities in Calais and the surrounding areas, as well as working with people on the move across Europe and the Middle East. To help us continue to help them, please donate here. Thank you. 

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Refugees in Calais Boycott State Food Distribution

“The government gives us food with one hand, and takes our tents with the other.”

 

These powerful words were issued by a 17 year-old boy from Eritrea, as we stood in a muddy forest in Calais, northern France. He is one of roughly 150–200 Eritreans sleeping without fixed shelter in the port town at the moment, and one of approximately one thousand displaced people currently in the same situation in the region of Nord-Pas-de-Calais.

Since the demolition of the ‘Jungle’ camp in October 2016, the provision of hot, nutritious meals to refugees in Calais has been left almost exclusively to volunteers working with Refugee Community Kitchen (RCK) and Utopia 56. From Tuesday 6th of March, the state began to contract La Vie Active to provide daily meals for those sleeping rough around the port town. La Vie Active in the current context had no experience of distributing food.

More than one week on from the start of these distributions, refugees across Calais have been systematically refusing to accept the government-funded food. In order to try and facilitate the long-awaited recognition by the French state of its responsibility to provide this basic right, RCK and Utopia 56 had temporarily halted their regular day-time distribution of hot food.

The Eritrean refugee community in Calais have been holding regular, mass community meetings over the past week to discuss the issue collectively. They have agreed, through consensus-based decision making, to issue demands to the local authorities before accepting any of their food.

What follows are the oral testimonies of members of this community articulating these demands, recorded and transcribed by a volunteer with the Refugee Info Bus. Whilst they only represent the views of one community, the words are echoed amongst the many other communities displaced and dispersed across the town. They are principled, poignant and impassioned, spoken with fire in their hearts, in lieu of food in their bellies.

“We don’t want to go to the government food distribution because it’s not peaceful for us. It’s not safe for us. They didn’t provide what we want, like the volunteers did before.

Starting from yesterday, I don’t want to take any food from the government at all. [It’s not safe] because the government provides food, but on the other hand the police take our clothes, our shelters, anything we have. If they want to prepare food, they have to prepare medical provisions. They have to provide shelter as well. They have to listen to what we want.” Anonymous — Eritrean male in his early 20s.

“Right now, the government is asking all the charity groups to stop feeding us… The government took charge of the feeding processes. If the government really cares about us, they should care about all things. We don’t only need food, because we don’t migrate from our mother countries only for food. We are in search of justice and peace, and here in Calais there is no peace and there is no justice.

If the government really cares about us, they need to arrest the criminals who shot Eritrean refugees in Calais. This is really, really disgusting. Right now there are four people sleeping in hospital and really they are in a very bad situation… So knowing this, why should we go to the same place [where the shooting happened] for food?*

We didn’t come here for food, we came here for justice and peace. If the government really cares about us, they should take care of us in all aspects. First, the most important thing is our safety. And then, after safety, all of the things that are being covered by charity groups, like blankets, tents, clothes, shoes, all basic necessities.

What’s really going on is police brutality. Police are really, really, really brutal to us. The charity groups try to give us tents, clothes, blankets and sleeping bags and in opposition to this, the police are still busy with trying to destroy this stuff… If the government really wants to take care of us, please take care of all the things that are being given to us by the charity groups.” Anonymous — Eritrean male in his early 20s

“I’m from Eritrea. I’m 17 years old. Hey guys!

I just want to say some things because we are living in Calais. We are refugees… Every day, our life is bad, but we have some organisations to help us, with food, or clothes, everything. We survive with the things they give us.

Right now, the government says they want to give us food. But we don’t need their food, because we are not coming here for food. We are coming here for freedom.

Why don’t we want the food? The police are from the government. They are not by themselves. They come because of the government sending them here. Okay, now we have to wait. The government is here, they want to give us food, feed us food. And in another way, they send police, and police take our tents, our place. And sometimes they go behind us and [spray us with] gas. How can we want the government to feed us food? We have humanity. Everybody, we need it. Like the first human beings. We need our respect. We are not animals.

And now we won’t take food by the government. For now, it’s better to come from another organisation, by volunteers. Because, volunteers care about us more than the government. Yeah okay, yesterday, they start to give us food. They say they want to take care of us. Maybe some person feels sick. What will they do? And who can speak for us?

As for me, it’s so difficult. It’s impossible. We can never accept this. Never, never. Because, the government, I don’t know how it thinks. They send for us police and police give us spray in our eyes and if they see a person sleeping they come in, they take the tent. And the government says they’ll give us food…” Anonymous, 17 year old Eritrean

A central point for many members of this community was also the location of the distribution points that the state expected them to attend. Initially, the préfecture announced that there would be two distribution sites — one in the industrial zone and one close to the hospital. For the Eritrean community, neither was a viable option; both entailed individuals entering an area in which they felt unsafe, with the latter being located at the site of a shooting incident, in which organised criminals opened fire on members of their community, leaving 5 people in hospital.

On Thursday 8th March, the préfecture of Calais invited a representative of l’Auberge des Migrants, a local association, to give feedback from the communities we support about why the attendance at food distributions had been so low.

Whilst volunteers welcomed the opportunity to give a voice to our beneficiaries, the préfecture’s position shows precisely how out-of-touch the local authorities are with the current situation. Rather than communicating with refugee communities directly, they rely on associations, whom they have repeatedly maligned in the press, to deliver feedback on behalf of the people we support. In the meantime, they continue to direct riot police to destroy tents and use CS spray on sleeping teenagers in the middle of the night.

Since the beginning of La Vie Active’s contract to provide food to Calais’ refugee population, volunteers based at the l’Auberge des Migrants warehouse (including those from Help Refugees, Refugee Community Kitchen, Utopia 56, Refugee Info Bus, Refugee Women’s Centre, Refugee Youth Service and the School Bus Project), have been conducting an informal survey, in order to ascertain how representative the views expressed above are.

Sixty-eight percent of responses suggested that refugees did not want to take food from the same authorities that legitimise violence towards them, whilst a further forty-two percent of responses noted the excessive police presence at distribution sites frightened them. Furthermore, since the beginning of the state’s distribution, eighty-nine percent of respondents stated that their only source of water came from volunteers, with one-hundred percent of respondents indicating that they were in need of more water at the time of asking.

Volunteers recognise that the state should bear the burden of providing protection for displaced people on French soil, however we respect and support the sharply critical and deeply courageous stance that refugees have taken in issuing their demands to the authorities.

Police assembling at a distribution point.

We stand side-by-side with them and seek to echo and amplify their demands, calling upon the local and national governments to meet the needs of Calais’ refugee population with dignity, respect and without further delay.

The initial two points of distribution, in the industrial zone and near to the main hospital, necessitated members of the Eritrean community coming into contact with the same individuals responsible for the shooting on 1st February.

The préfecture has subsequently opened a third distribution point, closer to the woods in which much of the Eritrean community are forced to live. There has been no new information as to whether the police have made arrests in connection with this shooting.

 


This article was written by our partners Refugee Info Bus. They provide information, access to wifi and legal and asylum support to refugees in Northern France.

We desperately need support to keep our Calais operation running. We support 7 organisations working in Calais, and alongside L’Auberge des Migrants, fund the main warehouse from which aid is distributed to refugees in Northern France. Please donate today to support this work.

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Camilla Thurlow: “We all have the ability to help others, to touch lives in a positive way.”

I travelled to Thessaloniki in Greece, and later to Calais, to see for myself the ongoing reality people face when caught up in the refugee crisis. I’ve been devastated and inspired in equal measure; amazed by the incredible work of Help Refugees, and immensely saddened by the number of innocent lives that will never be the same again. Amongst the most vulnerable are unaccompanied children, who continue to suffer the traumatising effects of a violent past and hopeless present.

Camilla volunteering with Soul Food Kitchen in Northern Greece, making bread for people living in the surrounding refugee camps.

In April 2016, with the support of the British public, Help Refugees successfully advocated for an amendment to the 2016 UK Immigration Act. Named after Lord Alfred Dubs, who came to the UK as a child refugee, it mandated our government to speak to local authorities and see how many unaccompanied children we could resettle in the UK. But progress on implementing the amendment has been woefully slow, and tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors across Europe remain isolated and alone. The British public must once again work together to make sure the Home Office honours their commitment, and helps these vulnerable children.

Last month, a fifteen-year old refugee was killed in Calais. Perhaps he was unable to bear the thought of one more night sleeping rough. Of enduring the freezing temperatures without enough warm clothes. Of living in fear of beatings from the police and having his few belongings stolen. Of waiting day after day to hear about the state of his asylum case with no indication of any movement. Of being just simply too hungry, too cold and too tired. Of living with no hope. Perhaps it became worth the risk. Only one thing is for certain – we failed him.

We let a child die on our doorstep, a child that had a legal right to come to the UK. This tragedy speaks of an ongoing failure to protect the most vulnerable members of society – both here and abroad. Passing legislation that concerns the protection of individuals and then not acting effectively or holding ourselves to account erodes its credibility, and this is a problem for all of us. As climate change continues, we face a future involving the mass displacement of people. Global political relations continue to be fractious with discourse playing out publicly; sometimes it can feel like we are just one tweet away from global crisis. Essentially, it is clear that in the coming years our commitment to learning the lessons history has taught us in supporting those most in need will be repeatedly tested.

Camilla campaigning for the rights of child refugees with Lord Alfred Dubs, 1 year on from the demolition of the Calais ‘Jungle’.

I understand why this plea may seem at odds with someone whose platform has come from participating in reality TV, but I hope to some extent we can all engage in debunking the myth that to help people you have be a certain ‘type’ of person – there is no type. Whoever you are, you have the ability to help others, to touch lives in a positive way. That power is yours alone – how you use it is up to you.

I have seen enough children’s lives devastated by conflict. Young people who have lost limbs forced to live in pain with ill-fitting prosthetics or no prosthetic at all. I have heard the stories of young, vulnerable individuals who have gone missing on their desperate journey to safety. Wondered what has become of them, and what pain they now have to endure at the hands of those who exploit them. I have seen enough to know that these innocent victims of war are real, and we must not let a divisive rhetoric become an accepted truth. We must challenge this ‘us and them’ divide, because the more we persist with dehumanising the people involved, the easier it becomes to look at the faces of lone children – freezing in tents, starving, in desperate need – and to turn our eyes away.

Five children have died at the Calais border in the last two years – they had the legal right to come to the UK – please honour their memory and don’t let there be one more.

If you are able to donate to Help Refugees Ltd’s CrowdJustice appeal, please do so here. The funds raised will be used for their protection of costs order. If the case is successful, 100% of your donation will go towards supporting displaced people across Europe and the Middle East.

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A Lovin’ Spoonful: Lucy’s experience with RCK

A few weeks ago, Lucy Wooding went to Calais and volunteered with our partners, Refugee Community Kitchen. Here, she shares her experience. We’re so grateful, Lucy, for all of your help – our movement has been built by people like you.

 

“In late October, I spent a week working with Refugee Community Kitchen (RCK) – and my experience was one filled with love, kindness and an uplifting sense of community.

I’ve always been passionate about campaigning for freedom of movement, and the rights of refugees. It made sense for me to go and see first-hand what the situation is truly like in Calais – without the influence of the media’s opinion – and how the work of wonderful charities such as RCK benefit the displaced people living in the area.

On my first day, I arrived at the industrial sized warehouse shared by charities Help Refugees, L’Auberge des Migrants and Utopia56. Newcomers were given a brief tour, an introduction to each charity does, and a health, safety and hygiene induction.

I slipped into my chef’s blacks and crocs (not the most sartorially chic ensemble!), and was allocated the job of chopping. Sounds mundane, but accompanied by friendly, self-motivated volunteers, music, and the shared goal of preparing nutritious food for the hundreds of refugees in and around Calais, the atmosphere was far from boring.

Lucy at RCK

RCK runs a tight ship.

What struck me was how organised and efficiently the charity operates. Food was always distributed on time, every single volunteer had a task to do, and the warehouse was always left clean and organised. It was beyond satisfying working with a charity that is so thorough in their work.

Other jobs included washing up large drums where rice had been cooking all day, making curries and stews, operating the Robo Chopper which slices various vegetables that later go into curries or salads, making large amounts of flapjack mixture to go into the oven, peeling and washing onions and garlic (some volunteers wore goggles for this part!), loading the vans ready for food distribution and sorting through the food donations which were delivered to the warehouse.

The working day began at 9 (some volunteers arrived earlier), and finished generally around 6:30-7pm. There’s also a lunch break in between where volunteers eat what we’ve made – the food is really tasty! As we ate together, volunteers spoke about their day so far, or their opinions on the refugee crisis, articulating how dehumanising and cruel the situation is. Even though the crisis in Calais is far from solved, it was empowering to know that teams of proactive volunteers are making the situation slightly more bearable and humane.

Lucy at RCK

My favourite part of the day was going on a food distribution.

We filled up the van with gastros of rice, curry and salad and drove out to the site. This is where I had the opportunity to see what was really happening in Calais.

Each area has different cultural demographics. The refugees in Calais are Ethiopian, Eritrean, Sudanese or Afghan. They are mostly young men. In Dunkirk, there are more Kurds, Afghans and Syrian families with small children.

 

When I told people I was volunteering in Calais, the response was somewhat mixed.

My family were incredibly encouraging and positive, but others told me that it wasn’t safe in Calais, and that there was fighting in the “camps”.

To set the record straight, there is no “camp” in Calais. The destruction of the Calais Jungle happened in October 2016, yet there are still refugees residing in Calais, left sleeping in the woods, on the roadsides or around river banks. The local police take away their tents and blankets, regularly throw tear gas, shoot rubber bullets or conduct beatings. “How can it be right – 1 refugee and 4 police officers beating us?!” said one Sudanese refugee.

Secondly, it is not unsafe to work with refugees in Calais. During each distribution I was met with cheerful phrases such as “Hello Sister, how are you today?”, and countless amounts of thank yous and smiles. They have every right to feel groggy, since they are cold and hungry, yet they display such grace, dignity and appreciation as they wait for their meal.

 

Despite rampant police brutally, unforgiving weather conditions and the uncertainty of whether they will seek asylum or not, the refugees I met were filled with joy and laughter.

I spoke to a group of young Ethiopian males, who were cracking jokes and dancing to the music we played from the radio of the distribution van. One told me that when he gets out of France, he would love to meet Wayne Rooney. “One day I can take a picture with Wayne Rooney at my birthday party” he cheerily said, as he pretended to take a selfie.

Despite meeting individuals who displayed a positive demeanour, the harrowing situation that they face was obvious. It was a stark reminder that when we’re moaning about our first world problems, we should be mindful of those who are in far worse conditions.

 

My experience with Refugee Community Kitchen was uplifting, and I will certainly volunteer with them again.

I met countless amounts of interesting and welcoming volunteers from different countries and walks of life.

It doesn’t matter if you are volunteering for a day, week, month or more, your help is greatly appreciated. If you’re thinking about volunteering with RCK – just go for it! There is no time like the present – the refugee crisis is a very real issue and happening NOW.

However, if you can’t volunteer for whatever circumstances, I urge you to donate instead. Visit RCK’s website to find out their latest needs, and how to donate.”

Still Feeding the Need: Supporting the refugees in Calais from Mark McEvoy on Vimeo.

Help Refugees has supported RCK since they began cooking in Calais almost two years ago. Since then, the wonderful team has cooked every single day – and served an epic 1.5 million meals!

To help us continue to support refugees in Northern France – with everything from food to bedding – please donate here. Winter is coming, and we need your help more than ever. Thank you.

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Blog post: Ever wanted to volunteer but weren’t sure about it? Read this

This is a diary I kept over four days volunteering in Help Refugees’ warehouse in Calais. This trip was my friend Jo’s idea, inspired by seeing Refugee @hassan_akkad speak at the Letters Live. The experience had a profound effect on my definition of what ‘fulfilling work’ really means, and I strongly encourage you to make time to volunteer. Here’s why.

Day One

So it’s 3am, and I’m awake in that way your body always wakes you up ahead of something you know you really NEED to be up for. And it’s pitch black outside, because it’s the dead of night.

And then I’ve fallen asleep again because I’ve woken up again, because it’s 3.45. And Jo’s Mum has literally put Tea-making facilities out in the spare room (amazing) and while I don’t bother with the little kettles you get in hotels, this tea is not optional. I really, really need that tea. And it’s good.

And I’m downstairs and Jo and me are laughing in the dark, because it’s 4 o’clock in the frigging morning. We drive through the streetlit dark wondering where all the other cars are going at this time of night.

And we’re in the salty air of Dover passing through Border control and they ask us if we’re just going for the day. No, we’re volunteering. Oh right. And the Policeman stood next to the security guard leans out and asks us to pull round in the lay-by in front, and it’s nothing serious. Of course you’re then like…oh my god. We English don’t like a border grilling. We’re fine. Arent we? Aren’t we fine? We’re both totally fine with this. Why aren’t we fine with this? Are there like, political aspects we need to be aware of? Do I need documents? Are we allowed to do this? Is he just trying to make it harder for us?

And reasonably serious and really very well-intentioned policeman is asking where we’re from, and who we’re volunteering with, and is happy we’re doing it for a charity. He’s giving us advice, perhaps under an assumption that our plan was to drive our little hatchback into the centre of the Jungle and open the boot, and make teas and take selfies. He hints that there is an air of desperation there, which isn’t something I’d have thought needed hinting at. They’re not taking things in the spirit they’re intended, he says, with his wide open blue eyes. Silence, as we stare not quite sure what to say to that. What reaction is he looking for, we wonder. Are we to agree? It’s getting…feral, there. Feral. Just be careful, alright? We will. Thank you for your advice officer.

Do people do that? Do people just drive their Vauxhall Zafiras into the camps to hand out bags of crisps, without organisation, without an organisation?

And so we find ourselves checked into the warehouse and being put to an organised task.

The warehouse and its people are pretty wonderful, as you might expect from a wholly benevolent volunteer operation whose sole purpose is to increase the comfort, health and hygiene of desperate people. It’s lived in and custom made, and there are young and old, French, German, English, Spanish, Canadian, all together, smiling and working like a big family, with nobody getting paid. Imagine Glastonbury in a distribution centre — it’s like that. It’s pretty great.

Our task was to build Men’s Kits, a little bin bagged essentials kit given to people newly entering the camps or in desperate need of a change of clothes, with a comprehensive cross section of basics — key warm clothes, and toiletries. And it’s strange coming from the world of tertiary industry work to spending your day doing something where someone tasks you with putting all your efforts into creating as many packs of basic human essentials as you can, as they’ll be going to people who really need them. And it’s that the sum total of your days efforts…all the little sorties to search for additional scarves, the hey I’d better check thats, a thousand thank yous, all the little interstitial missions and problem solving involved with keeping a production line running…those efforts directly result in piles and piles of filled bins loaded with essentials, which are ready by the door to get loaded onto trucks and then to get handed to people.

The task is laughably simple, though the route to complete it is riddled with problem solving, and your humming legs at the end of the day are directly related to to the volume of those filled bins. And you think…Just look what we made today, and it’s wholly good.

We spend the majority of our lives working. I can’t honestly point to a more satisfying day of work in my life.

Day Two

Jules (the warehouse leader’s) thought for the day today is a particularly meaty one.

Here’s an inevitable fact. one day…you will die. And be forgotten. You will definitely die, and definitely be forgotten. Your children will remember you, yes, but only until they are forgotten too. And history will be written, of course, but history is also rewritten. So your aim in life should be to please one person: to please you. Please yourself, in the best sense of the word. You are all the centres of your own personal universe, and there is no shame in admitting that. Therefore what you should do is whatever you need to do in order to be happy, and nothing, nothing will be as gratifying as the act of helping another human. What you are doing here is fantastic. The energy we create here powers this and makes it happen. So go out and make it happen.

We need kitmakers, she also says.

They’re awesome, Carys says pointing at us. Which was a nice thing to say.

Noticing the ghostly tally charts of kitmakers past we’d found in our kitmaking workzone, apparently on a good day a team makes around 100 men’s kits, and seems happy with that. With reasonably available stock (ie. some hunting), ours managed 338 by the time it was time to leave yesterday.

Everyone there is a volunteer, so nobody puts any pressure on you to perform and work faster. But that doesn’t stop you embracing a certain pressure to do your part or more, in the time you have made available. And if you’re only here for a few days, you’ve really just got to haul your ass and get on with it, right? I guess what I’m trying to say is I wouldn’t be content with just making 100 kits in eight hours. Maybe those ghostly teams of teams past just didn’t have enough stock, or only had two people. Whatever the case I didn’t want to think I’d been given a job to help people, and I helped with only “reasonable” effort.

I smile in appreciation, and ask how many kits we need to make today.

About 1000.

Ok.

Shit.

Now 1000…is a lot, when you’re so low on men’s scarves that you’re hunting for boxes of women’s and picking out the neutral options to make your kits happen. And every kit needs a scarf. Since the operation is reliant on donations then the reality is you don’t always have enough of what you need, which halts production. They need thousands more kits than they actually have.

Wow, OK.

We will try, we say. Knowing full well that we will.

In the early afternoon it becomes obvious that the warehouse population has dwindled slightly since this morning. Where is everyone, out in the camp? People walk, Carys says. They get tired quickly or get put in the warehouse, and don’t fancy working in a warehouse. That’s a pretty harsh thought though, don’t you think? That you would go to all the effort (which is actually quite minimal) required in order to be there, more that you would tell your friends you were going, then bolt when you were faced with the obvious reality that some of what is required of you is simple, repetitive work. All the tasks lead to aid getting out more efficiently, and so in greater numbers. It is all important work, everything. What DO people come here for? What do they say to their friends when they come home early?

Do you want to go visit the camps, someone asks, as we I sit in the sunshine with our lunch.

Not really, no, I say. I’d be a bit afraid, to be honest.

Going to the camps is possible. If you’re there for a few days and haven’t been tasked with something that requires you go, it can potentially be arranged. But the very fact it needs to be arranged because you’re asking to go, is dangerously close to spectating. Like going to a zoo. And the last thing marginalised, tormented and desperate people need is feeling like a tourist attraction.

And by all accounts it is most certainly not a tourist attraction. I learned that one of the functions of the men’s kit is to give clean clothes to people who have caught mites, the dealing of which in part requires basically boiling your clothes. Which as you can imagine isn’t practical or possible to do in the Jungle, or that the jungle makes it easy to stay clean full stop. I admit that I would like to see it. But I just don’t need to go. Going to see it means we are not doing the thing we’ve gotten good at doing here. I can be genuinely helpful here, making the things they will need to help get over the reasons why I am reluctant to go.

We were slowed today by a lack of hygiene kits to pack, caused by a lack of loo roll. All donations used up. Gone. Let me use this as an aside to commend East Lothian council for sending amazingly well pre-labelled and pre-sorted donations including pre-packed mini kits (amongst a great deal else). Your aid came in, and the mini-kits got immediately handed to us (as they form part of the Men’s Kit), and due to labelling was just instantly ready to use, we literally directly inserted them into packs we were building and they’ll be given out within a few days. You are amazing, East Lothian council.

So due to the loo paper shortage, Jo took a solo adventure to a supermarket so the hygiene kit team would have the means to build more hygiene kits to supply us, so we could build more men’s kits. Jo bought so much loo roll that the woman in Carrefour will have thought she had some terminal disease. And for the very same reason on the way home we stop to buy more deodorant and men’s shaving foam.

On the way there we notice Refugees running through the fields on the edge of town. They look like they’ve split off from another group gathered in a garage forecourt, who are wandering about in a way that suggests they haven’t particularly got a place to be. What are they doing there, we think?

A short moment later we see the serious-looking slicked back gendarmes screeching round corners, heading in the refugees’ direction in their little police cars. What are they going to do when they catch up with them, exactly?

We later hear that there was a traffic jam, and due to refugees trying to escape onto parked trucks, the authorities teargassed them.

The day before, driving along on a road on the north edge of town, we’d looked to our side and suddenly realised we were looking right out over the camp. It’s like, oh, Christ. There it is. And in the wide bare ground between the last shelters and the high barbed wire fences, a big group was playing cricket.

Then we’re pouring the shelfs-worth of deodorants and shaving foam into wheeliebaskets in Lidl. At first it’s fun to put ridiculous amounts of items in your basket, then I’m all too conscious it draws attention to us, and what we’re doing is most certainly not welcomed by everyone in town. I start thinking if we should have a story ready for them if they ask. I haven’t got the chops to prep it in French. Oui monsieur, we’re buying sixty cans of shaving foam because I really, really, really need to shave.

I was impressed by the checkout ladies’ efficiency and also conscious I found it second nature to be handed stacks of items and get them quickly into bags. I said Desolé Madame to the lady patiently waiting behind us to complete our ridiculous purchase. She smiled genuinely and said it’s no problem, in English.

Day Three

It begins with morning exercises which results in the entire team of volunteers holding hands and rolling themselves up into an enormous laughing human sausage roll. It ends with Jules saying emphatically that the purpose of having a goal in life is not necessarily reaching it in your lifetime but collectively working towards it, inch by inch. I don’t know if the Refugees will leave Calais even in my lifetime, she says, but just because I might not see it happen myself doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be building a future that supports it.

Someone tells a story of visiting the Jungle and meeting an incredibly sweet man who was a hotel manager before being forced out, and how he asked them to visit his shelter, and how everything was presented ready to receive guests. Receiving and entertaining guests was what he knew best, and loved. And sat in there, someone asked him what his hopes were for the future. Would he plan to escape? And he said no. He would simply be too afraid to take his chances with a truck, and with the police. It’s not really the fault of the police, it’s a system that has no provision for dealing with a refugee crisis. Real change can only come from the top down, in the meantime aid helps make things more bearable.

I grab Jules for a brief moment as she’s instructing a new team of people how to make kitchen kits for the day. I ask how many men’s kits we need to make today, and what size?

Do 300 in large, then come see me she says.

Cool. We can definitely do that, I say. Lots of large stock. I say we’ll make a metric f**kton. She says she likes these technical terms. We set about stocking up to begin a production run.

The warehouse has an adjoining kitchen. It has an air of military kitchen to it (not that I’ve ever been to a military kitchen in my whole sweet life, but when I imagine one it looks like this looks), and like the warehouse, it’s also staffed by volunteers. Daily, they feed thousands of people in the camps. Thousands. And so they feed us too — people need fuel, and a well-fuelled volunteer workforce can work harder. And when I say feed, I mean this is like the polar opposite of prison food. While getting my lunch I ask what is the side dish there, (because it looked a little like gruel), and they joked that it’s gruel. It’s mashed fresh parsnip. So as hot food goes, I rate the volunteer lunches there as pretty much top. It’s sheer plates of joy. It’s a metric f**kton of lentils and chickpeas and mushrooms and garlic (and sometimes meat when they have it), it’s balanced and all made fresh, from scratch from raw things, not from packets. I’ve obviously never been to prison either, you know, but I imagine the food is pretty shit. I’m glad to think some refugees get to eat as well as this, and today is no exception. Around 1pm we’re approaching 200 kits, and I’m decanting Large Men’s Kits into rubble sacks by the warehouse entrance, and becoming aware of an indescribably delicious aroma wafting from the kitchens. I actually need to stop and spend a moment paying attention to it, it smells so good. I ate so much today I almost needed to lie down, but the work keeps you real busy, and soon the food is being put to use.
 Volunteer meal at RCK

By the way, on the first day, don’t be afraid of the tea and cereal area. On your first day you’re stood around with everyone feeling a bit like the new kid at school while everyone’s powering into it like they own it, and nobody explains that that’s because it’s for you. You power the warehouse for free, so they power you for free. Power through the free breakfast, it’s free. Just wash your cups up after.

So as we’re getting through the large kits, we’re getting through men’s scarves. And there aren’t any more boxes of men’s appearing from the sorting area. There is quite frankly an overabundance of women and children’s clothing and a dearth of men’s, and its predominantly men in the camps. We surmise that people ‘think of the women and children first’, but the simple reality is that it just is mainly men in there, and in terms of clothes it’s men that need to be provided for. We never had enough scarves and gloves. So where you’re building a care package that requires the inclusion of a men’s scarf, and you’re seeing boxes and boxes of women’s scarves, what other option is there? You start opening women’s scarf boxes and picking out the gender neutral options. And today I discover several blindingly gender-neutral scarves in a box that were also packed today. And that’s frustrating when you’re so desperate for men’s clothes. And I’m going over to the people who packed it to explain this. And as I’m going over to them I’m suddenly having to remind myself that everyone is a volunteer. Do not be an asshole as they have no idea why you feel strongly that they should categorise certain scarves as gender neutral. They don’t know men’s are in short supply. And so it’s the way you communicate this that is all important, I’m thinking. Don’t. Be. A. Dick. Don’t criticise. Just explain. Be positive about it. Almost every day is most people’s first day on the job in this place. And as if some part of me that knew the words started talking, I just started blurting out, Guys I’m making Men’s Kits at the moment and I need a massive favour if you can please please help. And I explain what we’re doing and that how we’re so desperate for Men’s scarves so any ones they’re in two minds about, do just go with men’s as it’ll help us out. And look at these ones as good examples which are totes good as men’s. Bright colours are fine. And it was fine. It occurred to me how many different approaches and most importantly tones of voice you can take, and how critical and simple it is to not assume people know the issues further on down the chain, make it sound like you really are just asking for a favour, not having a go. Be pleasant to everyone you meet. Don’t have a go. Because you really are just doing that, and they’re working hard, for no money. Though what they’re working for is more important than money.

And you work alongside people who school you on positivity. Barbara from Canada says goodbye as I pass her, as today is her last day. Barbara is a real loss for the warehouse. She’s basically owned the Hygiene Kits and while the stock was good, kept us in perfect supply, and was nothing but humour, thanks, and gratefulness for any assistance in her work. She must be in her sixties, and has one of those faces that has clearly spent most of those years smiling. Jules is looking like a badass, arms bared, covered in mud, having swept rainwater out of the edge of the warehouse to make space to haul 14+ rubble bags piled with three days worth of Men’s Kit bags out single handedly. She’s managing the whole show, whilst breaking her back to get things sorted for the days ahead, given there are less volunteers today than ever. I am in awe of her dedication to it, her energy. Some people are like a bottomless well.

Packing kits you see a lot of fashions pass. I pack t-shirts and jumpers into the kits I would totally wear. I’m like, this guy is gonna look like a complete dude. But in picking clothes, where generally speaking all the clothes are unique, you have to be careful to sort for fairness and balance. I’m thinking, don’t give someone only thick socks, as it might not fit their shoes. Give a mix. You try to think about how it will be received, that it is for a person, and you don’t want anyone to feel like they drew the short straw. So the question is not could a man wear this, but would a man wear this. The attitude is not “they’ll wear anything”. Don’t demean and embarrass people. The hideous itchy Christmas jumper with snowmen and sequins might have been technically warm but it most certainly did not go into a kit, and we still made 377 kits today.

We worked really bloody hard to make that number, and I’m constantly ferrying full shopping trolleys of completed kits that Margot, Amelia and Jo are pumping out, ready to be loaded up on a distribution run. I’m outside, dragging another pallet into the warehouse so I can load up a new rubble sack onto it, and I stop for a moment, in the glorious sunshine outside. It’s a beautiful hot day. In the distance I hear the nee-naw of sirens. And I’m trying to work out from the doppler effect which way they’re going. Are they coming our way…or their way?

Tomorrow is our last day, and we’re thinking of our ‘legacy’, without sounding like a dick. As in, we’ve been successful making kits, but the amount that is actually required is far, far more. How can we make future kit builders more efficient, and keep up a run rate?

I feel like I’ve been here forever. Not in a bad way, only in the way that new experiences expand time. The real world really does feels a long, long way away. And I try to quantify this strange sense of purpose I’ve felt. I think about what is the lasting legacy of our normal day jobs? Of yours? I’ve never really sat down and thought about how ‘spiritually’ fulfilling my day job is, but of course working for a charity has such a built-in significance. I’ve just never done it before. Its function is so fundamentally at odds to any other type of work, because every other job exists to turn a profit, not to simply improve people’s lives. And I think, looking over all the kit bags we’ve made so far, you can’t help but think…quite literally, when something so gratifying is something I can clearly do…what am I actually doing with my life?

We’re walking through Calais in the early evening, and I’m in a T-shirt and jacket, and despite it not being that late yet, I’m getting cold. And I put my hands in my pockets because I don’t have any gloves. It occurred to me that if I had to bear this through all the way until morning, I would be extraordinarily grateful for a jumper, some layers, some gloves, and a scarf.

Day Four

It’s our last day today.

We do our morning stretches, and it’s time to divide the roles for the day.

Men’s kits people keep doing men’s kits.

Cool. what size, how many?

As many as you can do, Jules says. In small.

No worries, I say, worried. Because I know the small stock is rinsed.

On the whole, I think British people tend to be big old vikings, or maybe we’ve all been slimming and are throwing away our old clothes at the moment, because the predominant size donation seems to be large (if it’s men’s at all). Problem is that a majority of Refugees are small and medium. In terms of small we had barely anything left on the shelves.

It’s deeply frustrating. You want to work hard but you can’t. So we end up resorting to the technique required for scarves, only this time it’s jumpers: go through women’s boxes and pinch the ones we can make work as men’s. There are so few volunteers today, there’s barely any sorters so we know that fresh supply coming in from the “mountain”, that is the colossal pile of unsorted donations will be minimal. You stand and look at the mountain and think that in there, somewhere, will be more than enough to let us churn out a couple of hundred, but it’s the sheer time intensive labour to get through it. Sorting is frankly a pretty dull job, but it’s essential. It’s a lynchpin. Without it, nothing gets to the refugees because everything has to be sorted and categorised to be accessible for all the other teams at work distributing aid. If they could magically have a thousand people and ten times the room, that pile could get done in an hour. But they don’t.

Mens Full Kits - Calais RefugeesSo we’re in the excess warehouse, where surplus stock gets stored long term. It’s filled with women’s clothing. Me and Jo are going through boxes of women’s jumpers with a cardboard strip with marks that denote the size appropriate for small, medium and large. You measure armpit to armpit. It’s nearly 11am and no kits have been made today.

There’s a feeling of tension, like we’re clutching at straws, like we’ve been told to bake a cake but only have flour, and we have to substitute every other ingredient but still make something edible. I’m not cool with less than 100 kits today. After what feels like an age, we’re close filling a shopping trolley with passable gender neutral jumpers in small. I’m checking my watch regularly. This stress is generated entirely personally, certainly not descended from management. You just feel an obligation to be useful.

We return to the packing station with our full trolley. We’ve taken up in a second location which has moved from medical kit construction to secondary men’s kit construction spot, but it lacks some of the conveniences of the primary spot. So we add them in, with an improvised rubble sack holding zone made from pallets. We create a new Mens Kit manufacturing sign, which incorporates some of our system tweaks born from our time there. I write “It should take no more than 20 secs to fill a bag”, to convey the sense of production urgency that should be felt, without saying “work harder”. And the all-important one: “You can make 300+ kits in a day with 4 people and good stock”. I hope folks get the hint, and I hope they have good stock.

We power through our gender neutral clothes until all the jumpers are gone, sensing this is it for us making kits this week. I look at the final tally. Only 77 today.

That’s lame. We’re deflated, but it’s not our fault, and those 77 were hard won, effectively pulled out of thin air. After all, us and other teams have just rinsed the existing stock, is all. There simply isn’t more coming in from the sorters in the sizes we need.

So we move to making mini-kits, which are hats, gloves, scarves and socks, and quickly all the scarves are gone. And then we really are done.

And yet I’m down about our last day, though I know I shouldn’t be.

So with nothing left to pack, we are moved to other jobs for the first time. I’m on sorting — which is standing at tables literally sorting through clothes handed to you, deciding how to categorise, measuring the size with marks laid on the table top, and putting them in little tubs ready to be boxed when the tubs fill up. And I can’t help but notice how slowly they fill for small and medium, vs. large.

People send some strange and frankly ill-advised things. Animal onesies. Christmas jumpers. Swimming costumes (best we don’t encourage people to swim the channel, people die trying). Massive, tent-like, XXL t-shirts. As we are sorting jackets a French girl next to me pulls a knife out of one of the pockets. These things don’t go in.

Carys’ well-stocked iPod has run flat, and so the warehouse is silent but for the clatter of activity. And from the energising production line of making kits it’s a powerful change of scene to be sorting, without a beat to work to. Honestly, it’s hard. It’s repetitive, it’s basic, but it’s brightened by music and conversation once the categorisation becomes second nature. And I’m having to remind myself of the utter, utter importance of this job, and how the outcome is so at odds to the experience of doing it. Because it’s boring.

But without people stood at these tables sorting and categorising donations, the 30 foot pile mountain of donations increases and increases, yet goes to no-one. The boxes on the shelves disappear, and are not replaced. In the camp, mobile distribution vans turn away people who fit less-donated to sizes. You do not notice the boxes getting filled as you focus on the piles of clothes, but they are getting filled, so you have to just do your turn.

And little by little, large by large, I noticed as I slowly, laboriously fill a boxes-worth of small men’s long sleeve tops, something that would be worth it’s weight in gold in the hours previous. And hour passes, and I turn around, and I notice it had gone. It was being packed and labelled, and put on a shelf. Tomorrow was Saturday, and they get more volunteers at the weekends.

Donations permitting, they would soon be building small men’s kits again.

Day Five — Home.

And I’ve said goodbye to the warehouse, and I’m back walking on British soil in the sunshine on Saturday, trying to understand why I don’t feel like I even need a weekend.

I have never ‘worked harder’ in my life than over these last few days. Time expands with new experiences, and the sheer quantity of new experiences, faces and thoughts over the last four days has indeed made the time feel longer than its hours, but we’ve been so applied that it does not feel that they’ve dragged, at all. Nor do I feel the effects of the physical effort. But there is something else I feel which I am trying to understand.

I feel deeply content.

I honestly feel like I’ve been on holiday. I feel better than that, even. I’m looking strangers in the face, not politely avoiding their gazes, I’m smilingly at people. I feel peaceful. My mind is clearer. And I’m looking at homeless people thinking I should do something to help.

It’s weird. Why do I feel so good? What the hell is this?

And then a word bubbles up. And I think that this one single word really does describe how I’m feeling, and it explains why.

The word is “fulfilled”.

It’s an intensely calming sense of contentment. And I have never felt like this after a day of ‘work’ work in my life. This is more like the feeling of regular meditation. And along with this calm and peace bubbles up that prickly little question.

What is the meaning of your working life?

When you lay dying, and look back on a lifetime of work, of stress, of eight hours of work you put in a day for thousands and thousands and thousands of days, all that mental and physical effort just to please your boss, to not get fired, and to think…

Hey, how did it make me feel?

Am I proud of it?

Did any of it matter?

Well, uh, I, uh, certainly, I made some money, you’d say. I can say that much. I made some money. Not much, of course. But some. And a tiny pile of money may be the primary legacy of all those precious hours. An average wage, and a lingering sense of resentment that you had to do it just to pay the bills.

And sure, money enables things, it enables charity if you choose to spend it that way, but EARNING money doesn’t fulfil you. You might like your job, and I like my job, but it’s never made me feel like this. This feeling is bizarre, alien, at odds to any feeling directly following hard work I’ve ever done in my life.

And it’s because the entire fruit of the work I’ve done this week is to help desperate people feel a tiny bit better about their lives. And It makes you feel different, too. Helping people pays nothing but fills the soul. It really does. I stood in the sunshine and thought it is unquestionably the best work you can do.

During her morning briefing, Jules always talks about the people who come here in order to see the camp. And I understand why they want to do that, because I feel the same pull. You’re curious. You want to see it for yourself. To ‘understand’.

But she says, unless you have been given a particular job to do which requires that you go, do not go to the camp. Don’t think you will go to understand the camp better. In an hour, you will not understand the camp any more than before you went in. Nobody can fully understand the camp. And if you are there, you are there to do a job only. You do not take pictures. These are people, just like you, and who are deeply affected by their experiences, they are not a tourist attraction. Do not ask them to tell you their story as in doing so, you require they re-live the horrors that led them to need to escape. You’re re-traumatising them, for nothing but your own savage curiosity. You are here to help them, and you are most help to them here, at the warehouse, she says. And while the work you do can be laborious and hard, it does something a normal job cannot do — the act of helping another person fills the soul, not the bank balance. So be here, and work hard.

And I’m thinking that pretty much nails it. We work a lot in our lives, and I’m sure you work very hard at your job. Can you say truly, honestly to yourself that your work makes you actually feel grateful for how you’re spending your precious hours on this earth? Can you honestly, seriously think of any pursuit more important, or gratifying than working your arse off in the pursuit of making people other than you feel better about their lives?

I spent money in order to work harder than I’ve ever worked in my life before, but I have never felt so fulfilled by any ‘job’ in my life before. It felt like this is what work is supposed to feel like.

We can all do more to help other people, and the best bit is you also do get something in return — you feel good about how you’re spending your precious time on Earth.

Try it.

Final Men’s Kits counts made over four days by our teams:

Tuesday: 392

Wednesday: 328

Thursday: 377

Friday: 77 Men’s Kits, 106 Mini Kits.

Distributions:

309 Small

509 Medium

356 Large

Total 1,174 Men’s Kits in Four Days, Plus 106 Mini Kits.

By Mylar Melodies
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Team member Oz Katerji on his time in the Jungle, Calais

When first asked to write this blog I really struggled thinking about what narrative I could add to the situation unfolding in Calais that would be of benefit. So far the citizen response has been staggering. For all the anti-immigrant rhetoric thrown around in the British press a new poll published in the Guardian revealed that 31% of British people have donated to charities helping refugees in the month since three year-old Aylan Kurdi tragically washed up on the Turkish coast.

When I first decided to help I had heard of a small convoy of aid heading over to Calais from London and wanted to help out. In a matter of days that small convoy turned into a massive warehouse full of donations with thousands of parcels arriving every day and a stream of hundreds of volunteers heading back and forth across the channel to deliver aid to the Calais Jungle refugee camp. A warehouse space had to be rented in Calais to deal with all the donations alongside the fantastic local charity L’Auberge des Migrants. Soon too, that warehouse was overflowing with aid and volunteers arriving daily to help sort and distribute it.

My first time arriving at the Calais camp I felt completely shocked. This was not my first time in a refugee camp, I have been to at least a dozen since the start of the Syrian revolution, some in horrendously desperate conditions sprawling out as far as the eye can see. What shocked me was that this camp closer resembled a Central African slum than it did modern-day Western Europe. How could the French authorities allow the situation to deteriorate to this level? Quite frankly the conditions are inhumane, luckily there is running water and some power but the sanitation facilities are inadequate, the camp frequently floods and it is becoming increasingly overcrowded and polluted. No human should have to live in these conditions. What struck me most about the inhabitants of the camp was their determination, that no matter what was happening to them they would persevere. I undoubtedly witnessed some scenes of desperation and panic among some of the residents, but I also witnessed incredible kindness and humility.

Despite having absolutely nothing the vast majority of the residents I spoke to wanted to invite me for a tea or some food, the desire to share what little they had with people is remarkable. In fact, I would say the most hospitable people I have ever met in my life have been in refugee camps. It’s important to remember that these people don’t want handouts, all they want is their dignity and a chance to live.

The events that unfolded over the next few days were crucial to understanding why our help is so vitally needed to solving this crisis, both domestically and across Europe and the Middle East. Last Saturday a huge demonstration organised by L’Auberge des Migrants took place with a march from the Jungle camp towards the ferry port drew thousands of refugees, migrants, aid workers and solitary activists from across the EU.

It was incredible to see how far the march spread, from horizon to horizon, refugees and activists walking hand in hand in solidarity. The mood was both jovial and defiant, I could see the hope in many of the faces of the young migrants on the march, as if the authorities were watching and could hear their demands. The sad truth is nobody is listening, not in France and not in Britain.

Over the last few weeks more Syrians have started arriving in Calais, the Jungle mainly houses Iraqis, Afghanis, Eritreans and a host of refugees from other conflict and poverty-stricken nations. A group of about 300 Syrians had set up camp near the ferry terminal and did not want to reside in the jungle. Honestly it’s hard to blame them for that. I think many believed that their situation was temporary, the hope that having traveled so far that the last few miles to their family and friends in England would be the easiest and that their stay in Calais would be a short one.

I met this young Syrian man at the Syrian encampment, he helped us distribute sleeping bags and jackets to the young men that had just arrived, the vast majority of them had already escaped barrel bombings, sectarian death squads, treacherous seas and racist police to arrive this far. The young man helped keep his comrades calm and in line, many people who haven’t ever worked with refugees before don’t realise how difficult it is for people form an orderly queue in a situation as difficult as that. Fights and riots can break out easily, people when pushed to their limits can often snap. The man helped keep everyone calm and distribute things to those most in need. Despite the fact that he clearly needed a warmer jacket he kept nothing for himself, handing everything that was given to him to those most in need. Afterwards he took me to one side and asked me what was happening in the UK and when they were going to open the borders for them. After I explained to him that the British government wasn’t going to do that he looked visibly distraught. He paused for a moment and then smiled defiantly, “I will see you in London” he said.

Three days prior to this, his group had tried to jump onto the euro tunnel tracks and one man was killed instantly as he touched one of the high voltage wires, they had seen the smoke rising from his body. After everything these people have been through to get this far, no matter how dangerous those last few miles get, no cage in the world will stop them from trying. History will not remember the actions of our leaders kindly. Days later, I saw this man again, in a photo of him cowering and crying as French police broke up the camp violently. They tear gassed and beat the residents, tore down their tents and frog-marched them to the jungle, most of them had to leave all their possessions behind. It is not acceptable to treat human beings like this, the French authorities should be truly ashamed of themselves. The police continued to strip parts of the camp over the course of the day and riots inevitably broke out. The situation is, frankly speaking, disgraceful. While the citizen response has been incredible, our respective governments have acted appallingly.

However our citizen response is also not without fault. Over the course of the few days I spent in Calais, many groups turned up to distribute goods. Some of those people turned up in cars packed full of unsorted clothing, opened their doors and triggered riots in the camp. Some of the people that turned up were poverty tourists, treating the camp like it was some sort of human safari. One of the vans that turned up ran over a tent injuring two people inside before driving off oblivious to the damage they had caused. Boxes on boxes of useless items still arrive on a daily basis to the warehouses across Calais.

I implore those reading this post, we do urgently need your help, but don’t just load up a van full of things and drive down to Calais. The amount of man-power needed to sort through donations is preventing us from delivering aid to people, inexperience in dealing with these sorts of situations is leading people to causing more trouble than good. Piles and piles of soaking abandoned clothing are appearing up and down the highway where people have failed to donate appropriate items to those most in need. If you want to help, please, donate your time or your money. L’Auberge des Migrants are trying to raise enough money to build more permanent shelters for these people, instead of spending money on a new tent, that £100 would be much better served by building an accommodation unit. Hundreds of thousands of pounds have been donated to various little groups across the country, if we really want to help we need to start pooling this money together and working towards a united goal.

Please, don’t just turn up in Calais, get in touch with the people on the ground and arrange something that way. Warehouses in the UK still need help too, on top of that lobbying MPs and domestic activism will go a long way to helping find permanent housing for those currently stranded across the channel. I will leave you now with the words of one of the refugees who addressed the crowd at last weekend’s protest, because quite honestly the most important thing in this situation is to listen to the voices of those we are trying to help: “I speak for all of my neighbours living in the jungle when I say that we did not choose to leave our countries and make the dangerous journey here by choice. I and all the other migrants here would love to stay in our countries but we have been forced to leave.” Remember, these people are human beings and they deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, the only way we can do that is by working together.

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‘The devastating moment when French Police raided a makeshift camp’ – Philli on the ground in Calais

When I woke up and looked out the window on Monday, I could see police were blocking the road. I realised immediately that it was because they were in the process of ‘removing’ the Syrians who had set up their camp on a small piece of grass, just around the corner. There were 150 of Syrians in tents, on a piece of land which must have been smaller than a tennis court. We had heard rumours this was going to happen soon, but hoped it was another false alarm.


The Syrian people were woken by the police forcing them out, shaking their tents and spraying them, half asleep, with tear gas. By the time they were dressed and standing beside the now unoccupied tents, the Syrians (including women and children of all ages) were being herded like animals by at least a hundred policemen who were wearing full riot gear, towards the main camp. The camp which we now, somewhat uncomfortably, refer to as ‘the jungle’. It’s about 6km away.

The police wouldn’t let us past to help anyone with their belongings, or to give lifts to those less able to walk. The road was blocked so we just looked on in tears watching them marching away in front of us, dehumanised after their dawn raid.

With a handful of Syrians who had been away from their tents when the police came, about 10 of us took down all the tents and cleared everyone’s things into bags. The policemen and rubbish collectors just watched. They gave us an hour to take all we could. The Syrians had managed to carry with them the absolute essentials, things like papers, money, phones etc. Tents, beddings, clothes, shoes, food and toiletries remained. Unfortunately, later, the Eritreans would be less fortunate. Their camp was cleared while most of them were out, early in the afternoon. People lost everything. Men were wandering around where the tents had been an hour before looking totally dumbstruck. All their belongings, and many of their hopes for asylum, had been swept away as if they didn’t matter. The good thing is we knew we had a warehouse full of amazing generously donated clothes, blankets, tents and sleeping bags, but we felt had to show solidarity and respect for the make-shift homes that the Syrians had created for themselves. Everyone was so focused on the task. We worked silently. Except to ask each other for scissors or bin bags. I worked with an older Syrian man who took so much care in dismantling each tent, helping me when I couldn’t manage a knot. Occasionally I wondered what was going through his mind. I couldn’t even begin to imagine. Mostly, I just got on with the task in hand, grateful that we were working as a team even though one person could have done it alone.  So we took almost every tent down (about 40). Afterwards, when we were loading the van up, one of the other guys who had been involved in the process thanked me for helping the Syrian people. It had been such a tiny gesture in the scheme of what they must have been through. I almost felt ashamed. We are so much luckier than we realise.

In the end we took everything to a place where the Syrians could come to collect them, close to the entrance of the camp. Once the police had finished clearing the space the Eritreans had occupied we were able to get into the camp to find the new Syrian arrivals, and get them to follow us to retrieve their belongings. Some found a few of their possessions, but there was an enormous pile to sort through so many just collected a new sleeping bag, tent, mat and tarpaulin from the truck. Other refugees were crowding around the pile of rescued stuff too, seeing the opportunity to find some useful things. It was hard to tell who was looking for their own things, and who was trying their luck. There were some scuffles. You can’t blame anyone for that.

Just as all this was going on the rain began to pour, soaking those waiting in the queue at the truck, as well as those heading off into the camp to find a spot to pitch their new ‘home’ in the ‘jungle’. The camp which they have deliberately, and  actively, avoided by staying in the town.  One man refused to get his tent, he said he couldn’t handle any more of this. He was ashamed of his situation. So far from being his fault or his doing, in my guilty British eyes. We cried together for a while sitting on the pavement in the rain. He must have been in his 30s,  he spoke almost no English. He used to be a policeman in Syria. He had inhaled tear gas in the morning, so he was struggling to breathe. His 17 year old brother had been arrested during the raid in the morning and he didn’t know where he was. He was begging me to help him contact him. These are just the most recent devastations for him. And for the Syrian people. Every so often I remember that, in the midst of all the action. What these people have been through before they even got there.

The police arrived to clear the area where we had deposited all the Syrian’s possessions – having blocked their route into the camp until just 15 minutes before. While waiting, some had put up pop up tents to stay dry while they waited for their friends and for the road to clear. The police dragged these away, wielding their batons, a harsh contrast to the resigned demeanours of the Syrians. A few minutes later I spotted the former policemen again, he was already smiling. Then, just as I started to walk towards him, his brother appeared out of nowhere (probably a police van).  I’m not sure if I’ve ever felt as happy about anything, as I felt seeing their reunion.

A group of Afghan women and children who arrived in the melee of the displaced, the rain and greyness, were quickly sent to a hotel in Calais for the night by L’Auberge des Migrants. They are the  incredible, Calais-based grass roots charity who we have teamed up with on the ground. There were 5 children between the ages of 11 months. This kind of day is shockingly commonplace for the l’Auberge des Migrants and the other French organisations who have been working with refugees in Calais for many years.

As things were quietening down, two lovely Afghan chaps insisted we sit with them (on plastic chairs, which had appeared out of nowhere on the roadside) and demanded a selfie; cue groans from Nico and I when our exhausted faces popped up on the screen. It had been quite a long day. A cheeky photo-bomber popped up, with his pallet. He was happy with his work. We all laughed, and that felt so good.

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