After a blisteringly busy week in the Calais refugee camp in which 1300 people were successfully relocated in under a week, Help Refugees Calais Manager Philli sent us her reflections on the experience. Philli was interviewed several times during the relocation process – here are the links to read more: BBC News, BBC News, Middle East Eye, the Independent, and Russia Today.
The news that we had days to help around 1300 people to relocate touched everyone living or working in Calais Jungle, residents and volunteers alike. It wasn’t clear exactly how many days we had. The only thing we knew was that there was a vast job to be done and possibly as few as 2 days to do it. The fact that it happened as smoothly and calmly as it did is the most heart-warming testament to the tenacity of the residents of the camp, the close, trusting relationship long-term volunteers have with those who live within ‘the Jungle’ and the ability of these long-term volunteers to work with community leaders to make things happen in a dignified, appropriate way, and the overwhelming support of hundreds of volunteers who came for a few days, or a weekend, and threw themselves enthusiastically into helping in any way requested of them. There is no template or prepared response to this type of crisis situation because our situation here in Calais is so particular. The volunteers who came to lend their hands and hearts at this tense and charged time were an absolute inspiration to those of us who have been here for a long time. The sheer volume of willing volunteers, together with the patient, understanding refugees who were living in the affected areas made it all possible.
A few of the legends of the weekend were ‘Geoff with a G’, one of our long-term volunteers and a true whizz with a 5 tonne digger, as it turns out, who along with the legendary ‘Matt Digger’ was able to make space for a total of well over a hundred shelters, on ground that was previously too rough and uneven to build upon. Ben Gillespie and his crew also arrived at the optimum time to help. Their four flat-bed trailers moved around 85 shelters over the course of four days. Without them we would have had a much tougher job on our hands.
The allocation team split into three with one person working closely with the Eritrean / Sudanese community, one with the Afghans and one with the Kurdish families. In each area they worked with the community spokespeople day in day out to ensure the most vulnerable people were looked after as priorities, followed by the less vulnerable, in a speedy, organised way. Everyone decided where they wanted to move to and we worked our hardest to facilitate this for every single shelter and tent that was to be displaced. This may seem like a small detail but existence in the Jungle is in many ways very disempowering. The right to decide where you live (however limited the options may be) is absolutely vital. This is also one of the reasons we understand if not everyone is rushing to move into the government container camp. Containers may be heated but guests are obliged to share a container with 11 other people within a prison-like looking compound where they do not have the ability to cook for themselves. Another basic human norm that most of us take for granted.
The long-term building volunteers are no strangers to late nights building by the light of their head-torches. Typically, they spent the week building until after 10pm almost every night. Pete and Jack, who head up the onsite build teams and have been with us since September, barely taking a day off, along with the amazing Mido, who runs the workshop, coordinated dozens of ‘relocation teams’ as well as ‘new build teams’. And the workshop buzzed, with volunteers making dozens of solid floors and side frames for shelters, to keep up with the number of shelters required in the camp. ‘Blue overall Tom’ and his endless smile and absolutely can-do attitude was a source of strength throughout.
By the time Sunday afternoon came around we (the people of the Jungle, refugees new and old, volunteers short and long-term) had managed to get everyone in the buffer zone relocated, through working together, supporting each other. There were so much laughter along the way, as there always is here. I will never forget the first shelter I saw being carried through the streets by a group of about 20 giggling young Afghan men. Or sitting down for tea behind the dome with some of the new residents in one of the newly cleared areas.
We were all relieved to have been granted the time to do it all in a dignified way and now, with the temperatures dropping to -4°C every night for the past few days, we move our focus back to those people still living in tents. It is simply too cold to be living in a flimsy uninsulated tent. The workshop is busier than ever, churning out shelters to be built in camp. It is up to us to try to save lives these coming weeks by keeping up this work and the only way we can do this is with your continuing support. Please click here to donate and do share this with your friends. If you’d like to come build with us email email@example.com. Thank you.