The weather conditions are starting to change in Calais. The wind is picking up and getting colder. Winter is coming.
On top of that, the end of September brings another challenge for the organisations that work with displaced people in Calais and Grand-Synthe. With universities starting their academic year and people having to go back to study or work, the number of volunteers will soon drop to a critically low point.
In winter, temperatures in the area can drop to minus 15°C. During our drive to work every day, we see people sleeping on the pavement, sometimes without a blanket. In winter, if their situation does not change, their life will be in danger.
If the current rate of police clearances continues (refugees now face 18+ evictions a week), many of them will have to survive without a tent. It is not clear yet how many places are available in shelters, but last year the number of spaces were not at all sufficient.
So help becomes more vital, but the work needs to be done with less volunteers. In August, over 300 volunteers came to our Calais warehouse. On the busiest days, there were 100 – 150 volunteers cooking, sorting clothes, giving information, checking the mental and physical health of refugees.
In winter, these numbers can drop to 20 – 30 volunteers a day. The risk is that our services get worse, at a time when they’re more vital. It is not just about human dignity, but about survival. During the cold months, hypothermia teams will drive around to check peoples heart rates and drive them to the hospital if needed.
This means that the people who are here in winter work up to 18 hours a day to still get everything done. We usually do see a peak during December with volunteers and donations. This is great, because it helps us get through January and February, which are hard and cold months. Still, the lack of volunteers in winter brings a big risk f
or the long-term volunteers, in terms of burn-out and mental health. Physically, it is also very challenging, since all of our services are outside.
More volunteers are needed, and it’s not just long-term volunteers that are able to help. Short-term volunteers, or ‘weekend warriors’ as we like to call them, not only bring much-needed relief from the daily tasks, but also new energy. They can look at the way we do things with fresh eyes, give tips about efficiency, support long-term volunteers who need a break. It is of vital importance that more people come to Calais this winter, for however long they can.
Currently, there are about 500 people in Calais and over 1,000 people in Dunkirk. Every day, we provide them with food, clothes, tents, sleeping bags and informational support. Still, people are living under incredibly rough conditions. They face cold, hunger and police violence and intimidation. The psychological effects of being woken up by heavily armed police every morning are unimaginable. On top of that, we have seen many reports of diseases like scabies, trench foot, and many avoidable infections. We need people, tents, blankets, clothes, and monetary donations to keep our lights on and our vans running.
But above all we need to see real change for the people living on the street in the North of France. Write to your politicians, tweet them, call them. Keep asking for a solution for the people who are caught here in Calais this winter.
This article was written by Jozien Wijkhuijs, who volunteered at the Help Refugees & L’Auberge des Migrants Calais warehouse. We desperately need more long-term volunteers for the winter months. If you want to get involved, go here.