We travelled to Calais for a weekend to volunteer with Help Refugees UK — here’s what we learned

I tried hard to keep this short, but the truth is there’s just too many important stories to tell, and too much truth to expose. 

Mid-January, as I mindlessly scrolled through Instagram’s myriad of exotic destinations, palatable flatlays and sponsored fashion posts, a Story flashed up at the top of my screen from a traveller I’ve been following for some time: Sol, otherwise known as @themomentbehind.

I viewed it and within minutes had learned a new thing: despite the media silence since the crisis in 2016, there were still refugees in the France’s northern port, Calais.

Dialling back three years ago, the Calais “Jungle” was all over British news. The term “Jungle” was christened by migrants themselves, a name adopted from years previous when migrants had to hide out in the north Serbian fields, amidst crops, bush and undergrowth, to avoid border police. The name stuck and became the term for the location of the sea of tents and sleeping arrangements in the surrounding fields of the Calais port without any real bricks and mortar in sight. The main news channels didn’t take long to adopt the term “Jungle” themselves; an easy way of contributing to the dehumanisation of the area’s occupants; to portray them as animals. They were mere pests to be swept under the rug.

There has been little mentioned in the news since 2016 and so, naively, I thought the situation was no more.

And yet now, three years later, I was seeing Sol’s personal account of the continuing refugee crisis in Calais. The good news is that there is a band of charities plugging away to support these refugees: a program running every single day of the year. A project to supply food, shelter, clothing, firewood and some degree of dignity. Y’know, things that pretty much most of us in England take completely for granted.

Sol had just returned from a weekend of volunteering with the Cambridge Convoy Refugee Action Group (CamCRAG) that works under the Help Refugees umbrella, lending a hand in their main warehouse in Calais (as well as lending her social media platform too, to raise awareness). And that awareness succeeded, because there I found myself several weeks later in the back of an overloaded Citroën Berlingo en convoy to Calais on a Friday night, my husband sat next to me. After seeing Sol’s moving messages, we had signed ourselves up to go along with the next intake of volunteers.

Sarah was my driver, a CamCRAG veteran who knew the route to the Calais warehouse like the inside of her eyelids. A hostel had been booked for us to stay in that night and work was due to begin at 9am the following morning.

Arriving at the warehouse in industrial Calais, heavy gates were held open for us as Sarah manoeuvred the Berlingo across the muddy gravel. There was a morning briefing and about 50 of us gathered in one large circle. Then the ‘newbies’ had a tour. We were taken past the kitchen, then through ‘Main Sort’ (clothing), past ‘Sewho’ – the fixing corner, past hygiene/sanitary, through the sleeping bag and blanket zone, tent testing (ensuring all distributed tents aren’t faulty) and finished in the wood yard (which is where Steven and I decided we’d start as there were very few people out there).

We were put to work immediately, after being made to sign waivers about the dangers of working outside in the wood yard. I started my morning chopping kindling (the first time in my life I’ve ever chopped anything before) and Steven, after additional waivers were signed, was put to work on a chop saw. The goal was to fill netted bags with firewood to be distributed later to homeless migrants: this would likely be their only source of warmth.

Lunch was called at 1pm and we queued to be fed by the Refugee Community Kitchen. We learned we’d be eating the leftovers from yesterday’s cooking (the food that had gone out to migrants) and were insanely surprised when it was restaurant-quality food. A creamy chickpea curry with pasta and a generous serving of fresh salad, and as many bread slices or rolls you wanted. No soggy cheese sandwiches anywhere in sight. The RCK serve filling, calorie-and-protein-dense platefuls and will only serve things that they are prepared to eat themselves to ensure high quality).

The whole operation gleaned organised chaos. The main part of the warehouse was bursting with unsorted donated items stuffed into mostly unmarked binbags before it would be moved to categorised bins as high as the ceiling. There were things everywhere. From an outsider’s perspective it looked like pandemonium, and yet those in charge knew exactly where everything lived.

On my second day in the warehouse, I switched over to Main Sort which involved combing through the donations and categorising the men’s clothing. I began with the bin bags and it was important to check all clothing was clean and practical.

Anything poor quality or dirty (and, yes, I would have to ‘smell’ the items for cleanliness) would be thrown into the rags pile. Anything that could be fixed (i.e. a faulty zip on a good quality hoodie) would be taken down to Sew-Ho for repair. The items that would be impractical for the refugees would be put into the recycling pile to be given to French charity shops. Impractical clothing included baggy legged trousers — the refugees are frequently on the run from the authorities so anything wider than skinny jeans is a trip hazard to them. And because of this same reason, they won’t wear bright clothing. So anything yellow, bright green, orange or pink went straight into the charity bins.

The clothing that passes these inspections are finally sized and placed into the relevant tote bin, and at the end of the day the items are logged and moved to the distribution area. And the whole cycle starts again the next day. Thanks to donations brought to the warehouse from various charities, there is a constant stream of clothing that needs to be sorted.

We did this for hours on end, stopping only once for a quick lunch, and then suddenly it was Sunday afternoon and it was time to go home. It was over before we knew it.

As the weekend crowd departed the warehouse around 4pm on Sunday, it became vastly apparent just how understaffed the warehouse is. On Main Sort, we left just one solitary girl to continue with our work (and we were guilt-ridden to be leaving her, but we couldn’t miss our ferry). At weekends, the volunteers arrive in droves, but when they depart, only a handful of longer term workers are left to continue the enormous amount of work.

We were back in our home in Bury St Edmunds by 10pm on Sunday, grateful to be jumping into a hot shower and feeding our clothes straight into the washing machine, having done two full, sweaty days at the warehouse. My fingers had blisters from chopping wood and my lower back ached from standing so long and I was sleep deprived — but we were only there for two days. Some of the people I spoke to had been there for weeks already. Some were volunteering three months on end. It is a thankless task, the warehouse work. The work never stops and there appears to be no end game either. And this is just the guilt I felt for leaving the warehouse workers. I couldn’t even comprehend the guilt I felt at the thought of the thousand or so refugees in Calais. I kept thinking, if only I could do more. If only more people could help.

As a result of the media skewing reality, there is a lot of prejudice and racism aimed at refugees and asylum seekers, whether they are trying to reach England or are already here. Whilst I tell myself I live in a progressive society, the reality is that a lot of people do not want refugees coming to England, supported by the fact that the news constantly feeds us this narrative that radicalised individuals are coming to our country to plant bombs. Quoting from Joseph Harker at The Guardian, “…the headlines evoke [imagery] of primitive, uncontrolled brutes – of the barbarians at the gates. The language obscures the stories of people who may be teachers, traders, clerical workers…”.

On the whole, the public eat into this fear-mongering, choosing to ignore these individuals’ stories, as it helps them sleep at night, without a burden on their conscience. And the dehumanisation of these refugees and asylum seekers helps to disguise the actual problem (the reason why people are migrating in the first place), and thus politicians can continue to bury their heads in the sand.

During my weekend in Calais, there were two distribution runs. Several of the more experienced workers would gather the food, clothing, blankets and firewood to distribute to refugees. And on their return, they shared their experiences and stories of how moving it is to be able to reach out in person to those in need. These supposedly “radicalised” individuals have nothing but gratitude and love for the volunteers delivering their aid. They’re grateful for anything, having suffered so many traumatic experiences in recent times, and it is a far cry from the portrayal the government and media want us to buy into.

Which leads me to this question: Why are so many people so incredibly against these people coming to our country? Every country in the world is chocka-full of migrants, because it was in human nature to keep moving rather than settling for thousands of years. I’m aware somewhere in my heritage there is some Irish and Scottish, some French too. Going back further still there’s probably many other nationalities in my blood from great-great-great-great grandparents. People move, end of. Even my parents have taken to Spain to retire, and they are just two amongst thousands of retired people who do this. So why can’t we cope with migrants in England?

There are a lot of misconceptions about the refugee crisis that I hope I can try and address here from the things I learned over my weekend at Calais.

Misconception no. 1: All refugees want to come to England and they’re flooding our borders.

One of the biggest questions I hear is: Why are they coming to England? Why can’t they go elsewhere?

Well, the fact is: a lot of migrants already have been/gone elsewhere. In 2015, Sweden accepted the highest amount of refugees out of the whole of Europe, followed by Germany. And many refugees do claim asylum in Italy, Turkey and Greece or wherever they first land, but as these countries haven’t organised efficient systems for accepting mass amounts of refugees, many authorities simply tell these people to keep moving, pointing north, and west. But, of course, the British media chooses not to tell that story, and instead implies that every single migrant wants to come to England.

There are several reasons why migrants ‘choose’ a particular country as their end destination. Back in 2015, Sweden was perceived to have the fastest acceptance rate for asylum, therefore many of the husbands and men who were fleeing focused on heading there because it was the quickest way to have their families reunited with them (and, unsurprisingly, this kind of news travels fast in migrant circles, usually propelled by exploitative People Smugglers trying to sell a ‘guaranteed safe journey’). It’s a similar story for Germany. Many from Africa aimed for France, because they spoke French. Many wanted to go to England, because they knew English. Many have family members in other European countries already so they want to reunite. I know that if I was forced to leave my home country, I would want to relocate to a country where I had family, or at the very least a country that spoke my language.

Misconception no. 2: Once they landed in Europe, they are safe. They could claim asylum easily in the countries they’ve landed in but they STILL want to come to England, so they’re not just looking for safety after all.

Well, actually, from the refugees’ point of view, the European countries they’ve passed through when arriving in Europe have probably seemed anything but “safe”. 99% of these migrants will have faced some kind of poor treatment on their journey. They’ve likely arrived in Greece to be caged, awaiting papers, and many experienced being harassed or sexually assaulted by locals or other migrants whilst here. The Hungarian military have been detaining refugees for weeks on end for absolutely no purpose whatsoever. There have been many attacks (several fatal) on migrants in Italy as the government started a xenophobic “anti-migration drive”.

Throughout their journeys, these migrants have been dehumanised, treated like cattle. Forced into cramped positions with little food and no information. And this has happened almost every step of their journey to seek safety. Would you want to stay in a country that treats you with so little respect? And so, they keep on moving. One of the furthest countries they reach before the UK is France, where they’re stopped by a stretch of water. The French authorities are beating and tear gassing the refugees in Calais. They are confiscating their items — bedding, tents and more, and still they are being treated like animals. In their minds, the UK is still a ‘safe place’, somewhere accepting, and for now they just want to leave France. Unfortunately, refugees are still not safe in the UK and there have been many reports of racial abuse and sexual harassment, but until they reach our shores, they do not know this.

Misconception no. 3: They’re only coming here to get free stuff and claim dole money.

This is probably the misconception most spread by newspapers such as The Daily Mail and The Sun, as they tag refugees as “lazy benefit-scroungers”. Now, this is a hard one to fathom. These people: men, women and children, have literally walked hundreds (or thousands) of miles. They’ve had their possessions stolen or had to give everything they have to People Smugglers. They’ve slept on tarmac and won’t have showered for weeks or months on end. They’ve been pushed onto boats with 1,000 others — a boat that’s only capable of holding 300. They’ve been vomited on during these boat trips, because there’s nowhere to move away if you’re sick. They have to shit and piss where they stand. They’ve been tortured by various countries’ armed forces. Beaten and exploited by People Smugglers. Treated like animals by police. And yet they just keep on going, inspired by the hope of providing a decent life for their children. These people are anything but lazy.

There is a memorable part of The New Odyssey by Patrick Kingsley that really puts this whole misconception into perspective, talking about refugees: “…ironically, they instead display qualities that would be prized in indigenous Europeans – the kind of on-yer-bike resourcefulness that conservatives wish was intrinsic to every native jobseeker.” It is unfathomable how anyone could describe these refugees as lazy, and as I look around at the average British person (my mum, my dad, for instance), I cannot imagine them coping anywhere near as well, and fighting for their lives and taking as much shit, in similar conditions. These refugees are not military. They’ve not had any kind of hardcore training to cross countries or defend themselves. They’re just families, seeking safety, and have sacrificed everything they have and are placing their trust in societies with decent civil rights laws to protect their families.

No accountability

One final reality I want to point out is that many MPs across the European Union (including Theresa May) are trying to avoid providing asylum to a lot of migrants because they technically, on paper, aren’t eligible as they’re not fleeing active war zones. The MPs are ignoring a wider issue going on in the Middle East and Africa, and by doing this they are abandoning tens of thousands of families to homelessness, starvation and death.

People from Syria are being prioritised because their homes are being bombed but there are also migrants fleeing from places like Eritrea, which is a country of slave labour, with mandatory lifetime conscription, and beatings and torture at the entertainment of those in charge is common place (like a real life Hunger Games district). There are migrants fleeing from Pakistan where citizens have been chased out by insurgents. From Afghanistan, where people are escaping Taliban control. And places like Somalia and Sudan where they are fleeing from civil war and there is no ethical winning side to fight for. And one big issue that everyone seems to be forgetting about: climate change, which is a key driver causing migration in many countries, particularly in Central and East Africa. Climate change brings drought, which leads to poverty, violence and death. There is nothing to eat, nor clean water to drink, and so people have to move north. The West have caused many of these problems ourselves, but we’re not providing any kind of solution. Climate change is also a huge issue for South America too, which is driving people north. And due to even more strung out asylum claims, frustrated and desperate families are crossing borders and being met with even more hostility. These people are in a ‘No Win’ situation — how on earth can we, in positions of privilege, accept this as a fact of life?

The People

In a Channel 4 interview one desperate Syrian woman, surrounded by her children, bravely told interviewers: “…every day we are (getting on) death boats because we are fleeing a situation worse than death.” And this sentiment is echoed throughout the voices of people from many other places in the Middle East as well as the Horn of Africa.

“Anyone putting their baby in a boat to come across to here, they’re desperate,” agreed Eric Kempson, a humanitarian aid worker who lives in Lesvos, which is one of the Greek islands the migrant boats are arriving at after they’ve made the dangerous journey across the Aegean sea. He isn’t any kind of official employee — it just so happened that boats of migrants started appearing at the beaches near his house. Eric, along with his wife and daughter, took charge organising food, water, medical supplies and transport. This is just one small degree of humanity the migrants will receive before they are subjected to the strict and cruel border crossings further into Europe.

As the years have gone on, refugees are becoming desperate and doing things to endanger their lives and others, such as boarding lorries or ferries in a frantic attempt to cross the channel to the UK. One article with Vice News presented a refugee who’d been at Calais for months on end. His response to these desperate acts was that, as a refugee, “…you play with death”. These migrants have been dehumanised to the point where they consider it the norm to gamble with their own lives.

It is scary that people in a country such as France are thinking such things.

My weekend at the Calais warehouse opened my eyes not only to the total disregard for human life, but also to a much wider problem with the political stances our countries are taking. They seem to believe that if they do nothing, these people will stop migrating. This is not the case. Thanks to a lack of civil rights, war and climate change, there is going to be a steady supply of migration and our governments need to be doing more to process this flow safely, appropriately and taking into consideration every single person’s rights. They have a right to safety and asylum, and if we encouraged those seeking refuge by way of a systematic process (as opposed to them undergoing dangerous boat journeys, having them deal with exploitative People Smugglers and eventually entering countries ‘illegally’ because they are so desperate), everyone would be safer, refugees and native citizens alike. A negligence in our systems has allowed situations such as three year old Aylan Kurdi to wash up, face down, on a Turkey shore and it shouldn’t take such extreme tragedies to prompt our nations into action. But what have we learned since then? It seems not a lot.

Politics aside, one of the most important themes of the work at the Helps Refugees warehouse is that it is totally unpolitical. The warehouse honours a ‘no judgement’ attitude. No matter your beliefs, your religion or your political stance, every single person is there for one reason: to look after human beings. Whether or not you agree with migrants wanting to enter England, the fact of the matter is, these are people who need food, water, shelter and warmth, and the government is leaving them to die. The surge of support to provide an element of dignity to these neglected souls is awe-inspiring and if you’d like to provide support to them in any way (whether it is volunteering or donating), their website is helprefugees.org.

The ‘office’ at the Help Refugees warehouse
One of the services offered at the Help Refugees warehouse — there are hundreds of lone minors sleeping rough in Calais
All of the different departments at the warehouse
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The Refugee Community Kitchen (RCK), providing nutritious meals to the homeless
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RCK meal on day 1: chickpea curry with lots of veggies
Sanitary towels, toothbrushes and shower products ready for distribution
Tents, sleeping bags and roll mats. These items are frequently confiscated off of migrants (for no good reason) and destroyed, so it is a constant effort ensuring they have shelter
Everything has a place
We spent our first day in the woodyard — there was so much to do
These blocks are from broken-down pallets, donated from businesses. They make great kindling for fires
The result of a whole day of work in the woodyard — this may provide for a day or two, so there is a constant need to chop more firewood to keep the distribution going
A very poignant poem inside the toilet at the Help Refugees warehouse

2 thoughts on “We travelled to Calais for a weekend to volunteer with Help Refugees UK — here’s what we learned

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