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Calais: the City of Barbed Wire

What You Should Know, Why You Should Care and How You Can Help

One year ago today, 27 people died attempting to cross the Channel. It was, and remains, the largest loss of life of migrants in the channel. Since 1998, it is estimated that at least 300 people have been killed at the France-UK border as a result of a lack of safe passages for people on the move. Yet ever since the dismantling of the infamous Calais Jungle in 2016, the situation in northern France has largely been brushed aside by the rest of the world, and most people in the UK remain indifferent and ignorant to this crisis on our doorstep.

After spending the past few summers volunteering in Calais, I want to ensure that as many students as possible in St Andrews have this horrific situation within their periphery, and to encourage all those that can to take action. Whether it be fundraising, spreading awareness or volunteering, I hope I will persuade you, the reader, to do what you can to help this cause.

I have witnessed humanity at its worst. I have mainly volunteered with the charity Project Play, which works to create a safe space for family and children staying in informal living sites to exercise their right to play in order to help mitigate the toxic stress of their current environment, their journey, and the situation they are leaving. We often see children displaying signs of trauma or presented as victims of human rights violations, without access to sanitation, food, water, or shelter. One of the most difficult moments I experienced was having to pack up our gazebo at the end of a session, leaving a newly arrived family, including a small baby, with no belongings in the pouring rain, while all we had to offer as cover before driving away were some foil emergency blankets. Or when a mother laughed as I tried to stop her child eating food that had fallen in the mud saying, “this is our life, this is our reality, we are dirt”. Or when we had to choose a spot to set up session far enough away from the piles of rubbish infested with rats but also far enough from the burnt-out fires and broken glass, while remaining far enough away from the sound of gunshots. You wouldn’t quite believe this was on our doorstep, would you?

For more than two decades, people have been making the treacherous journey across the English Channel, putting their lives at risk for the hope of a better life in the UK. Time and time again, people are blamed for ‘choosing’ to make this journey, with fearmongers like our very own Home Secretary, Suella ‘Cruella’ Braveman, calling this desperate act an “invasion”. However, as the poet Warsan Shire so powerfully puts it, “no one puts their children in a boat, unless the water is safer than the land”. The so-called ‘legal’ routes to enter the UK are typically inaccessible to most people fleeing war, inequality, or fear of persecution, with less than 1% of the world’s 20.7 million refugees in 2020 being successfully resettled. Shockingly, visas tend to be difficult to obtain in war zones, dictatorships, and countries where there is genocide. As an ex-colonial power that has influenced many world events ultimately forcing people to flee, I believe we have no place to judge why people are leaving their home country and why they are choosing to come to the UK – it’s their human right to dignity to do so. If war broke out in the UK tomorrow, imagine being prohibited from settling in the same country as your family, or a country where you spoke the language? Contrary to popular belief, refugees and asylum seekers only make up just 0.26% of the UK’s total population, and ranks fourth behind other European countries in terms of the number of asylum applications it receives.

Regardless of why people are leaving, and why they are coming to the UK, the abhorrent situation in northern France cannot be ignored. In October 2021, the Human Rights Watch estimated there were around 2500 people in informal living sites across Calais and Dunkirk – under bridges, in wooded areas, and disused warehouses to name a few examples. Not only are people left and neglected by the French state to battle the elements of the harsh winter and scorching summer with little to no protection or warmth, but the benevolent UK government chooses to spend £63 million of taxpayers money every year to contribute to the hostile environment policy (just increased by £8 million at the time of writing). In 2021 alone, this money was spent on contributing to 1287 evictions of living sites, roughly equating to one every 36 hours. Evictions are often violent and aggressive, with records from 2021 showing almost 3000 sleeping bags and blankets and almost 6000 tents and tarps were seized and at least 70 episodes of violence against displaced people were observed. Alongside this, the local authorities have ordered multiple decrees to legally prohibit the distribution of food to people on the move and, during the July heatwave, removed a water tank giving access to around 400 people living outdoors in Dunkirk. Like I said, the situation is abhorrent.

If you feel as horrified as you should reading this, then I encourage you to clutch onto that despair and turn it into action. I must admit, the situation remains bleak and we can only hope for positive change in the future. However, there are many ways that you, the reader, can help.

The well-known international charity Choose Love (the ones with the t-shirt) was founded in response to the crisis in Calais. Since then, they have expanded to fund projects across the world and provided crucial funding for multiple NGOs in Northern France. However, in 2021 they decided to pull out of France. This left many NGOs on the brink of closing down and halting their services. Still today, many NGOs have struggled to recover from this financial loss. As a result, the Calais Appeal was formed. This umbrella group is made up of eight grassroots organisations (listed below) that work out of the same warehouse and funds raised are equally split between those in most need. Given these organisations are fairly small and work for a specific cause, their yearly budget is reflectively small.

However, due to the political hostility towards the cause and the fact that many do not have the capacity for any permanent fundraising staff, funding is incredibly difficult to obtain. Therefore, I implore you, reader, if you have any spare change, please consider donating to them. Or, if you are part of a society, group or collective to consider hosting a fundraiser for one of these organisations or for the Calais Appeal. I cannot emphasise enough how far this money will go, particularly in comparison to big, international charities, which are usually funded by banks and businesses. If you want to make tangible change, this is one way forward.

If you have the time, motivation, and finances I would encourage you to volunteer directly in Calais. Most organisations require volunteers to commit to a minimum of two months, so if you have no plans for next summer or after you graduate, this is certainly a route you can consider. However, it's worth noting that volunteering in Calais is not right for everyone. Do think about your own motives for going and how you could personally avoid falling into the trap of voluntourism. While no organisation is perfect, there is a strong commitment to anti-racism within the warehouse, and NGOs are always trying to reduce the power dynamic put in by the state between volunteers and people using their services. Also, as you can imagine, the situation takes a toll on most people's mental health. Burnout is common, and the effects of vicarious trauma can be harmful. Think about whether now is the right time for you, mentally and physically, to handle this situation. As I would say in interviews with potential volunteers, it's not never, but maybe not now.

If you are keen, here is some basic information about the organisations I recommend researching. Please note, information was correct at the time of writing but has potential to change. If there are any barriers, such as financial need, for volunteering with any of the following organisations, I recommend still getting in touch and enquiring. Most organisations require an application form, references, and an interview in order to volunteer. Some require skills or experience but most just require a willingness to work hard and well in a team. Most organisations are looking for long-term volunteers and have shared accommodation on offer. Lunch is provided for all volunteers in the warehouse and some organisations fund any additional living costs to try and make volunteering as financially accessible as possible - but either way costs are generally low.

Whatever you decide to do, please give the Calais Appeal (@CalaisAppeal) and the umbrella organisations mentioned a follow, stay up to date with their work, and share with family and friends. Keep an eye out for opportunities to take remote action, Christmas gifts to buy, or other ways to get involved. In addition, most organisations have a small team of long-term coordinators who are given stipends, so if you are thinking about your next steps, have the relevant experience, and are searching for a more permanent position, this may be something to consider.

While there are many NGOs operating in northern France, these are the organisations under the Calais Appeal umbrella and are all based in the same warehouse. These are the only organisations I know enough information about that I can whole-heartedly recommend as ethical, inclusive and effectively run and suggest starting your research there. In addition to these, I can recommend Utopia56 Calais and Grand Synthe (however information is more difficult to obtain as their work is solely in French!).

Calais Food Collective:

Provides food, water and cooking equipment in and around Calais. An organisation with a flat hierarchy and completely volunteer-based.

Minimum stay: 2-3 months

Minimum age: 18

Requirements/ Skills: none

Accommodation: provided after first month

Daily tasks: as an organisation with a flat hierarchy, volunteers are encouraged to take on any and all responsibilities. From advocacy and fundraising, to sorting and packing food, to filling up water tanks and distributing emergency food drops.

Instagram tag: @calais_food_collective

Collective Aid:

Regular non-food item distribution to people across Calais, including tents, sleeping bags and clothing, as well as emergency drops after evictions.

Minimum stay: 4 weeks+

Minimum age: 18+

Requirements/ Skills: none, but often looking for drivers and Arabic speakers.

Accommodation: €300 for first month and after then free (across all projects including in Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina)

Daily tasks: Sorting, measuring, packing and distributing items.

Instagram tag: @collectiveaidorg

Human Rights Observers:

An unofficial watchdog that documents and denounces state violence against displaced people.

Minimum stay: 2 months

Minimum age: n/a

Requirements/ Skills: fluency in French and ability to stay calm in hostile situations and presence of police.

Accommodation: €150 for the first month and then free.

Daily tasks: Observing evictions and acts of state violence, collecting and logging data, and writing reports.

Instagram tag: @humanrightsobs

Project Play:

Runs daily play sessions for children living in informal living sites, safehouses, and day centres. Volunteers plan, prepare and run sessions.

Requirements: minimum stay 2 months+, 19 years+, accommodation provided, relevant experience working with children, valid DBS or police check.

Minimum stay: 2 months

Minimum age: 19+

Requirements/ Skills: relevant experience working with children in a formal or voluntary capacity and a valid DBS or police check.

Accommodation: €150 for the first month and then free.

Daily tasks: planning, preparing resources, packing for and running play sessions, and sorting and cleaning warehouse space.

Instagram tag: @projectplayfrance

Refugee Community Kitchen:

Preparing and distributing 1000+ nutritious hot meals a day for people across Calais and Dunkirk. Serving food with dignity.

Minimum stay: NO minimum stay

Minimum age: 18+

Requirements/ Skills: none (apart from a willingness to do a lot of washing up!)

Accommodation: only provided for volunteers over 21 after they have volunteered for 4 weeks. Potential for stipends to be offered for those staying longer than 3 months.

Daily tasks: Preparing ingredients, cooking food, cleaning equipment, washing up, driving to sites, distributing.

Instagram tag: @refugeecommunitykitchen

Refugee InfoBus:

Running information and phone-charging sessions. Providing the right to connection through WIFI, SIM cards and basic mobile phones.

Minimum stay: 2 months +

Minimum age: 22+

Requirements/ Skills: valid DBS or police check

Accommodation: provided for all volunteers at no cost as well as a stipend.

Daily tasks: attending and supporting regular sessions, testing and fixing equipment, stocking vans, spending time with people using services, providing refreshments, gathering and presenting information.

Instagram tag: @refugeeinfobus

Refugee Women’s Centre:

Working with women and families across Calais and Dunkirk, providing material distributions, running activities, and providing psycho-social support (including regarding SGBV, access to shelter and directing to legal or medical assistance).

Requirements: minimum stay 8 weeks+, 21 years+, valid DBS or police check, understanding of French, accommodation provided and living costs covered. Due to the nature of this work, RWC only accept women or non-binary people as volunteers.

Minimum stay: 8 weeks+

Minimum age: 21+

Requirements/ Skills: valid DBS or police check, understanding of French, experience working with vulnerable people. Please note: due to the nature of this work, RWC is an all-female team.

Accommodation: provided for all volunteers and living costs are covered.

Daily tasks: sorting donations, packing orders, meeting new families, running activities, facilitating a ‘free shop’, liaising with relevant parties to source accommodation, transporting individuals.

Instagram tag: @refugee_womens_centre


Preparing and distributing firewood throughout the winter for warmth and opportunities to cook and dry clothes.

Requirements: minimum stay 3 weeks (November-May), potential for accommodation to be provided for volunteers staying longer than a month.

Minimum stay: 3 weeks (November-May)

Minimum age: n/a

Requirements/ Skills: none

Accommodation: potentially provided for volunteers staying longer than a month.

Daily tasks: chopping, sorting and distributing firewood.

Instagram tag: @calais_woodyard

Further to this, there will be a group of St Andrews students going to Calais during Winter Break (9th –13th January) to volunteer with Refugee Community Kitchen. Given the nature of their model – producing thousands of meals a day – they are in constant need of a big team with a willingness for hard work. You will most likely spend the days (roughly 9am-5pm) preparing ingredients, cleaning, washing-up, packing up food, and only potentially going on distributions. Lunch is provided but you will need to arrange your own travel and accommodation. Guidance is available and if you would like to join this group, please get in touch.

To end, I want to draw attention to one final thing. While people on the move in northern France are neglected by the state, and NGOs are playing a vital role by providing access to basic human rights, there unfortunately can be a white-saviour or hero complex present. These people are as competent and capable as you and me and are not reliant on these services. Most don't expect any assistance when they arrive and some even reject it. However, this is a humanitarian crisis, caused by the hostile border policy, which only seems to be getting worse and worse, and any contribution big or small will go a long, long way.

Photo: Abdul Saboor

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