Following the recent announcement that the Calais Refugee Camp faces immediate closure and demolition, the 10,000 + residents will now need to be re-homed and moved (1,000 of which are unaccompanied children). Each have been forced together through mutual desperation, from many nations, different tribal groups or religious sects: Kurds, Syrian Alawis, Sunnis, Shi'ites, and countless others united under the vague banner of the refugee.
There, in Calais, they have made their home, their only hope, at times, have been fruitless attempts to sneak across the border.
In July this year I turned up to volunteer at Calais, carrying nothing but good intentions and a high-vis jacket. .
The camp, obviously, is not a place for tourists. This was detailed to us daily; daily, too, was the assertion that nobody would be sent to the camp unless they had a specific job to do, and those sent there had to have been working at the warehouse for some time and thus will have been in Calais for a long time as it was important for those in the camp to know who to look out for and to be used to certain faces. Going to the camp against this policy seemed to me exploitative, and badly affecting the dignity of those who have been forced to call that scrap of land their home. Though I felt that it was important to understand the full picture of the operation and the reasons for being there (indeed working in the warehouse feels at times disconnected from the larger issue) my interest and curiosity, I decided, was simply outweighed by the privacy and dignity of those living there.
I never saw the camp myself. Instead I helped out across the warehouse, and each job I did, no matter what it was, there was never a sense that I wasn't contributing, or I wasn't helping. In each job, and the many other jobs or roles I didn't engage in, there was a beautiful sense of camaraderie. Each person I met there was unfailingly welcoming and good company. In conversation I learned a great deal about the operations of the charity, and the lives of those in the camp.
I learned of an Iraqi who had a PhD in Political Science and spoke many languages, who now, nightly, tried to sneak underneath lorries and vehicles to cross to the UK. I heard that there were a number of men in their early 20s who lacked any education at all and studied, diligently, with small children (a large number of whom reside in the camp alone). Someone mentioned that they saw a family of three, who were extremely well dressed and wealthy-looking, arrive at the camp as refugees. Such stories are in their thousands in the Calais camp alone, let alone Dunkirk, or the many other similar camps across the continent.
In much the same way I met an Ecuadorian who has spent their summer break volunteering in the warehouse as well as teach French (and I think Spanish) to some refugees. I met people who have volunteered there for seven months with only a handful of breaks; people who volunteer at both Calais and Dunkirk at the same time, and each one there were equally great and inspirational.
However, despite all this promise, and the huge number of donations we all had to deal with, there were often shortages. Though we had a near constant flood of clothes, there were rarely enough shoes for the thousands of refugees.
Food too was often insufficient. I heard it mention that at the Eid Feast, there wasn't nearly enough food to feed them all; some went without even one meal per day, despite the tireless efforts of the volunteers.
I was, at times, bothered by a thought that, if my concern was to truly be as useful as I could be, considering my skills weren't particularly useful to them, then surely I would be better served simply donating the fairly reasonable amount of money I spent to be there.
I wasn't turning up with any real skills, my being there was more a case of me, subconsciously patting my privileged self on the back for doing something apparently good. That this was the underlying reason that I was there, and no matter what I did there, all it amounted to was voluntourism. But despite everything, all my concerns were meaningless.
The Refugee crisis in northern France, (there is another camp in Dunkirk) has caused tensions and great aggravation to the governments of Britain and France, despite the fact that the number of refugees in France and the UK are borderline insignificant compared to the numbers gladly received in smaller nations like Lebanon who have taken over one million Syrian refugees alone.
What is often forgotten, and left behind in coverage, is that every single refugee, each statistic in some newspaper, is a life that has been absolutely shattered. Now, as their home is once again to be demolished, the lives and futures of each and every refugee in Calais is once again uncertain.
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