What I learnt as a volunteer for a Calais charity supporting refugees
Here’s what happened when The Big Issue went across the channel to work with Care4Calais – a charity that supports refugees in the UK, France and Belgium
by: Ruth Law
15 Aug 2023
Drawing by Afghan girl, Damsa.
This drawing was made by a young girl staying in a camp near Calais. Earlier this year, the Home Office announced that 200 unaccompanied minors went missing from hotels housing asylum seekers. Children who should be creating and playing and learning, but whose fate is unknown. While the government continues to intensify its hostile environment policy – whether housing refugees on overcrowded barges or dreaming of packing them all off to Rwanda – the men, women and children, desperate, just a few miles from our shores are overlooked again.
As the issue gets set to be weaponised in an election campaign likely to be fought on culture war lines, we spend time with Care4Calais to meet those still holding onto hope.
Imogen hands me her mobile phone as she keeps her eyes on the road. She is in the driving seat of our van and we are leaving a site for refugees in Dunkirk. We have just spotted a convoy of eight vans of armed police headed towards the unofficial living site. I type out a message she dictates to me for a WhatsApp group of colleagues, warning that an eviction may be afoot.
A week earlier, the entire site of hundreds of men, women, young children and babies had been evicted; people’s possessions and tents confiscated leaving them with just the clothes on their backs. The morning before, riot police circled the camp, armed with guns and shields, staring at the volunteers and refugees for around an hour before leaving.
As Imogen, senior operations manager at Care4Calais, had informed us in our morning briefing, the Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité (CRS), is the general reserve of the French National Police. They are involved in general security, but are primarily focused on crowd and riot control. No eviction took place this time, but the CRS operate an expensive and finely oiled machine. If you’re a UK taxpayer, you are likely to be funding the steep bill of £500 million per year for their attempts to intimidate and humiliate refugees bound for Britain on the Calais coastline.
This is just one of the many things I was ignorant of before I volunteered for Care4Calais, the charity working to support refugees in the area. Signing up as a volunteer was easy – you email, fill out a form and book your place.
Mornings are spent at the warehouse either sorting through goods that have been donated or prepping equipment ahead of visiting one of three distribution sites in the afternoon. Care4Calais has a regular schedule so refugees know when and where to expect them and engage with their myriad services. These include phone charging, haircuts, bicycle repair, sewing, English lessons, games for children and the distribution of hot drinks and clothes.
The camp at Dunkirk is mainly frequented by migrants from Turkey, Albania, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Ethiopia and Syria, many of whom are families with small children. On my first day with Care4Calais I am on water duty. “This is for you.” A five-year-old Afghan girl, Damsa, hands me a drawing she’s been working on, at the kids’ activity table. The drawing shows a woman with a Care4Calais vest, holding four balloons. She then tells me she needs to go and join her younger sister and brother back at their tent. Damsa’s parents felt it was no longer safe to stay in their country, so unsafe in fact, that they risked everything to make the treacherous journey with their three children in tow. And it’s not just young children who are living out in the elements. We also see babies carried by their mothers.
I meet a man in his 40s from Turkey, Ahmet, who tells me his situation became untenable and he had no choice but to leave. He looks exhausted and there is deep sadness in his eyes. He tells me how he used to work for UNHCR, the UN refugee agency dedicated to saving lives and protecting the rights of refugees. “And now,” he shrugs his shoulders, “I am a refugee.” His partner is still in Turkey. He hopes to make it to the UK and forge a new life, but his hope is wearing thin.
The main distribution site in Calais, frequented largely by Sudanese and Eritrean men, is where I meet Afwan. Three months from his 18th birthday, Afwan tells me about rapid gunfire ripping through the streets of Sudan, bodies lying in the streets, the destruction of his country that forced him to flee.
“All my dreams are in England, not here,” he says, looking into the distance. “I have to believe that nothing is impossible. I will never give up. I will never stop dreaming.” He looks at me and smiles: “It’s OK, I will try again tonight.”
It is only when I speak to Imogen later I find out that ‘trying’ means stowing away on a lorry. Just a day or so later, we hear the terrible news that a young Sudanese man was killed in the middle of the night trying to jump on a lorry.
A vigil is held for him on a bright, sunny day in the centre of Calais, in Parc Richelieu. Attending are people from NGOs and charities, and around five of the man’s friends. There is silence as we stand around a 10-metre paper scroll that bears the names of over 300 people who have lost their lives trying to make the journey. A translator shares a message from the man’s friends: “Thank you for coming. Mohammed was our brother, our brother on the road.”
The Sudanese community of refugees are close: bonds build quickly when life is a daily struggle for survival. Asim is 17, and it’s his friend Farid’s 18th birthday. They both speak good English, having completed courses in Sudan, an ex-colonial country. Asim talks of the power struggle that has ravaged his home. “There are so many citizens caught in the middle. There are no winners. It is a bad situation getting worse every day.” Abdullah is 28 and was a mechanical engineer in Sudan. He wants to work again, to be useful.
Moments of joy can be found. On our last day at the distribution point the sun is shining brightly, music is pulsing and limbs flail madly, happily. You’d be forgiven for thinking you’d stumbled across a mini festival. But we all know the reality is very different. When 5pm comes we pack up and leave; the young men head back to their tents. They turn to us and shout: “See you in London!”
Since the infamous Calais Jungle was demolished in 2016, migrants have set up smaller sites around the town. We visit ‘Tent Mile’, a line of tents, pools of rainwater and scattered rubbish bending around industrial wasteland next to a lorry park. It’s mainly inhabited by men, where they try most nights to stow away on the parked vehicles.
I ask Imogen what she thinks the answer might be. “What we see here in Calais is, in all but name, a hostile environment policy. We’ve seen the French Police go in full riot gear and cordon off an area and everyone has lost all their belongings via confiscation. People have been put on buses and taken to accommodation centres three to four hours away. The idea is to stop people settling here and discourage them from making the journey across the channel to the UK to seek asylum. But actually it just retraumatises people who have left incredibly dangerous conflict zones or experienced traumatising journeys.
“When we see people lose their lives at the British border, I think it doesn’t need to happen and it shouldn’t happen. Such small numbers of people come to seek asylum in the UK, so many more people seek asylum in places like France, Italy, Spain, Germany. Often, people who try to cross have English as a second language and have friends and family in the UK.
“Care4Calais has joined up with the PCS union [which represents both Home Office and Border Force staff] and put together a policy that suggests if the UK government created a humanitarian visa process so that refugees could apply online wherever they were on their journey, they would have a safe and legal way to the UK and know that they were able to have asylum granted. If their case wasn’t granted, they’d know in advance, and wouldn’t attempt an unsafe journey in the first place. This could be a solution to stop people coming to Calais, stop people living like this, stop organisations like ours having to operate here.”
As I head home back to London, the city in which many of the people I met long to be, I have never felt my privilege so keenly. I flash my UK passport and no questions are asked.
The refugees I met were all fleeing unimaginable circumstances – war, violence, persecution – and yet they were kind, patient, generous and hopeful, keeping their dreams of a better future alive through resilience and sheer determination.
Care4Calais is a charity that works with refugees in the UK, France and Belgium. Volunteers are vital to what they do. If you’d like to volunteer in France or in the UK you can register here. They also need funds to continue their work on a daily basis and to feed, clothes and provide basic essentials.
Urgent action is needed to prevent even more people being pushed into homelessness. A secure home is the first step in addressing the cruel cycle of poverty to ensure people can fulfil their potential. Join us to keep people in their homes.