What follows is a long story documenting some of my experiences working as a caregiver on the Calais camp during March - May 2016.
The first thing that strikes you about the Calais camp is the smell. In the beginning you assume it comes from the camp itself. After prolonged exposure to it you realise it comes from the chemical plant next door. It pours a strange chemical tang over the surrounding area. I will never forget that smell. It masks the true nature of the camp.
I use this image to emphasise the unsanitary conditions of the site, and how you become desensitised to them.
Each morning at the l’Auberge des Migrants Warehouse between 40-200 volunteers arrive to help with the day’s tasks. It is one of 2 or 3 three aid organisations in the area serving the needs of the camp.
The number varies depending on the day of the week or the time of year. The tasks at the warehouse vary in difficulty and duration. Some people may find themselves chopping firewood for a day, or sorting through clothing donations. Those that can only volunteer for a day or two will do these jobs that base them at the warehouse. Volunteers that are available for a week or more will join the clothing or food distribution team. This involves spending a lot of time on the camp working face-to-face with refugees.
Volunteers available for a month or more find themselves joining the 'Aid Distribution' or 'Vulnerabilities' team.
These teams work on the camp every day. Travelling from shelter to shelter to assess aid requirements and taking clothes and food to vulnerable people (children, elderly, injured). When i started at the Calais camp these teams didn’t exist. I helped to set up, test and structure the team program. Now, 5 months later the teams are indistinguishable from the basic structures that i helped to set up.
Working days are long and filled with waiting. Long-term volunteers have to balance time considerations to get the most work done. Volunteers arrive early. UK volunteers have early Channel ferries to pack a full day in. Or the locals from Belgium and France are more balanced towards early starts. As a result the warehouse opens early with many arriving around 8am to start working.
On the other end of the spectrum the refugees on the camp rarely rise before 11am. Many have been up for most of the night; making attempts to get into the port area, travelling to lorry parks nearby; etc. The camp itself comes to life at about 4pm with the most people around between 4pm and 10pm.
This means days often start with a lot of waiting. They often extend further into the evenings for the long-term volunteers. 12hr+ days without proper breaks are par for the course, particularly for the volunteers working on the camp with the refugees.
Those working in the Aid Distribution team have to work in intimate personal spaces. The role requires you to enter into the shelters and tents of refugees to communicate with them. Preferably, this requires a translator, but most communication is through non-verbal, gesture and eye-contact. Even with a total language barrier, the way the refugees welcome you into their personal space is heart warming. The experience is unlike anything I have experienced elsewhere. For many British volunteers this immediate intimacy from strangers can be strange and disorienting. It feels odd to accept food, drink and hospitality from people who have so little already. Yet, rejecting the offer also seems heartless. It is difficult to balance these conflicting emotions. I often struggle to balance my desire to be ‘efficient’ at the task, with being ‘friendly’ to the people I’m helping. I could spend a whole day working with only 10-15 people: Eating food with them; making notes about vulnerabilities; listening to the needs of their community and drinking sweet milk chai. Then I remember that there are thousands of people on the camp. If I spend the same amount of time with each group it would take years to finish the simple tasks.
In these small, intimate moments people open up to you. Some share stories, opinions on the camp or photos from their phones. Some photos are of family and home. Some photos are graphic images of violence and bloodshed. You never know if these images are from their own experience, or if they are from external sources. Almost every refugee can connect to the internet and people share images amongst groups. You know it would be rude to ask for verification. You are frequently reminded not to push anyone to tell you about their life before, or their journey. You are not a therapist and reliving traumatic experiences can re-traumatise them.
These moments also show you how angry people are. Refugees stop you in their shelters, or on the paths around the camp. Inter-community tensions seeps out through small cracks. The walls and fences of the Calais port don’t discriminate between nations. So neither does the camp. Afghanis rub up against Iranians, Indians, Sudanese and Syrians. Some communities are better established on the camp. Some manage their resources and people better than others. Some communities have established 'leaders' who act as a lynchpin for fellow countrymen. I met a young Indian refugee who was angry there was no Indian community leader. I explained to him he was the first refugee from India i had met on the camp. He was de facto the community leader for his nation.
Race, religion and resource issues overlap in a fraught and challenging space. It is surprising that it doesn't descend into violence more often. The fact it doesn't is a testament to the work done by volunteers, and faith and community leaders on the camp.
When it does break down like this it is scary and totally unexpected. You can never relax into to the role. Every day demands that you prepare to be surprised. You can be disarmed by a moment of pure joy and positivity from a happy young man. Around the next corner you could be challenged by an angry refugee, or a major medical injury.
Sometimes the pressure comes from the armed police that surround the camp. At every entrance a bus full of armed police waits. They stop all vehicles going on to the camp. Sometimes they're friendly, sometimes officious, always confrontational. When there are problems on the camp or the nearby Motorway they respond with CS gas canisters. They fire them at will over the whole camp. Dispersing refugees into shelters. The canisters overheat when they let the gas out, this causes fires in the camp. Often the police target refugee communal areas like restaurants and shops. They try to use the gas to burn them down. I will never forget walking through the camp, under a thick fog of CS gas, my throat raw, shielding my watering eyes from the gas with a scarf.
In the end you start to live like the refugees on the camp: day-to-day, expecting the unexpected, desperate to get away to the ‘real world’ but somehow unable to move on.
You find yourself under the same strain as the refugees. You get emotionally attached to their quest. You want them to succeed at making it across the Channel. But when they leave the camp to try you feel a gut-wrenching fear for them. You’ve heard too many bad stories – about the armed police; about the fascist skinheads that patrol around the ferry ports; and refrigerated lorries. Whilst I was there I met two people I later found out fell under the wheels of a moving lorry, or became trapped in airless lorry containers; suffocating to death.
Sometimes you hear someone you work alongside for months has made it across to the UK. You feel overwhelmingly happy for them. Then you feel sad and angry that you don’t get to see them anymore. Then you feel guilty for being selfish.
In the end there is either hope, or hopelessness; Chance or no Chance. Both suffocate you and the refugees. It clouds all your conversations and interactions.
Mentally, the camp comes back with you into the volunteer spaces. Most volunteers are young people between the ages of 18 and 25. They are mostly students and temporary/seasonal workers. A lot of long-term volunteers work in the UK music festival community.
Mental health for the volunteers is a concern. Everyone lives on a knife-edge. Most volunteers self-finance their time working in Calais. They live frugally, stretching their money out. This means they end up living on top of each other. The warehouse team has a caravan park attached to the building. Volunteers with no money can stay there. Living up to 6 people in a caravan, with limited access to hot water and personal space. Volunteers who live in this enclave have a different experience to those who stay in private accommodation or hostels.
Everyone experiences some form of trauma. Most experience exhaustion. Often trauma comes from being in scary situations that you aren't trained to deal with. Occasionally volunteer social workers, therapists and psychologists stop by the volunteer camps. They offer their services for free. As always, the people who need it the most are most likely to not take advantage of these services.
I met a few long term volunteers who had become caregivers 24/7. They would work long hours on the camp or managing the warehouse. In the evening they would sit listening to the emotional and personal problems of volunteers. They might operate on only 5-6 hours sleep per night and then do another 18hr day of work. Every day. Every week.
Days off from the work of the warehouse and camp are encouraged, and even scheduled. But they are ignored, rescheduled, or simply don't happen. People feel responsible for the people on the camp. They can't switch off.
The management team at the warehouse made some great improvements even in the short time I was there. More training for long term volunteers on conflict resolution and dealing with difficult people. More training on how to self care and look after each other. The warehouse caravan park was designated an alcohol-free zone. Resident meeting were set back up. A weekly 'safe space' for free and open personal discussion was created in the warehouse. Weekly film screenings were restarted.
Over all this positive improvement still hangs the uncertainty of the future. Volunteer numbers have decreased. Aid donations have slowed. Some organisations struggle to fundraise the money needed to provide services on the camp - for the first time since last year refugees on the camp report hunger and malnutrition.
In the face of this adversity volunteers get up every day and go onto the camp to help. They meet people new and old, hear new stories, discover new problems and show a friendly face to those in need. Not because it's their job, but because they feel a duty to help.
A 16yr old Afghani boy i worked with every day for 2 weeks asked me a question one night: “Why is the world so faithless?”
I didn't know how to respond at first. What did he mean? Was he asking about religion? I couldn't answer. So i thought for 10 minutes
Finally, i responded:
"I don't think it is. The world is full for people who are scared. This fear drives their actions. But there are always others who respond to fear with love. This love is faith." He gave me a look that said 'strange European man, you know nothing of the world!'
Yet i stand by my answer. Every day hundreds of volunteers from all over Europe travel onto the Calais camp to show this love. They come with gifts and open hearts. They leave exhausted, frustrated and heartbroken. And they come back the next day, and the next. That has to be something positive.
Do you have similar experiences working with refugees in other parts of Europe?
Do you have any useful experience that might help the volunteers at the camp?
Do you have any ideas for how the Calais refugee situation could be re-structured after the evictions?
Are there any other parts of my experience that you would like to learn more about?
The production of this article was supported by Op3n Fellowships - an ongoing program for community contributors during May - November 2016