The refugee crisis in Calais is actually worse than I understood it to be before I went over there, the most surprising thing to me was finding out that it's not an officially recognised refugee camp. There are no large aid agencies like Oxfam or Amnesty there on the ground distributing aid in fact the only organisations working in the jungle are small grassroots groups like Help Refugees. There are over 10,000 people living in the camp and numbers are growing every day, the majority or refugees come from Afghanistan, Sudan, Pakistan and Eritrea. These are people who risk (and often loose) their lives trying to get to the UK to claim asylum. Despite the Dubs amendment passing in May no unaccompanied refugee children have been settled in the UK under the new law. Just let that sink in for a moment. Over four months ago the UK government agreed that we need to resettle unaccompanied refugee children but since then we have done nothing about it. Nothing. The mental and physical health of vulnerable children (children as young as eight) is declining every day and we're over here planning to build a £1.7m wall to keep people away?! It's appalling.
Whilst I did spend some time working in camp during my two weeks volunteering, I spent a day on the Women's and Children's Bus giving manicures and pedicures as part of pamper day, most of my time was spent in the warehouse. This was a choice I was happy to make as it seemed that most volunteers wanted to be in camp and I quite like to be behind the scenes. I was working in the main sort department both sorting clothes donations - which ranged from the practical (hoodies are a much needed item) to the fascinating (glitter mini skirts are not camp appropriate!) and putting together packages for women.
I think the hardest moment of the whole week was putting together a clothing package for a pregnant woman and her child which included a warm coat, a onesie, little boots for her child, socks, underwear, and a hygiene pack. People really do arrive with nothing and I felt heartbroken that this women was going to have her baby at a refugee camp.
Towards the end of my time at Help Refugees donations seemed to be drying up, in early September vans and cars would be arriving all day but towards the middle of the month they'd slowed to a trickle. The camp is made up of far more men than women, around 92% of the population in camp is male, and most of them wear size small clothes. As you can see the size 28 and 30 waist trouser boxes are empty and when that happens it means that there is nothing to distribute at the camp.
Alongside Refugee Community Kitchen is the dry foods area where volunteers pack bags of supplies for distribution within the camp. This, along with distributions of pots, pans, and camping stoves, enables people to cook for themselves which, given that queues for food are often three hours long, is really important.
Whilst donations of food like the one I organised go a small way to helping with these distributions monetary donations are needed now more than ever. With the population in camp growing every day it is getting more and more expensive to distribute enough food for even one meal a day. Help Refugees get bulk discounts on foods including canned tomatoes and beans, lentils, and cooking oil so your money goes further if you make a financial donation. Distribution has to be fair and equal to avoid causing tensions within camp so if stocks of something are low nobody will get that item until there's enough for everyone.
I understand the need to see exactly what your donation has bought though so if you'd like to make a physical donation then it would of course be most most welcome. I chatted to people from each area and right now these are some of the most needed items:
• Black tea
• Biscuits (As you can see from the picture above the biscuit area needs a little help!)
• Duvet covers (Help Refugees have a lot of duvets but they cannot be distributed without covers)
• Roll mats
• Warm blankets (winter is coming and sleeping in a tent with just a sleeping bag for protection is going to be horrible)
• Size 28 and 30 men's trousers preferably in dark colours
• Small men's hoodies
• Clean, small or medium, men's and women's underwear (New if possible, these are available at places like Primark for very reasonable prices)
• Men's deodorant
• Towels (new or nearly new)
I feel really strongly about making volunteering a part of your travel plan if you're fortunate enough to be able to travel long term. Unlike some of the places I've volunteered in Japan and Thailand, Calais isn't most people's idea of a dream destination, but the people I was volunteering with were for the most part inspiring, ridiculously hard working, compassionate, intelligent, people who I was more than happy to be around every day. I'd highly recommend it as a place to volunteer, even if you only have one or two days spare at the beginning or end of a European trip, or at the weekend, you'll be able to pitch in somewhere and make a difference. As a bonus the kitchen cook lunch for everyone on a donation basis and the food is both delicious and almost always vegan, whilst I was there there were two non-vegan salads (look out for mayo and honey) but the rice and main meal were always a-ok.
What else can you do? If you have no time / money to volunteer, to organise a donation drive, or to take donations to Calais yourself then no worries. Here are some other ways you can help:
• If you're based in the UK write to your MP to ask them to put pressure on the government to uphold the Dubs amendment. Remember that your MP works for you! I've written to Dominic Raab and will be requesting a surgery appointment with him if I don't get a satisfactory answer.
• Buy clothes or camping equipment online for delivery direct to the Help Refugees warehouse with Leisure Fayre. Find the list here, click, buy, and know that your donation will make it to Calais.
• Spread the word! Share this post, share this article about the Dubs amendment, share news stories from the Help Refugees website, get involved in their #refugenes project, share details of the Solidarity with Refugees march happening in London tomorrow, hell, come with me if you want to. Just do something to make people aware that the refugee crisis isn't over.