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Student Bridget Taylor talks about her experience as a volunteer at the Calais Migrant Camp
By Bridget Taylor
I volunteered for a week this summer at one of the two warehouses supporting the camp, with an organisation made up of a French and a British charity: ‘L’Auberge des migrants’ and ‘Help Refugees’. The camp was never an officially recognised refugee camp, so there were no high-profile aid organisations working in large numbers there. In the summer of 2015, volunteers began taking over aid and coming together to support the camp’s residents, because they recognised that there was a need, that the refugees there had simply been abandoned by both the British and French governments.
There is a deal between France and Britain called the ‘Le Touquet’ deal, which entails that British officials can check passports in France and vice-versa. This means the English border is effectively pushed back to France – leaving the refugees trying to reach Britain stuck in a limbo. There has been continuous political wrangling over the deal by our elected politicians, which has meant thousands of refugees left stranded and hopeless for over a year, as both countries continue to shirk responsibility. The only reason Hollande has now decided to demolish the camp is that, because of its size and the length of time it’s existed, it couldn’t realistically be left standing for much longer (and also to win popular support). Dispersing the refugees to detention centres means they will become less visible and easier for society to ignore.
In direct contrast, the response of ordinary people was incredible to see. Relying on fluctuating numbers of volunteers and donations, the warehouse was still able to provide enough firewood for every resident in camp, to cook thousands of meals a day, and provide a constant supply of dried goods and clothing, as well as a team that tried to identify and get support for the most vulnerable people there. They further did this with the added hindrance of the CRS (the French Riot police) who would regularly decide to arbitrarily not let supplies in to camp – this happened with one of the van-loads of wood when I was there – disrupting the precarious systems the organisation had in place.
Though there were long-term volunteers and certain people with more skills and expertise, the organisation had no official hierarchy. There was a briefing at the beginning of each day for the new arrivals and then volunteers could choose which area they wanted to work in. I ended up working in the wood yard for most of the time – using power tools to chop up the donated wood into a small enough size so it wouldn’t be classed as a ‘building material’ (which we were banned from taking in). The people there worked because they wanted to be there –there was a real sense of community.
The camp itself was just there – beside the motorway, on some sand dunes (apparently toxic land as it was near a petrol refinery), and was not only a mass of tents but had streets and structures – buildings made of wood and plastic – schools, a library, a church, restaurants. People had been living there for a long time. I didn’t go into camp a lot because as a short term volunteer it was discouraged. We heard reports of the camp being treated like a tourist attraction, of people wandering in just to have a look, with no real purpose to their visit. It is important to be a witness to such situations, but if you are only a witness there seems to be a fine line between witnessing and exploitation. To find the most sensational story, to recount with wonder what you have seen, rather than how you acted to change it.
Now the camp is being demolished I wish I had done more. When we read about it in the news it is natural to feel powerless over such situations, but I saw personally how much it was possible for volunteers with the will to do it to achieve.
To find out more about how you can help, visit www.calaidipedia.co.uk/home
Bridget Taylor is in her writing up year of the Creative Writing MA and is currently concerned about all the poetry she isn’t writing.