The Calais Refugee crisis: What can you do to help?

“‘This is no life’ was a constant refrain”

Calais Cambridge charity crisis help Refugee Refugee Crisis the tab The Tab Cambridge

In the summer, I read an article about a French family who had taken a Syrian refugee into their home.

Underneath were references to the dozens of individuals from the UK crossing the channel with supplies for the refugees in Calais. Looking back, I realise that before then I, like so many, simply hadn’t woken up to the enormity of what we are facing. I got in touch with my boyfriend and a mutual friend, and asked them both what they thought about a day-long road-trip to France…

We fixed a date and connected with a charity named L’Auberge des Migrants in Calais. I remember worrying about having only 10 days to fill the car – concerns which now seem laughable! After just a few days, the house was filled halfway to the ceiling, and we realised our car might not be quite big enough… We put out an online appeal, and in the end we took 6 vehicles, and raised £2000 on top.

While in Calais we helped L’Auberge des Migrants with packing their food van and their warehouse, and met volunteers from all over Europe. We were also encouraged to visit the camp to meet some of the refugees, and get a better sense of the cause we were supporting. Being there was challenging, particularly knowing we were able – at the end of the day – to turn our backs on it all, get on a ferry and go home. The camp is home to over 3000 people, living mostly in tents or makeshift shelters. The majority are young men – the journey being incredibly challenging for a family or child. The people we happened to meet were mostly from Darfur in Sudan, escaping its horrendous civil war.

While tensions surely do arise in such intense conditions, the whole camp felt like a testimony to just how civilised humans can be in the face of extreme adversity. One man had just arrived at the camp that day and told us that someone had offered to share their tent with him and had given him food. People were working in teams to clear scrubland and fix water-pipes.

One member of our convoy spoke fluent Arabic, and I also speak a little, and so between us we were able to have some important conversations (many of those in Calais come from Arabic-speaking countries). One man told me about how the rain floods the camp and comes through the walls of the flimsy tents, how most people only have the clothes they are standing up in. He told me that if he had stayed in Sudan, he would be dead. He repeatedly held his hand to his temple in the shape of a gun, explaining that Sudan is an impossibly dangerous place to live. ‘This is no life’ was a constant refrain.

The situation now, and how you can help

Over the summer people hundreds of convoys – many unannounced – have flooded to Calais, placing charities under huge pressure. The high volume of donations is, of course, fantastic. The problem is that the charities are short on manpower and storage and cannot keep up.

There have been a lot of mixed messages about the significance of this bottleneck of supplies, with some people suggesting it’s time to forget Calais. It is not time to forget Calais. Feeding and clothing 3000 for months on end is no easy feat. The question is how to offer support that is as effective as possible.

So, if you want to support the refugee crisis, here are some ideas:

  1. Collections and convoys: some charities have asked for convoys to hold off until as late as December. I would advise joining the national Facebook page, which has loads of information, including lists of charities and regular updates on what is needed on the ground. Most importantly: contact a charity in advance. Do not just turn up and hand out goods yourself, as this can be far more problematic than helpful.
  2. Volunteer: particularly as winter approaches, there is a huge amount of work to be done to ensure people can live in some kind of habitable condition. If you are prepared for the very basic conditions then offer yourself to help for as many days as you can (most charities are asking that people go for at least a few days).
  3. Do a fundraiser: everything from a cake sale to a straightforward appeal for donations can generate surprising amounts of money, which can be sent to Calais or further afield to help countries such as Lebanon, where 25% of its 4.5m population are refugees.
  4. Campaign: engage with the local city group or contact a local MP or councillor asking them to lobby the government to support and/or resettle refugees, or to support local fundraisers. Calling for long-term change is also crucial; question foreign policy, and hold the government to account over actions you believe exacerbate or generate conflicts abroad. One way to do this is to explore the multiple movements which campaign against arms sales to regimes with questionable human rights records, or lobby international organisations like the UN to offer greater support to countries like Lebanon, which has been disproportionately affected by refugee crises on its doorstep.
  5. Get involved in Cambridge: Cambridge University Calais Refugee Action Group (CUCRAG for short) is a recently formed, student-run society, which is focused on organizing trips to Calais to volunteer in the refugee camps. CUCRAG is working in conjunction with CalAid, a charity based in Calais. CalAid has received a large amount of donations over the last month, but hasn’t had enough people to sort through the donated goods and distribute them. As students, we may not have many supplies to donate, but as things currently stand, we can be very helpful by providing manpower in Calais. CUCRAG’s plan is to hold multiple weekend trips during and outside of term-time. To sign up to the mailing list, just email [email protected].
  6. Keep talking about it: We need to make sure this issue doesn’t become yesterday’s humanitarian fad. Consider people’s arguments and, where you think they have got it wrong, help them to consider an alternative perspective. With emotional, heated debates raging in the media, it’s important back up your arguments with sound evidence. The situation in Calais changes by the day, but information can take time to trickle down. So make sure you’re up to date.

Going forward…

We were bowled over by the support we received in our local communities for our trip. This crisis is appalling but has, I believe, injected a new lease of life into community activism. There is no easy answer to the refugee crisis, but we have to make sure that our representatives feel the bite of public pressure as they enter into international negotiations.

What refugees want and need is not just to survive but to live. Of course part of enabling that is about ‘tackling the issue source’ – the mantra of many of the relief effort’s critics. But in the meantime, hundreds of thousands are suffering – do we simply turn our backs? What we are experiencing is one of the biggest tests of our alleged commitment to universal human rights that we have ever encountered. Unless we act, we will forever be associated in the minds of millions with a failure to reach out to the world’s most vulnerable people when they were standing on our doorsteps, asking for our help. And the point is, they shouldn’t have to ask. They have a right to demand, as we all do, access to food, water, shelter, to a life free from war and persecution without having to beg, without making us feel as though we are somehow being altruistic.

The media storm is already starting to die down, and yet the situation is not going to go away. Everyone is human – no one can take it all on their shoulders. Furthermore, there are loads of great causes out there that are equally demanding of our attention.

But if each of us continues to do what we feel able to, however small that may be, I think that this disaster could positively change our relationship with the global community forever.