A report on a visit to the migrant camp at Calais by Wyon Stansfeld of Oxford City of Sanctuary.
In early July 2015, Emmaus Oxford, in conjunction with Emmaus St Albans (two charities housing homeless people) hand delivered 7 tons of locally collected aid to people living in the camp at Calais. This is an account of that trip with some observations of the camp at Calais followed by some dos and don’ts particularly in relation to publicity.
Prior to making the trip we made a local appeal for donations to take to Calais. This generated huge media interest and tons of donations. Literally hundreds of people brought clothes, shoes, tents, food, cooking equipment, toiletries and so on. Some people also gave money for us to buy supplies (very useful as we could then buy exactly what was needed in bulk). We had been planning to take one furniture removal van of supplies but because of the huge response we easily filled three vans and still had a room full of donations left over that we were unable to take on this trip (next one planned in September).
Altogether (with Emmaus St Albans) 9 of us made the trip including three ex-homeless people living at Emmaus. We had pre-arranged to park our vans at a warehouse at the other side of Calais. This enabled us to ensure that the vans were protected. Some of the goods we donated to the warehouse, which is run by a catholic organisation that also distributes goods to people in the camp. It is, however, overstretched and has to operate a rather cumbersome ticketing system which means that most people do not get what they need quickly. For this reason we elected to deliver most of the goods that had been donated to us personally by making short forays to the edge of the camp using two smaller vehicles.
On each foray we each took several bags of supplies and on arrival at the camp we all jumped out quickly and began distributing goods within the camp. This worked well – particularly because we had sorted goods previously– for instance we had filled male and female shoulder bags of essentials (underwear, toiletries etc) each suitable for handing to one person. The only issue during handing out was a short scuffle over a pair of shoes. Shoes are in high demand at the camp as many people had shoes in poor repair or no shoes at all. Our reason for making the forays was because of an experience of Emmaus St Albans on a previous trip. They had driven a loaded van into the camp, inadvertently attracting a large eager crowd so desperate for the contents that it became impossible to distribute supplies safely or to move the van, and eventually the crowd had to be dispersed by riot police.
The camp was not as we expected – it isn’t really a camp but a shanty town. It was much larger and better organised than we had imagined with many enterprisingly constructed shelters including at least one church, mosques, eating areas, shops, an information centre, even a small classroom. The residents did not give the impression of being ne-er do wells just after scrounging benefits – but desperate and enterprising people who were managing, pretty much on their own, to do a great deal with limited resources – though all described the camp as a difficult, even hellish, environment. All the people I spoke to (about 15) said they just wanted a chance to lead ordinary lives and to work legitimately. They asked for mercy (a word that came up again and again) from the British people. Almost all were survivors of terrifying boat journeys across the Mediterranean (apart from one I spoke to who had walked all the way from Afghanistan). None of the people we met, apart from one Polish man, could be accurately described as ‘just’ economic migrants, they came from countries where the conditions are terrible such as Eritrea, Afghanistan, Somalia and Sudan. Many have applied for asylum in France (who take twice as many asylum seekers to Britain) but we were told that if you do apply to France it can be 5 months before you get any assistance at all – hence people end up in the camp. Significant numbers were also hoping to get to the UK – and indeed were badly misinformed about what would happen if they managed in and how to apply for asylum.
It is impossible to know how many people there are in the camp – though all say it is expanding and there are probably at least 3000 people there. At the time we visited 1,500 meals each day were being provided by volunteers – meaning that people began queuing early and many went hungry. This meant that extra food aid is particularly important. We were able to deliver some non-perishable food supplies and 1/3 ton of kindling to a few of the makeshift kitchens in the camp. Because we were bringing supplies personally I later thought that it would have been good to bring perishable food – something hardly available. Food distribution was made more complex by the fact that people have divided themselves into different areas within the camp according to nationality – so it was a case of finding where each of the makeshift kitchens were. Moving through the camp was not hard however and it was possible to carry bags of supplies without being bothered (it helped to look purposeful).
Altogether we think the trip was a success – we were able to place goods in the hands of people who clearly needed them and at the same time we generated considerable, largely positive, media attention both before and after which enabled us to dispel some of the myths.
- Think it is just a drop in the ocean – the ocean is made up of drops and the need is clear. It is very satisfying to help in a way that you know is really needed.
- Just ask for donations from the public – be precise. We got far more clothes than we could cope with and had to leave some behind. Some were just mouldy cast offs. Also a few people donated inappropriate things eg a microwave and an electric blanket (there’s no electricity). What is needed varies from time to time (so needs to be researched prior to a visit). Money is best as you can buy exactly what is needed. If you are using furniture vans weight can become a deciding factor in what you take – light things are desirable.
- Carry personal valuables (especially passports) into the camp
- Drive into the camp with a large vehicle (see St Alban’s experience above)
- Leave without checking under all vehicles. Emmaus St Albans failed to do this on a previous trip and when they had got all the way home a 14 year Afghani boy crawled out from under the van. He had tied himself under using his trousers. They had to report him to the authorities and he is now in care and may get asylum. You don’t want to be risking people’s lives however.
- Be put off by a few bigoted reactions. We got about 3 or 4. Alongside that we got literally hundreds of positive and generous responses. This is also a great way to promote awareness around asylum issues – and City of Sanctuary.
- Phone or email me if you are planning a trip – I would be happy to advise as best I can (details below). Or perhaps you would like to contribute to our next trip (currently planned for late September).
- Engage with the press – we found them (BBC TV regional news and BBC Radio Oxford) surprisingly sympathetic and it gave us a wonderful opportunity to dispel from experience some of the myths (eg: they’re not economic migrants, they are coming from persecutory countries, they are not un-enterprising, they are not after benefits but mercy, safety and the chance to contribute. We took a tape recorder leant to us by the BBC to tape record a few interviews and some of these were later played on the news. This was a great way of bringing stories to life.
- Be prepared when talking to the press for the negative enquiries – why should Britain take them? Surely if you take supplies it only encourages them? Surely they should apply to France? How do you know they are not all bogus etc. They have to ask these questions – we don’t need to be rattled by them. Indeed by anticipating them we can make some calm clear replies. Some of our replies to these questions are answered above. In general we presented our initiative as being about making a humanitarian response to a desperate situation. Whatever the politics of this situation are there are people without enough warmth, clothing, food and shelter and we felt called to meet those needs for humanitarian, not political, reasons.
In my view the real crisis isn’t a migrant crisis at all but a crisis of compassion – but that’s a whole other subject.
Wyon Stansfeld. [email protected] Tel at Emmaus Oxford: 01865 590 596