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Don’t look away: the current refugee situation in Calais through the eyes of a volunteer

Calais border

It’s been three years since the refugee camp in Calais (dubbed ‘The Calais Jungle’) home to around 6,500 refugees was dismantled by the French authorities. However, that doesn’t mean the refugee crisis has just gone away. It’s important that we keep educating ourselves on the refugee situation in Calais and across the globe. 

So, what can we do about this current and ongoing crisis? Here, we catch up with Trip Manager Jess Short about her time volunteering for charity, Care4Calais. She explains why it’s more important than ever that we don’t simply turn a blind eye to millions of people in desperate situations.

How did you get involved with Care4Calais?

I’d always planned on working in the field of sustainability, but becoming a Trip Manager for Contiki and working and travelling across Europe, I’ve realised how important it is to gain an understanding of the world’s biggest problems, before trying to fix them. 

I’ve always felt strongly about human rights and the refugee crisis. I’ve wanted to volunteer in Calais for a long time, but always made the excuse of not having enough time (which in reality I did, I just wasn’t ready to go out and work on the ground). 

This year, in between trips, I had a month off, so I decided to go out and volunteer for 10 days. Our mornings consisted of sorting donations in the warehouse and preparing things to be distributed and each afternoon we would go to a different camp to distribute food and clothing and also provide hairdressing and phone charging facilities.

I’ve shared some of my experiences and learnings on my Instagram highlights…

Why is it important for people in fortunate situations to give their time like this?

Because any one of us could end up in a similar situation and I believe it falls on all of us to help others in any way we can. There are many great causes that we can choose to help but it particularly disgusts me how refugees, who are fleeing for their lives, are treated by governments and people traffickers alike. 

They have often suffered horrendous journeys at the hands of agents who are meant to get them to safety, but instead are often subjected to torture, violence and even slavery.

In western cultures, most of us are very lucky not to have lived through war, conflict and violence and I feel we should use this privilege to help others. It only takes a small financial contribution, a clothing collection or volunteering a week of your time to make an impact. In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t take much to help.

What were the most eye-opening moments for you when volunteering in Calais?

What most surprised me was how sociable and enjoyable it was. I thought I’d need some time to relax after being there, but I genuinely enjoyed my time in Calais. When I asked one man how he stayed so positive and happy when we saw him, he said that our visit was usually the highlight of his day, so if he couldn’t be happy then, then when could he? 

It really put the things I complain about into perspective. I’d really encourage anyone who has a few days spare to go and volunteer there. 

How did it differ from the images and reports we see in the media?

I don’t think a lot of people realise just how harsh the conditions are in Calais. There isn’t much press coverage about the police brutality and raids, where the police literally confiscate all of the refugees’ belongings for absolutely no reason. It’s heartbreaking to think what people have been through just to be treated this way in such a developed country.

What is the current situation in Calais, now that the camp has been dismantled?

Instead of being one central camp, there are many smaller camps, meaning it’s much harder to distribute aid and the refugees are much more vulnerable. The CRS (essentially French riot police) often carry out raids in Calais to confiscate people’s tents and belongings. It’s horrible to see people who have so little have even their few possessions taken away. The police think this will deter people from staying in France or trying to make it to Britain, but when you’ve got next to nothing, you have very little to lose. No one would choose to live in conditions like that if they weren’t fleeing something worse, so it’s senseless in trying to deter people from being there.

Why is it important for us to keep educating ourselves?

Turning a blind eye and ignoring situations like this might be the easier thing to do, but it’s not the right thing to do. People often learn about horrific periods of human history and question why no one did more to help. Now is our chance to do just that.

Contiki are donating their camping kit and gear to Care4Calais – what kind of impact will this have?

As a result of them no longer running their camping trips, Contiki are donating huge sums of camping equipment to Care4Calais including tents, blankets, sleeping bags and camping stools. This will have a massive impact. Having a warm, dry place to sleep makes such a difference and could literally save lives. 

Having said that, there is still so much need for warm clothing, shoes, tents and sleeping bags for the refugees arriving to Calais and those who have their belongings confiscated.

What other small actions can everyone take to help the charity or even the migrant crisis in general?

With Christmas coming up, Care4Calais (and many other similar organisations) have made it possible to buy equipment and clothing on their website to be donated to refugees. It’s a great way to buy more meaningful presents for your friends and family, and help a very worthy cause. You can also have a look at things you don’t need and think about donating any warm clothing and camping equipment to a charity supporting refugees, whether that be in Europe or elsewhere. 

Find out more on the Care4Calais website.

It’s time for us all to think twice about what’s happening in the wider world – our individual choices and actions can make a much bigger difference than we ever thought.

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