By Katya Akulinicheva
At 3:45am on a grim November Saturday, my alarm marked the start of what was going to be a very long day. Wearing rainboots and with my duffle bag in hand, I set off for my 5-hour journey with a volunteer group called Greenlight from London to the refugee camp in Calais: a port city in northern France known as “The Jungle” for its chaotic organisation and basic conditions. My mission was first personal – to see for myself what life in the camps is like and to do my small bit to help – and also professional, to see what the sanitation facilities are like and to speak to NGOs on the ground.
The Calais camp was initially intended to “house” about 1,000 people. At its peak, there were about 8,000 people; now there are about 6,500 all hoping to get into the UK. The UK has pledged to take 20,000 Syrians by 2020. The first few hundred were admitted last month and the process will continue slowly.
Around 80% of the camp dwellers are adult men – most of them left their families behind in warmer countries like Turkey and Greece, hoping to send for them once they have a more permanent solution. Only about 50% of the refugees in this camp are Syrian. The rest are mostly Sudanese and Eritrean. This fact alone illustrates the complexity of finding a one-stop solution, or to applying a single logic, to the refugee crisis.
In October, NGOs started advocating for the French government to take responsibility for the inhumane conditions of the camp, even if temporary: there was 1 toilet to every 75 inhabitants (UNHCR’s minimum is emergency situations is 1 for every 20 people), water sources were contaminated by feces, many inhabitants suffered from tuberculosis, scabies, and post-traumatic stress, and there were rats in the tents.In November, a number of NGOs took the Calais government to court over serious violations of human rights, and the court ordered the government to put in place waste management, latrines, and water points. Since then, the French government has hired humanitarian NGO Agency for Technical Cooperation and Development (ACTED) to take charge of sanitation and waste disposal.
At the Camp
Upon arrival, I spend several hours sorting incoming clothing donations and organising them by type, gender, and size. Working alongside me are volunteers of all ages, nationalities, and religions. Some had come for a day, some for a weekend, and others for several weeks.
Then it’s time to see the camp, which is located in an industrial waste site; in November, the water in the camp was found to be contaminated with asbestos. Rain slashes my face and the wind howls, but life in the camp goes on. Camp dwellers line up for food and water, socializing as they wait.
The seasoned volunteers I spoke with said that conditions had improved significantly since the court order in November. More stable tents and structures are being constructed around the camp, and raised platforms are being brought in to place under tents so people can get though the cold winter. ACTED will continue their involvement at least until the Spring to install bins, additional water points, and latrines. But clearly a lot remains to be done and physical and human resources are limited.
As the sun starts to set, I rush back with other volunteers to our warm, dry bus. Volunteer buses have to leave before dark to make sure that refugees don’t try to hide in the luggage compartment.
It’s very difficult to form a single point of view on what is happening in Calais and what should be done about it. Most of the refugees were working age men, yet volunteers from the UK had to come to clean up the rubbish – this seemed a bit wrong. But then, I have no idea how destitute I would feel having left my war-torn country, sailed to Europe in an oil tanker, and walked across Europe in shorts and flip-flops leaving my children behind. And somewhere out there are the children that they left behind, also without a home and a clear vision of their future.
The one unmistakable emotion I felt was hope for humanity, having seen how many volunteers chose to give their weekends (and in many cases several weeks) to build tents, carry rubbish, cook meals, and sort boxes in response to this crisis. The hope I felt when I was invited inside a dry tent by a refugee who has nothing to call his own. As long as people like that live, there is hope for a better world.