top of page
  • L. Wells and V. Willis

Comprehending Calais

In this first guest article for Connected Cultures, Laura Wells and Victoria Willis present a fascinating and moving insight into the conditions in Calais, based on their experiences as volunteers in a humanitarian centre. This sets out the key facts, dispels a lot of misconceptions, challenges the media and all of us, and calls for a comprehensive and politically honest response to the crisis.

Willing volunteers: Victoria (centre) and Laura (right)

The situation on our doorstep

After hearing about the refugee crisis in Europe in the news in the past year, it was hard to ignore a cause so great, so close to home. Whilst there were many news articles and reports - last summer in particular - which kept the crisis at the forefront of the public consciousness, including the infamous photograph of the lifeless body of three year-old Alan Kurdi on a Turkish beach, the articles have become fewer over recent months. It’s not ‘new’ news any more of course, so the dramatic headlines inevitably wane. But the ongoing humanitarian crisis on our doorstep is still there, and is not going away as easily as a newspaper headline.

So we decided to help. To do something. Anything. It’s 2016 and there are over 9,000 human beings living in a makeshift, unofficial (still not recognised by the French or British governments) camp, just 26 miles from our shores. How is this happening in 2016, right here in Europe? Why isn’t more being done to help the situation? There were many questions, but just one answer for now – we had to go.

On our doorstep: neighbours across the Channel

We signed up for a week of volunteering on the ground in Calais. It was remarkably easy – just fill in the charity’s form with your details and sign in on arrival. They need all the help they can get! When we told colleagues, friends and family about our upcoming trip, there were many comments and questions, ranging from ‘what are you gonna eat?!’ to ‘wow, you’re amazing people’ (well, if you say so (!), but all it takes is some time and inclination, and anyone can do it!) There were also many questions about the crisis itself, many of which we could not answer despite feeling relatively well-informed about the situation, albeit quite a complex one.

'Amazing people?' We are all linked, and anyone can help

(photo via

People power

We wondered how useful we’d be coming along and helping out – would there be enough to do or would there be ‘too many cooks’? Within minutes of arriving, it was clear from the scale of the operation that there were a lot of tasks to be undertaken and we certainly wouldn’t be a spare part! From the kitchens to the ‘cold food’ preparation area, to the wood yard, and the warehouse which – given it started from nothing only about a year ago – was a very impressive operation to say the least. It was all separated into sections and sub-sections for the various items to be sorted.

The power of people in their droves was apparent straight away. The whole operation is run by volunteers, some of which are long term. During our week on site, there were about 100 volunteers present at any one time – and all had plenty to do! The vast range of people there was fascinating – from the parents with their teenage children (often the son/daughter’s idea to come!), the students, the carpenters and electricians, the office workers taking a break from work, the teachers on their summer holidays, the retirees, and those who came ‘for a week or two’ but are still here months later as they just couldn’t bear to leave. All had a story to tell, and all shared a common goal – to help.

When lots of people help in a small way each, the overall impact can be huge – and we saw that first hand. Whether you were peeling garlic, packing bags of shampoo / soap, or putting up tents to ensure they worked, it all made a difference in the grand scheme of things and every moment counted.

The charity were very clear in their daily instructions – keep the refugees in mind in every task you do. For example, how would you feel if you had a waterproof jacket that leaked at the vital moment, or a tent with a hole in it? The ‘small’ details mattered a lot; it was all about showing dignity to the residents in the camp, from these details upwards.

It was a productive week in the warehouse, with lots of hectic days, much standing up (different to sitting at a desk all day!), shifting boxes and bags, sorting and sub-sorting various items. So busy, but the feeling of everyone working together on whatever task was at hand was very humbling. A fellow volunteer – there with her 17 year-old daughter – likened it to ‘what the wartime spirit must have been like’. Whatever the task, it was done with no questions asked and all hands on deck.

The best example of this was the day we had the ‘human chain’ of about 100 of us all working together to shift a huge pile of bin bags of clothes and shoes from the warehouse to the double-articulated lorry waiting to pick it up. We ended up clearing it in two hours – the best workout of our life and very satisfying to finish such a big task with such teamwork. This was pure people power in action, and it was great to be helping. Another volunteer – an art curator from the midlands – summed it up well: “as soon as I signed up to do this, I felt less helpless” – a sentiment shared by many.

The human chain: teamwork at its most effective in the warehouse

The realities

So busy were the daily activities that it was easy to get absorbed in the tasks and to forget the wider picture – but throughout the week we were often reminded of the reason we all came. Some of the facts we learnt during our time there:

  • A large proportion of the people in the camp are from Afghanistan, Sudan and Eritrea with only 2% from Syria, a surprising statistic given the amount that Syrian asylum seekers feature on the UK news compared to those from other countries.

  • The people in the camp are neither asylum seekers nor refugees. To explain, technically you are only an asylum seeker once you have made an application for asylum, and only a refugee once that application has been successful. Given that most in the camp are not applying for asylum in France but the UK and that one is only allowed to apply for asylum in the UK when on UK territory, they have therefore not been able to make an application and thus are status-less. This may be one of the reasons why the camp is slow to get government recognition and why a large scale humanitarian response is lacking.

So why the UK?

An obvious question many of us face is why the UK? Why are people travelling hundreds of miles to reach safety in Europe, only to continue further to get to the UK? The answer is a complex one but there are myriad reasons why people would choose to come here.

It wasn't our place to consider where within Europe people were travelling to and why. According to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, countries that are party to the convention (the UK is) are obliged to process asylum applications in a bid to alleviate the suffering of people from other nations. The legal instrument was not designed to tackle the root cause of the migration and we thus should not be refusing applications based on the excuse that resources are being used to tackle instability in those countries themselves. It also highlights the question of whether those countries on the periphery of Europe should bear the brunt of the migrant crisis, rather than the burden being shared across countries.

A survey carried out this year by Medecins Sans Frontières also showed that the majority of migrants in the Calais camp are indeed from war-torn parts of the world and not 'economic migrants' as is supposed by many

However, a series of BBC documentaries called 'Exodus – our journey to Europe' showing the perilous journeys that many migrants undergo in order to reach the UK begs the question: ‘if people are prepared to undergo a journey as horrendous as it’s described, surely their situations back home are bad enough to make it worth it, in which case why are they not being treated seriously here, simply because they are not from a war zone?’

These issues are all put into perspective when we look at the low numbers of refugees being accepted into the UK compared to the rest of Europe or even around the world. The UK ranks 21 in Europe for number of refugees accepted per 100,000 local population (60) compared to the EU average of 260. In contrast, Lebanon has over a fifth of its population in refugees, closely followed by Jordan.

Horrendous journeys, travelling far. Illustration via Business Insider UK

Other sobering facts from our trip:

  • A baby was born in the camp last week, and a further 30 women in the camp are pregnant. A colleague we worked with was tasked last week to prepare a hygiene pack for the new baby and the mother. She covered all the packages and bottles of toiletries with heart drawings – there are no words…

  • A census is carried out every few months, now combined with the mobile distribution activities to ensure consistency and integration. When we were there in July the latest figures from May showed around 7,000 refugees in the camp. The August census showed that there are 9,106 people in the camp, including 865 children

  • 78% of the children in the camp are unaccompanied. Over 100 unaccompanied minors went missing after the last police interference – bulldozing the southern half of the camp. These children are vulnerable and the lack of support for them to rebuild and resettle their lives is preying into the hands of human traffickers – a shocking reality which often goes unreported

  • Unknown to some, UK taxpayers pay for the French police presence in the camp, and for the huge fence that sits between the camp and the ferry port, to keep the refugees out, as well as the impending extension to this that has been in the news recently. Apart from sanitation provided by the French government and the presence of one or two larger NGOs, humanitarian efforts fall to small charities reliant solely on volunteers and donations

  • The week before our visit, the French police had ransacked and shut down the businesses set up in the camp by refugees – ranging from the restaurant feeding children for free, to cafes where phones could be charged to make vital calls back home. How are these businesses deemed ‘illegal’ in an unofficial refugee camp where there are no rules to protect people in the first place? What about the dignity and needs of the people there? With the evictions and bulldozing of the southern camp, and the closing of the restaurants and businesses, where are people expected to live?

Some stark realities: worrying facts and trends in Calais, via

Emotional journey home

It was a week of mixed emotions, we had met some amazing people and shared some great experiences. By the last night in Calais there were 12 of us from the hostel who went out to dinner together. We had a lovely but guilty night, filled from start to finish with enlightening conversations about the day’s activities, our daily lives ‘back home’, the situation out here, and everything in between. We finished the night with an ice cream and a walk down the windy harbour wall to see the sea and the ferries departing. The irony of us all enjoying ourselves, in particular the food itself – having spent the week busting a gut cooking, packing food items, blankets and tents, was not lost on anyone.

The reality hit us as we headed home. The ferry ride – such a simple journey from A to B for us Brits and something we don’t give a second thought to (apart from the inevitable moans about traffic delays which seem so insignificant now) – was just so unfair. Why, because we were born in the UK, can we go home easily and safely, yet another human fleeing a conflict zone cannot even apply for asylum in the UK until (crucially, if) they reach our treacherous shores (and risk their lives to do so).

The week in Calais will never really leave us – we were compelled to read more articles and watch more documentaries about the situation when we returned home, which further served to educate and inform us about the situation there, and we continue to inform others and raise awareness and funds where possible.

The crisis made it back into the headlines recently with the shocking image of Omran Daqneesh, the injured Syrian boy in the back of an ambulance after an airstrike in Alleppo. This once again resonated with the public, as did Alan Kurdi last year – one picture really can paint a thousand words, and the image of a child in particular seems to bring home the harsh reality of the crisis – that we are all humans after all.

A simple message - is this being heeded?


The crisis has not gone away, but only resurfaces in the media occasionally when deemed newsworthy. These people need our help, and there are many ways to help:

Write to your MP to ask their views on the crisis and what they are doing about the Dubs amendment, where the UK is committed to taking in 3,000 unaccompanied children – but we have not yet taken one.

© L. Wells and V. Willis 2016

104 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page