I spent a week volunteering with Care4Calais. While the official refugee camp, known as The Jungle, was demolished in 2016, hundreds of refugees remain across Calais, as well as in Dunkirk and Brussels. They get no support from the French government, and the British government funds the French police who repeatedly raid the makeshift settlements. While Coronavirus is suddenly affecting our freedom to move, work and live normally, for many, those freedoms have already been taken away.
There’s one other foot passenger on the ferry from Dover. She’s going for training with Border Force. The attendant in the yellow jacket chuckles. “The opposition,” he says.
The guy at the youth hostel says they’ve had a host of cancellations. People are starting to cancel trips. There’s no soap in the bathroom.
In the warehouse, tea, coffee and biscuits are lined up on the left. A circle of picnic chairs. The walls are lined with notes and posters, and the huge space is filled with mountains of cardboard boxes.
I came to Calais a few years ago with my brother, back when going to the jungle was fashionable. We turned up with two cars worth of donations, chatted to people and were invited into lots of tents for tea.
It made a big impact on us both, but then it dropped out of the news and we’ve never been back. Weekenders, the team leader says they called us.
In 2016, the police burned the jungle down.
In 2017, it burned down again.
Now it doesn’t officially exist, but lots of people are still there. Some people get across to the UK in a few days, but most have been stuck for months, some even years. The UK government are much more favourable towards some nationalities than others, though generally hostile to all.
They say that the police slash people’s tents so the rain gets in.
They say the police steal one shoe, so that people don’t want to stay.
Rumour has it there’s going to be a massive clearance of the main Calais camp soon.
We go through the incoming pile of donations. Useful: warm men’s waterproof jackets, small cuffed joggers, ready made food packs in large numbers, size 45 waterproof boots, gloves, hats and warm scarves in large quantities.
Not useful: dressing gowns, handbags, suede shoes, neon clothes, reusable sanitary pads (where would they wash them?), hair straighteners. Too many people use donations as a way to get rid of their crap.
My first distribution outside the main camp. We give out blankets and set up the charging board and the urns for tea, which they make with more sugar than water. I like you, one guy says, you are long.
South Sudan. Kuwait. Iran. Syria. Morocco. Eritrea. Afghanistan. Iraq. Senegal. Nigeria. Mali. Burkina Faso.
The police watch as we set up the generator. A group of guys are playing football and the ball touches the van so they step out of the vehicle. They stand with arms folded, looking like they’re waiting for an excuse to beat someone up.
A ten or eleven year old cycles round on an older boy’s bike. It’s newly fixed at our makeshift repair shop, where everyone’s hands are oily and scrabbling round in the plastic boxes searching for the right nuts and bolts. We need more good mechanics. The team leaders tell us about the best mechanic in the world. He got to Liverpool a few months ago.
The sea is rough outside when I walk home and I am nearly knocked over by the wind.
The youth hostel normally does food but with all the cancellations, they’ve stopped. I get another pot noodle.
Our drive to a distribution in Brussels is punctuated by news of countries closing their borders. Ireland’s closing all the schools. Italy’s telling people not to go outside. We wonder how we’ll all get home.
I’m sorry, no sleeping bags. Only food and blankets.
I’m sorry, no shoes today.
Sorry, no hand sanitzer.
We set up a little barbershop. They take their time. We’re delayed from packing up by one guy painstakingly grooming his beard. A little over the upper lip. Just below the chin. On the left by the ear. We’re going to be late back. A bunch of Eritrean men ask for conditioner for their curls.
No sim cards, I’m sorry.
No paracetemol, we’re not doctors.
Sorry, no more small, only large left.
Everyone wants hand sanitzer. A refugee camp isn’t exactly the easiest place to self-isolate.
We make up snug packs in the warehouse. 300 gloves, 300 hats, 300 socks, 300 scarves, 300 multivitamins, 300 mini bottles of shampoo. We box them up and make a conveyor belt to put them into bags. Someone takes a time lapse and we look like little bees. I’m bundling up gloves and one pair has the union jack on them. England is good, yes? one man asks later. I don’t know how to answer.
France bans all gatherings of more than 100 people. This means the French police could stop our distributions with legitimate reason if they want to. The next night they close everything unnecessary, including restaurants.
It is unclear whether the French government deem us necessary or not.
Do you know of many happy stories? someone asks in the pub. Not yet, he replies.
We line everything up for the van to go to Dunkirk. Generator, charging board, tarp, tea and coffee, barbers, football. No speakers today: we don’t want to attract the police’s attention.
Two men are laughing by the edge of the motorway. One puts on the jogging bottoms we’ve just handed out on top of his trousers. When one leg’s in, his friend pushes him over and he wobbles but stays upright.
They are so young and they have travelled so far.
There aren’t really enough volunteers today. Another person is going home early. I do tea and coffee and the sugar runs out quickly. A 25 year old Nigerian guy offers to help me. His dad, brothers and sisters were killed by Boko Haram, so his mother told him to leave.
I am beginning to know where things go in the warehouse. I see the appeal of volunteering here long term.
There are a lot of broken wrists around. One guy a year younger than me shows me how to cut an ‘L’ shape into a tarpaulin covering a truck. He says it gets cold in there, minus twelve. Last time he tried, he got found at the border and chucked out. He’s just paid a smuggler three grand for a space on a small boat.
There are so few of us that a young Kurdish guy comes and helps me out with the barber’s. I have a friend in Sheffield, he says, and I admit I’ve never been. First thing I’m going to do when I get to the UK, he says, is I’m going to go to all the cities and all the villages. I want to travel it all.
The sky is clear and the rain holds off tonight.
France is starting to shut down. Britain drags its feet but gradually starts to close up too. I need to get home.
Rumours have it that the government funded organisation who give out two meals a day is going to stop because of Coronavirus. I don’t know how or if they’re going to get food.
Volunteers are dwindling and media attention is elsewhere.
I pack up my stuff and get the ferry home. Even with all the borders closing, it is so easy for me to leave.
See you next time, I say. No, he says, I’ll see you in the UK.
Care4Calais need donations now more than ever. If you’re able to help, please consider donating here. I can’t express how much of a difference they make.