The current plight of refugees in Europe is harrowing enough. Yet the French authorities are making the situation worse. They are dismantling the southern section of the Jungle refugee camp in Calais, laying the ground for traumatic scenes as migrants are faced with more upheaval. And in the midst of it all, the volunteers seeking to offer a face of Europe that is not hidden behind a riot mask, have watched their work being undermined.
Despite what Fabienne Buccio, the prefect of Calais says, British volunteers are not all “No Borders” activists, stirring up trouble.
The volunteers are ordinary people who are doing everything they can for those in difficult situations. They are people like Elaine Ortiz who set up the Hummingbird Project in the summer of 2015. The name comes from the story of the hummingbird bravely collecting water in its beak to pour on a forest fire. When questioned about the futility of its actions, the hummingbird declares that it is doing all it can. It is on this simple principle that many volunteers are working in Calais.
In the camp, next to the Hummingbird medical centre, is Baloo’s Youth Centre, which was set up by other volunteers to provide safe spaces for the unaccompanied minors who are living there.
Ben Teuten, meanwhile, has set up Jungle United, a football team to provide some catharsis in the chaos. Football has been a great success as it gives the young people a chance to run off some of their energy. It’s also incredibly refreshing to hear laughter from children who have experienced some horrific events.
When the football sessions started in November 2015, they were allowed to use the local football pitches. Since then, the CRS and Calais council have restricted access, forcing the players elsewhere. Attempts were made to use space near the youth centre, but the official clearing of the camp will remove these services.
The volunteers in the Jungle and Dunkirk Grand-Synthe refugee camp are doing all they can in the absence of official responses. The French authorities, meanwhile, are basing their decisions on under-counted figures. As the organisation Help Refugees has highlighted:
It was confirmed in French court last week that despite Help Refugees' census finding 3455 people, there are only 1156 alternative accommodation places currently available in Calais and throughout France, leaving a deficit of around 2,299.
Even if they were supplying alternative accommodation to cover all of the inhabitants of the Jungle, the authorities are not providing the health and social care services, youth centres, churches, mosques and catering facilities that are required. Such infrastructure is vital for the mental and emotional well-being of the refugees.
The volunteers will remain in the camp as long as there are refugees there, but the violent eviction is already exacerbating the trauma-related difficulties that the refugees already have.
There is also a lack of formal supervision and support for the volunteers, beyond mutual solidarity. They deal with complex emotional and physical refugee issues on a daily basis. These cannot be absorbed through mutual support alone and may lead to burnout.
The public remain split in their views on refugees, both in the UK and France. On the one hand, refugees are exposed to a recent increase in the far-right attacks and the actions of the French authorities clearing the camp. But the daily support provided by Calais volunteers embodies the wider wish of millions of other EU citizens to ensure that refugees should have a right to asylum, a right to be free from persecution. In the absence of a clear agreement about the plight of all refugees in the Calais camp, the future for both remains uncertain – and the hopelessness, violence and trauma will likely continue.