Pro Bono Centre – Return to Calais

Victoria Speed is Joint Director of Pro Bono, BPP Pro Bono Centre. In June 2016, she visited the Calais “Jungle” with the pro bono team, volunteering with Care4Calais. An account of that visit is available here. In October, Victoria returned to the camp to volunteer once again.

 

Return to Calais

It was an easy decision to go back. The September news headlines included:

“Calais camp will be completely dismantled, says French president” CNN 26 September

“Calais migrants: Work to start on UK-funded wall” BBC 7 September

I’d seen enough in June to know that behind these headlines, men, women and children would be wondering what on earth will become of them. Around 9000 people are living in extremely difficult conditions in Calais, but the camp, however difficult, has provided some shelter after long and perilous journeys. I wanted to find out what impact this uncertainty is having on the individuals in the camp, take some supplies and help in some way with the aims of Care4Calais. On a political level, talk may be about numbers. But each one of those numbers represents a person and each person represents a child, women or man whose life is currently in ruin.

The wish list

Prior to departure, I’d checked the wish list of items to donate. It included deodorant, shampoo and shaving foam. It didn’t seem much but scabies is spreading and Care4Calais is doing what it can to facilitate personal hygiene.

I received several donations from BPP colleagues and from local friends and packed up the items so that they were easy to sort at the warehouse in France.

 

Three local friends were keen to join the trip this time and we set off at 4.30am, arriving in Calais in time for the morning briefing via a much needed coffee and croissant!

It became clear that Care4Calais is operating with very low numbers of volunteers. They have also seen huge reductions in donations recently. Taking this into account, distribution of aid in the camp is now run quite differently. Migrants are issued with tickets every 3 weeks (at best) through which they order 3 basic items or one larger item. Basic items include toothpaste, a pair of pants or socks, deodorant or something similar. A large “luxury” item includes a bucket for washing, a saucepan or a wind up lantern. I can’t imagine waiting for weeks for items I take for granted. However the items are in such short supply that this is the fairest system in the circumstances.

We spent the morning packing bags with orders. One shower gel, one pair of socks and one blanket and so on. Over 250 bags prepared by a team of 12. I thought about the thickness of the socks, the smell of the toiletries. Were they what the individual was hoping for?

Volunteering in the “Jungle”

There is fantastic camaraderie amongst volunteers. Ranging in age from 20 to 70, all chatted about what had drawn them to Calais, all shared thoughts on how things might develop and probably worsen imminently.

The bonus of volunteering is the delightful lunch prepared by volunteers. After a bite to eat, we joined teams to move to the camp. I signed up for distribution and formed a line with my new co-workers to facilitate the smooth delivery of items to camp inhabitants. The group receiving aide queued calmly, commented occasionally and in good humour on the colour of their pants but generally looked happy and grateful to receive items we see every day in high street stores. As was the case in the summer, I was struck by the good nature of the migrants. The ones you see seemingly cope, at least outwardly, with their circumstances. My thoughts turned to those you don’t see. The children, women, the quiet men.

The Guardian asked when the Calais camp closes, what will happen to its vulnerable women? The Evening Standard introduced readers to the lost children of Europe’s refugee and migrant camp. For all the humanity you see on the camp from volunteers and inhabitants alike, this is not a place for anyone to build a life and call home.

Shoes

The weather was awful. Cold and wet, the camp was full of dirty puddles, the makeshift nature of the “homes” all too evident. The lack of appropriate footwear to cope with the worsening conditions was obvious. Men, women and children wore ill-fitting flip flops or shoes with the heel rolled down to accommodate a foot two sizes too big. The individuals in the camp need aide just to begin to be able to function in their new world.Care4Calais’ founder, Clare Mosely, was on camp on Saturday. She was excited as a recent donation of shoes allowed for a shoe drop that day. The plan was for all volunteers to meet to enable this since the news of shoes spreads quickly through the camp. In scenes reminiscent of the January sales, migrants rush to obtain some much needed footwear. 100 pairs won’t even begin to accommodate the need however and desire can sometimes turn into chaos and anger.

 

All plans were changed rather quickly by the realisation that tear gas and plastic bullets were being fired at the camp by French police. I’d noticed a heavy police presence on arrival at camp and we’d even had to show our passports. It created a less relaxed environment than in the summer and I was soon informed about a protest taking place at the other side of camp. More about the protest can be found here. According to regular volunteers, the tear gas and bullets are becoming more common as anxiety about closure of the camps is causing tension and worry amongst migrants. The shoe drop distribution was abandoned. A return trip across the Channel beckoned.

Next steps

Following our visit in June, the team put together the outlines of a project to engage students in improving awareness of legal information amongst those living in the Calais migrant camp. The project begins in earnest this month with the arrival of new students to BPP. Things have moved on since our last visit but the information is still valuable. We will try and use social media to reach the right people.

So far, the pro bono team has raised just over £1600 for Calais. We want to reach our target of £2000 by Christmas. Watch this space for news of cake sales and other fundraisers coming to a location near you.

Finally, I am going back on 5 November. This time I am taking another group of 10 interested local friends. We will fill our vehicles with shoes, boots, shower gel and more and do what we can.

If you’d like to contribute either financially or by bringing in a pair of boots or winter shoes, even a waterproof coat you no longer need, please do contact me by email to victoriaspeed@bpp.com.

 

To find out more about Care4Calais – http://care4calais.org/about/

For more information about BPP Pro Bono Centre – probono@bpp.com

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