Blog post written by Jae June. Photographs taken by Salsabeel and Shyamli, unless indicated otherwise.
The camp in Calais is not a refugee camp – it is a slum. It is hidden on the outskirts of the city so that it might be forgotten like a bad dream. The government of France too has refused recognise it: they provide some space, some food, and some legal advice to keep up appearances, but yet the government continually revisit the displaced with further displacement. Their policy is to pressure asylum seekers to seek refuge in France, and they negotiate their policy with the violence of barbed wire, gas canisters, and bulldozers. And as the head of OFPRA* frankly admitted in a presentation at Oxford, humanitarian aid is conditional. They will not give it, until asylum seekers in the ‘Jungle’ give up their hopes of going to the UK.
It is important to mention this because it explains the unique situation of the Calais Jungle and the unique challenges that the community faces. Where the essential humanitarian services are routinely carried out by a centralised government agency in other refugee camps, dozens of civil society organisations are currently carrying out those services in Calais. The Jungle is nothing like a refugee camp in, say, Germany; the Jungle is dynamic and transitory in nature, it is unofficial, and there is no central coordination. Where in other official camps the distribution of aid is typically guided by a registration and I.D. card system, that solution simply won’t work here; a registration in France may potentially endanger the chances an asylum seeker may have in successfully receiving refuge in the UK. As a result, aid delivery is not guided by an accurate assessment of refugee needs and is therefore often ineffective.
It therefore came as a surprise to us: L’Auberge des migrants (or known simply as L’Auberge) had recently altered their distribution system and are now using needs assessment surveys to guide their delivery of aid items. We had, so far, heard precious little about these data collection surveys at L’Auberge. And as we had found out later, not even the other major aid distributor, Care4Calais, had been made aware of this change. Coordinators of the new data collections project at L’Auberge agreed to speak to us, and so at the start of the second day Salsabeel, Chris, and I made our way over to their warehouse.
Easing our way into the day, we were sitting, waiting, and drinking a cup of tea. With still an hour or two to go before lunch, the volunteers at L’Auberge were bustling around us: some were carting donations here and there; others were standing together planning and gesturing; while a few others were, like us, enjoying the sun with a cup of tea in hand. We had already met and interviewed Annie who coordinated the Refugee Rights Data Project before our tea break, but Sam was the real reason why we were at L’Auberge that morning.
Our interview with Annie earlier that morning gave us a general overview of the data collection project.There are two aspects to it: first, there is the Refugee Rights Data Project that puts together a demographic snapshot of the Calais ‘jungle’ along with the identification of different vulnerabilities that refugees and displaced persons may have; the second aspect is what we were more interested in and what Sam was the coordinator of – the distribution of aid and need assessment surveys. We had more cups of tea and chatted with another volunteer on site who is working on creating a website to serve as a hub for legal information, especially concerning changing asylum laws in Europe.
Soon after, we went to Sam’s caravan, we made our introductions and gave a brief of what Zaroorat was about. She listened carefully while occasionally pausing her efforts to roll a cigarette to jot down notes. Then, she began to explain her side of things followed by a lengthy period of time when we asked her questions and exchanged ideas. The brief summary of our discussion is the following.
(i) An overview of the distribution system. Through a needs assessment, trained-field researchers collect information about who needs what. Once the information about needs is collected and paired with a specific shelter number, the information is sent back to the warehouse where the required aid package is assembled and then delivered. To make the task more manageable, the Calais ‘jungle’ is divided into a certain number of areas and the team surveys and delivers aid to one area at a time. In order to avoid flaring tensions between communities over limited aid, a strict time frame of two days per area is put down: to reach as many people as possible in those two days before moving on to the next area, each sector is covered until the volunteers make a full circle. Once the aid packages are delivered, the sheets of paper with all the information are then compiled and stored by Sam who records the totals of the number of aid items sent out.
(ii) Limitations. Certain shortcomings are that (a) nothing through this process, however, is done digitally – admin work is kept to a minimum – and that L’Auberge lacks an understanding of the larger and long term story the data trends are telling, (b) since the project and resources are limited, they are unable to deliver aid to everyone who needs it – they do not coordinate aid distribution with other aid organisations such as Care4Calais, and, a more general point, (c) a thorough training and handover process between old and new volunteers is lacking. The latter issue speaks to the pressing issue of high rate of turnover between volunteers, most being able to come to Calais for 3-4 days; assessment questions have to be limited to efficiently constantly train and guide knowledge transfer between the volunteers–for more comprehensive assessments, more extensive and time-consuming training is required.
(iii) The ideal. On what the ideal distribution system would look like, Sam was honest with us. She couldn’t flesh it out in detail, but she did give us three pointers: it would be (a) one system common to all aid organisations run by (b) long term volunteers – volunteers typically stay for less than a week – and (c) given oversight by experienced coordinators. She stressed the importance of long term volunteers; having long term volunteers is an important way of establishing the consistency and continuity crucial for developing a relationship of trust between aid organisations and community members.
We exchanged contact details and encouragements at the end of the interview, leaving promptly afterwards. It took a number of different buses to get back to the accommodation and a while before we met up with the others on the team. Shyamli, Padmini, and Tudor had used the time in the morning and early afternoon to pull together and organise all the information we had gathered on Day 1. We debriefed over a late lunch and prepared questions for the final interview of the day with Clare from Care4Calais. It was around 5.30 pm by the time we had finished. The day was still bright outside with three or four hours to go before sunset.
We met with Clare in a restaurant later that afternoon. Without any formal introductions, we began lightly, talking about any news about the camp as the waiter brought a tray full of sweet and milky chai for the table. We talked about the changes and challenges, about what seem to be the different stages the camp is passing through, and how people seem to be losing hope of ever reaching the UK. Sometimes you hear of individuals trying to cross every night for half a year before giving up. And after following the meandering course of our conversation, we hit on the topic of aid distribution. She told us about all the different methods of distributing aid (particularly gas canisters) the organisation had experimented with in the past and the particular difficulties she has had with each. The theme she struck was the very familiar one: how does one get the right aid to the right person when there is a shortage of supplies, an absence of accurate information about the needs of individuals in the camp, and a discriminatory social hierarchy forming?
But she stressed something that hadn’t been underscored before: how does one ensure that those who are not integrated into the community and go unnoticed get the aid they need? She invited us to look around the restaurant. Those who are confident and well-integrated into the community hang around in public spaces, befriend volunteers, and collect aid as they need it. Yet, there are also those who stay away from public spaces and set up residence in the more discreet areas of the jungle – areas that volunteers might never reach and no community leader stands up for. And how does one make sure that they also get the food, clothing, and social services that they might need?
There seem to be no clear answers to this yet. But the need for far greater collaboration between Care4Calais, L’Auberge, and other aid organisations is clear. The question we now have for ourselves is how we fit into the picture and how the efforts of the Zaroorat project is going be best directed.
*OFPRA: French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons