Last week I returned from 5 days volunteering with Calais Kitchens at l’Auberge des Migrants warehouse in Calais. L’Auberge des Migrants runs one of the huge warehouses which receives donations of food, clothing, tents and shelter equipment and building materials, and from where deliveries are then coordinated for the refugees living in the Calais Jungle.
Lately it seems like the ongoing refugee crisis has fallen out of the news. I hoped that the harrowing pictures of Aylan Al-Kurdi’s lifeless body washed up on the shore in Turkey last year would constitute a turning point in how European governments would deal with the crisis, but that doesn’t seem to have happened (unless you count extra barbed wire, closed borders and the EU deal with Turkey, all designed to keep people OUT of Europe). Pictures of people attempting to cross the Mediterranean sea on inflatable dinghies do not usually make the papers or the TV news any more, and neither do the accompanying stories of how many men, women and children lose their lives making this crossing and the suffering and hardship they go after having made the impossible decision to leave their homes behind.
But it is still happening. All the time.
I felt apprehensive as I left my house with my suitcase about the journey ahead, but at least I knew that at the end of a few days away I would be coming home again. How on earth would it feel not to have that option?
This was my second trip to Calais and as before it left me with more questions than answers. How does this crisis end? When will it end? Will it end? Why isn’t everything possible being done to get the unaccompanied children (mainly teenage boys) out of the Jungle and to either reunite them with family (many already have family connections in the UK) or care for them in other ways. Is it only me who finds this morally bankrupt? Why are we tolerating this?
On more than one occasion I wondered what the refugees thought of the volunteers. Are we just do-gooders or voyeurs? Am I? The answer to those questions is easy – it doesn’t matter. Being there and helping matters, even though it felt to me like my effort was tiny in the face of a gigantic problem. I think it would be true to say that none of the volunteers at l’Auberge are there for purely selfish reasons and if it feels good to help – so what? As for being voyeuristic, it could be seen that way but alternatively (as suggested by one of my friends on the last JCRAG trip to Calais in April) we are also bearing witness to this situation. A situation I hope future generations look back on with embarrassment and regret.
The shelves of Calais Kitchens are emptier now than they were in April, and the volunteers who run the daily dried and tinned food deliveries into the camp have today had to tell the refugees that they will not be able to bring them any food next week. They simply don’t have enough. I can only imagine how devastating it must have felt for the girls of Calais Kitchens to have to give the community leaders and refugees in the camp that bad news.
Donations have dried up, as has the flow of volunteers to the warehouse. While I was there I witnessed the most astonishing kindness with people driving vans crammed full of food over from the UK but no sooner than this was received, it was used up immediately in packing the food parcels for the following day’s deliveries. The large storage area just outside the warehouse which used to accommodate huge pallets of tinned tomatoes, kidney beans, UHT milk, cooking oil, flour, sugar etc. was frequently bare.
Please do not give in to media fatigue about the refugee crisis. Please continue to talk about it, raise awareness about it and if possible go to Calais to help and to witness it for yourself. Please continue to challenge ignorance and bigotry by informing yourself and educating others. And please keep giving – time, money, your own two hands.
The crisis isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.