“People doomed people to this fate” - a short personal summary of volunteering in Calais and in Dunkirk

I’ve been volunteering for DRS since early December last year, predominantly in the warehouse, sorting clothes for future shipments to France and Syria. I have extensive experience of working in the voluntary sector and providing supporting to the vulnerable members of our society but the experience I am just about to describe, brings the humanitarian support to the new level, from my perspective.

Bob, Rose and I left Derbyshire on 10th of March to France, where we stayed for 4 days. Our trip to Calais was triggered by the urgent need to deliver a wheelchair to a little girl with cerebral palsy who got to the camp with her family a few months prior and the urgent call for incontinence pads for women in the camp. Unlike “The Jungle” (the former camp in Calais), the camp in Dunkirk is an official one and it’s run by a not for profit organisation called AFIJE with active support from L’Auberge des Migrants (charity which runs a warehouse in Calais), RCK (Refugee Community Kitchen), GSF (Gynecologists Without Frontiers), Utopia 56 (a French charity providing support to refugees) and recently Help Refugees. Help Refugees, based in London, seems to be bringing all of the NGOs and voluntary organizations together to ease communication and make the system more efficient.

Unlike in the old camp in Calais, refugees in the Dunkirk camp have been provided with more stable accommodation. Instead of tents, they live in little wooden shacks, which unfortunately are still cramped and due to them being built quickly and cheaply, already in a state of dilapidation. Originally these shelters met International standards but are not really designed for European winters. There are rumours that the shelters will be rebuilt to a higher standard but also that the camp will be closed and the refugees distributed as happened with the Jungle.  Currently there are ca. 1500 refugees in the camp, 10% of whom are women. It’s been reported that a lot of them have been suffering from abuse when using toilets at night, hence the request for incontinence pads, as a short term solution to a rather worrying issue, one of many in the camp. For a more information on the current situation in the camp, please read Katie Ollife’s fantastic summary, which you can find here

Following a visit in the camp, instantaneously you feel angry, you want to help, you feel like this should not be happening in this day and age in Europe and only such a short distance away from the British shore. Unfortunately, the reality is different. 1500 people plus ca. 600 displaced kids on the streets of Calais live in inhumane conditions, with no roof over their heads and no safety, exposed to abuse and harm. If not for the tremendous work of volunteers in the Refugee Community Kitchen many people would go hungry. RCK provide every single day - hot food to 600 people in Dunkirk, stock two free shops in Dunkirk so 1500 people can cook for themselves and make flapjacks for the refugees on the streets of Paris. The Utopia56 volunteers, on their nightly “maraudes” (cruisers) deliver hundreds of the RCK hot meals to the refugees on the streets of Calais. L’Auberge warehouse (which is also the home of RCK, Utopia56 and Help Refugees) is the centre of the distribution network which we supply. Here the clothes, shoes, sleeping bags, blankets, toiletry packs & pots and pans, which DRS collected and delivered are stockpiled and directed to where they are needed, be it the camp in Dunkirk or the streets of Calais or Paris. DRS sorting and labelling gained great praise for its thoroughness.  GSF, who look after women and the children in the Dunkirk camp, have a smaller separate warehouse.

The warehouse and the kitchen in Calais keep going thanks to warm hearted people from various countries who dedicate their time and energy to help others and who feel embarrassed and ashamed of their governments for the lack of support being put in place during this humanitarian crisis. I met a couple of retired academics, who found out about the warehouse in one of the articles in the Guardian. Following the government’s backing out of the Dubs scheme, they felt obliged to help. They arrived in L’Auberge on Thursday, a couple of days before us and were planning to stay until Tuesday. Another volunteer I met was an ex banker with over 30 years of experience of working in finance sector, not mentioning other amazing people, two of which were from Derbyshire (what a small world!)

Once we delivered the goods to the camp, we spent the rest of the time on completing various duties around the L’Auberge warehouse. I joined a bubbly group of volunteers and helped peeling two sacks of garlic for dinner and later supported the kitchen with Bob and Rose in dishing out hundreds of warm meals which would later be distributed amongst the displaced kids on the streets of Calais. We also worked in the warehouse, sorting shoes and clothes, going through donated underwear and socks, counting and re-bagging them. L’Auberge have a tremendous system in the warehouse, with sections dedicated to different tasks – one for donations, another one for a charity shop, where culturally unsuitable items are being sold to visitors to raise funds, another one with neatly constructed and labelled clothes feeders and others with rucksacks, shoes, blankets and tents. There’s a tea and coffee corner and every volunteer gets fed a beautiful vegetarian meal at lunchtime (curry, rice & salad), leftovers from dinners cooked for the refugees on the previous day. The vibe in the warehouse and the kitchen is very positive although you can tell the volunteers are tired and in need of continuous support. I was told summers are the hardest seasons as a lot of longer term volunteers leave the site to work on the festivals to earn some money. A lot of people don’t realise that help is still very much needed in Calais, despite the old camp being gone. There are still hundreds of people in desperate need of our support there. Anyone thinking of volunteering longer term may be able to get accommodated. For more information, contact Help Refugees.

I am planning to return to Calais soon to help out in the camp and the warehouse again but for now, I will carry on volunteering, fundraising and raising awareness of the refugee situation in Europe with Derbyshire Refugee Solidarity.

I would urge anyone who has a little time to spare, especially skilled workers with experience of working with the difficult social issues, to consider volunteering in the camp too. It’s a difficult experience but also a very rewarding one. Personally, it helped me reconnect with my values and appreciate what I have in life even more. Since the refugee crisis has not been televised much lately, I believe it is even more important for us to act now because in some way we all play a part in this crisis.

-       Peace. Bea S, DRS volunteer

A breakdown of the crisis for humanity in Europe (Part 3) - Brendan Woodhouse

Concentrating on Italy

So a while ago I was in the process of providing information about the crisis around Europe. I’ve already given an overall analysis, and discussed the departure point of Libya and the crossing of the Mediterranean Sea. Over the last year, most refugees have landed in Italy, so here’s a breakdown of what’s happening there:

At the moment, Italy is overwhelmed by managing the sheer volume of people arriving, and the EU plans to redistribute them, simply don’t work. Everyone has to be registered when they first arrive, mostly in Catania, as part of a process, which many blame for the rising numbers of people being illegalised. Homelessness and forced prostitution are commonplace as the helplessness engulfs the people affected. 

Once the people arrive in the ports, after being rescued, fingerprints and photos are taken, often before much needed medical care. They are then taken by bus to one of the hot spot camps. Here they receive some medical attention, and asked a series of questions, pertaining to their eligibility for asylum. Some survivors report that sometimes people are collectively questioned, so a representative from one group will be asked why they came and where they want to go to. This information comes from those that leave the camps, as no volunteers are allowed access, not even the press. If they give too many ‘wrong’ answers, then they are deemed as having “no good prospects for asylum” and they are denied even applying for protection. 

Italy however, can neither afford nor administrate the enforcement of the deportations, and some of the people are asked to sign a pledge to leave the country within seven days. This is a process which defies logic, and leaves thousands of people without the ability to apply for asylum, nor the capacity to leave. 

If they are given the chance to apply for asylum, then they are forwarded to a variety of camps. There are reports of real inhuman conditions in these camps, where people live in ghetto like conditions. There are frequent investigations due to human rights violations and violent clashes.

The process for those who have a chance for asylum basically follows a system:

First, they arrive in the ports and go to first aid and hosting centers which are located in the ports. Those needing urgent medical care are transferred to hospital. The Italian Red Cross are often at the ports, but other teams also provide this medical assistance.

Second, they are transferred to CPAs (First Hosting Centers), where they are identified and can start the asylum procedure.

Next, they will arrive at the SPRAR Centres (Asylum Seekers Protection System). Here they receive support with social inclusion and regarding their asylum request. If the request is denied, they receive assistance to appeal. The SPRAR Centres fall under the jurisdiction of the municipalities. 

In the case of overcrowded CPAs and SPRAR centres, they are sent to CAS (Extraordinary Hosting Centers). These can be in hostels. Gymnasiums, private houses and apartments. They’re usually on the outside of cities and villages, but this isn’t always the rule. Often they are incredibly overcrowded.

The intention in Italy is to deport 10,000 people per year. In order to do this, the Italian interior minister has been meeting with representatives of North African countries to implement plans to open a CIE (Centre Of Identification and Expulsion) in every region in Italy. At the moment, there are four CIEs active in four different regions. CIEs have been accused of being inhuman, and expensive, as well as being recruiting grounds for extremists. Approximately 6,000 deportations were made in 2016, according to sources in Italy.

Many people tire of the cramped conditions in these various centers and locations. Many simply want to find somewhere that they can be safe. Seeing the volume of people in Italy, they choose to push on. Others have already decided where they want to go, often depending upon the language that they speak, or good things that they hear about one country or another. 

It’s a complete misconception in the UK that they all want to come for benefits. Most simply just want to start a new life, and be given the chance to live in peace. Is that too much to ask?

I would say though, that I have never been to see for myself, and I’ve been helped massively with the information above.

I’d like to thank Caro Zieringer of Projekt Seehilfe e. V. and Sandra Uselli for their invaluable input on the situation in Italy. 

Photo Credit: Federica Mameli

A breakdown of the crisis for humanity in Europe (part 2) - Brendan Woodhouse

WHAT’S HAPPENING – Mediterranean Sea  

I’m starting again on this breakdown of what’s happening in Europe. Here, I’ll give a brief rundown of what’s occurring between Libya and Italy, and I’ll talk about Italy next time. Here goes…

Most refugees entering Europe recently came via Libya as other North African borders are too difficult to cross from, due to enforced control. The political landscape in Libya (which is in the midst of a civil war, with three rival ‘governments’ competing for control of law enforcement bodies) allows for smuggling rings to operate and make vast sums of money from cramming vulnerable people into unseaworthy boats and sending them north, towards Italy.

The conditions on these boats are just beyond belief, but some are worse than others. There are no pleasure liners! Large wooden boats are regularly found with as many as 800 people on board, but most are on rubber boats, filled to the brim, with anywhere between 120-160 people on them. Weather conditions are a significant contributor to the numbers of boats that are sent out to sea, and although most boats are sent when the weather is good, a lot of boats are also sent when the weather conditions are really dangerous. The lack of seaworthiness of the boats, combined with the numbers of people, lead to difficult and dangerous rescues performed by organisations such as Seawatch, MSF, Proactiva, SOS Mediterranee, MOAS, and other smaller NGOs. Of course the Italian Coast Guard and military vessels are also involved in the search and rescue operations, but I’ll focus on the civilian efforts here.

Most boats are found in a search and rescue zone just north of Libya, and in international waters, but some boats make it through unspotted, and most of the boats are simply incapable of making it all the way to Italy. In 2016, over 5,000 people were reported to have died in the Mediterranean Sea, but nobody knows the real numbers, as many boats simply sink without a trace. Some of the bodies are washed up onto the shores, and go into the count. Many will remain lost forever, at the bottom of the sea. Their numbers are completely unknown, as though they never even existed at all. 

Libya is being funded by European governments to increase its border security, and to stop and return the people leaving their shores. So they’re catching more boats than before, and returning the people to Libya and into conditions that sound unbearable. This has significantly reduced the numbers of boats making it into international waters. Exploitation in Libya, from the reports of hundreds of people who have escaped, is simply incredible. Regular reports are made of kidnappings, and torture where family members are held to ransom for financial gain are common place, as is slavery, sexual slavery, gang rape and other sexual assaults. 

Many of the women who make it to the boats are pregnant, and the rescuers know better than to ask them where the father is. Families in their homelands are sent photos of those kidnapped and are forced to pay for their release. Many people work for months in sweatshops in order to pay for their crossing. Others have paid smuggling rings in their home countries for the complete journey. Many are lied to. Many are stolen from. 

One of the people that I’ve met on the Seawatch 2 described the situation in Libya to me: “Libya is hell. There is no place on Earth worse than this. Even in my home, it is not like Libya”. He was not on his own. Many said similar things, reporting Islamic extremism as being a particular contributing factor to these hell like conditions.

The rescue teams work tirelessly all year round, at huge cost, in order to rescue those in the boats. There are military ships working in the area on behalf of European governments too, and often the civilian rescue fleet work in conjunction with the military vessels and the Italian Coast Guard.

At the peak of the summer, upwards of 6,000 people a day can be rescued in the SAR (search and rescue) zone, with some of the bigger ships, both civilian and military, convoying the people to Italy where they get processed. The ships return to the SAR zone as soon as they can, and are often involved in rescue operations as soon as they get back.

And so it goes. An incredible operation that really should not be happening. Safe routes to Europe would stop all of these unnecessary deaths. What gets me is that, pretty much without exception, I can buy a ticket and travel anywhere. My white English privilege is a golden ticket to anywhere. Others are less fortunate, and are not allowed to travel freely. Instead, they are forced to either stay in the conditions that they find unbearable or make these dangerous crossings.

The European deterrant of death by drowning, as a means to protect its borders is responsible for the numbers of men, women and children, like you and me being so neeedlessly lost from this planet. We have no idea how lucky we are!

Thanks to Frances Donnelly for helping me write this.

The picture is of a painting by Laura Ann Hyland, I think its brilliant. (I think that it's for sale if anyone wants to contact her???)

boat.jpg

A breakdown of the crisis for humanity in Europe (part 1) - Brendan Woodhouse

I have been asked by Derbyshire Solidarity to provide some information about what is happening with the current crisis for refugees in Europe. It’s a daunting prospect, as so much is happening, I really can’t just sum it up in only a few words. I’ve asked for help with getting current information, in order to do it justice, and a lot of people have been letting me know what’s been happening in their particular field of work. I’ve had to miss loads out, really in order to just keep it readable. Each country, each camp, each individual warrants a greater analysis in order to provide a true picture, but I’ve done my best. 

I’m also going to have to do this in stages. Primarily because it would be such a massive amount of information for one read, and secondly, I’d like people to reflect on each piece of this jigsaw individually, in order to do it justice.

Initially, I think that it would be best to do a quick statistical analysis of the overall picture, from a compilation of data and information available, taken from IOM (International Organisation for Migration, The UN Migration Agency)

Over the course of the next week or so, I’ll also do a more detailed account of what’s happening in various locations. I’m going to miss loads out for sure, but I’m going to do my best.

So, here goes….

The total number of arrivals in Europe in 2016 was 387,739, which is significantly lower than in 2015, when over 1 million people arrived on our shores. The EU-Turkey agreement in March has been the single biggest reason for the number of arrivals falling so much, and so many people are land locked in Turkey, with deportations from Greece having a startling effect on individuals lives, leading to suicides, depression and a distinct lack of hope for humane solutions.

Arrivals in Greece over the last year have reduced significantly, and the Western Balkan Route has also come to a relative standstill, with thousands upon thousands of people trapped by the closure of borders. Whereas the number of people making it via the Med into Italy has increased due to a number of contributing factors, including improved weather conditions and the effective closure of the Greek route. People will always look to make it in where they can, and may be seeing the more dangerous route from Libya to Italy as being a more feasible solution. There are other reasons too, but I’ll leave that for now.

Arrivals in Hungary have decreased by 95% due to the border regulations implemented on 5th July 2006. The numbers of people coming from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan has decreased whilst the numbers arriving from African Countries (particularly Nigeria and Eritrea) has increased. 

I’ll include a link to the statistical report by IOM at the end, but statistics really only paint a small portion of the picture. The human impact is immense. The loss of life is in the thousands (In the Mediterranean Sea it was over 5,000 in 2016, and an unknown number of people have literally frozen to death this winter), but honestly, if you just looked in to the lifeless eyes of one of those dead children, it would change your perspective for ever. 

The utterly intolerable misery which cloaks tens of thousands of real human beings lives is impossible to translate into numbers. One conversation, with one man, trapped by our racist intolerance and our corrupt politicians, is enough to know that the heartlessness of this all is beyond tragic. 

The sheer illogical principle of locking people by borders, and forcing them to survive by drip feeding them through donations, as a means to protect good white folk is beyond comprehension.

We’re not protected by forcing people to live like this. We’re simply creating a breeding ground for extremists to operate and empowering terrorism by providing undeniable evidence that these vulnerable people are not welcomed. They’re unwanted, forgotten and betrayed, and we are all responsible for the consequences of this.

http://migration.iom.int/…/2016_Flows_to_Europe_Overview.pdf

Photo Credit Doug Kuntz. The lifejacket graveyard in Lesvos. For
me, it makes the numbers feel more real.

Volunteering in Calais with L’Auberge des Migrants International

An Account of my time in Calais with L'Auberge des Migrants, from Boxing Day to 3rd Jan (Moyra Jean). 

A car load of hygiene packs which had been made up in the Greenway Cafe, Matlock, were taken over to the L’Auberge warehouse on Boxing Day along with more sleeping bags. They were unloaded just before dark and put on the ‘received donations’ trolley, and within an hour were loaded into the back of a large van full of other provisions for refugees sleeping out in Paris.

The following day I was asked to work sorting clothes in the warehouse instead of the kitchen, as there was a shortage of volunteers there and big demand. We worked from 9.30 after a briefing from one of the volunteer ‘managers’, until 5.30pm with a break for a wonderful hot lunch cooked in the Calais Kitchens.

On our previous visit the kitchen had been extremely busy cooking for refugees in the Jungle, and organising thousands of dry food packages for distribution there. Since the clearance there has been a merging with SWK Kichenia, a German charity, to form RCK, Refugee Community Kitchen. They provide meals for fifty or so volunteers, as well as supplying hot food to Dunkirk Camp, and to a few smaller camps where refugees were dispersed after the demolition. For a while I did a bit of packing of little bags of salt and sugar, alongside an eighty year old cook from Peebles, and an American Londoner.

The dry food is now distributed through a free shop system so that people can choose what they need.

Back on the endless measuring and sorting of clothes, one of the ‘managers’ came round and gave me a note, explaining that I was to collect items and label the bag for Shelter 175. So, I duly found the requested small and medium hoodies, 2 pots, 2 bowls and 2 spoons and handed them over. They went, along with several similar bags for new arrivals, plus hot food etc, on a van to Dunkirk camp later that afternoon.

We worked together with volunteers from France, Germany, Holland, the US, England and several Scots. One of the longer term volunteers in the kitchen, yet another Scot, from her own pocket, provided breakfast of eggs and black pudding for New Year’s morning! A few volunteers looked a little fragile that morning after the barbeque on the beach for New Years Eve....

The long term volunteers are closely in touch with the other charities working in northern France as well as further afield, so that the warehouse can be really responsive to refugee needs. They are still collecting hygiene kits for men and for women, plus additional men’s deodorant (not aerosol) SNUG packs for Paris, blankets, sleeping bags and small and medium men’s clothing. Head-torches with batteries are also in demand particularly for Paris, and men’s size 42 shoes. And frying pans and basic cooking pans are needed for Dunkirk etc.

L’Auberge is giving up one of its warehouses to save on rent, and that is currently full of carefully sorted clothing for Greece and Syria, as well as the ‘Charity Shop’ of unsuitable donations, soon to be sent off to various vintage markets.

For updated lists of needs either see l’Auberge FaceBook page, or email Calaisdonations@gmail.com which coordinates with the Care for Calais warehouse, or calaiswarehouselogistics@gmail.com or just talk with DRS members at the warehouse on Thursday mornings.

Abseiling for Refugees

I really wanted to do something to help with the current refugee crisis and the people living in dangerous and dire conditions; however working full-time and having a young family I find it near on impossible to make it to the warehouse for sorting days or have the ability to help in practical ways by giving my time. Therefore, after persuasion from Amy, I decided I’d challenge myself to abseiling down the Jury’s Inn to raise much needed funds.

Having previously enjoyed climbing and bouldering as a student I honestly thought it would be a relatively modest challenge for me, that was until I got to the bottom, looked up and realised quite how high it actually was, suddenly I was terrified!

Waiting in the hotel after registering I think I made everybody nervous pacing about in circles, well either nervous or dizzy!

Then what seemed like forever standing on the top of the Jury’s Inn, looking anxiously at the rooftops of Derby City Centre, watching person after person disappear off the side of the building knowing soon I would have to do the same. Quickly conversations turned from general chit-chat to ‘wouldn’t this be a great way to die’. On seeing the colour drain from my face and my courage ebbing away my fellow abseilers decided to turn my attention elsewhere and remind me why I was doing it.

So after opting to be the first one to go from our group it was at last my turn. Sitting on the edge of the building I suddenly felt incredibly vulnerable, my eyes went from my harness (did I really put this on properly?) to the knots (does this guy really know what he’s doing?) and back again. Why was I doing this? I’ve got 2 children that need me!! Oh yes – the refugees! Mothers, children, siblings just like me, living in or running from terror. My fear was fleeting and tame in comparison to theirs. Just look at me surrounded by support and love and being so fortunate that I get to put myself through this as a challenge!          

So I forced myself over the edge, heart racing – it seemed to go on and on. I couldn’t bear to ‘look around, enjoy the view’ I heard from above, yet I somehow felt compelled to avoid putting muddy footprints on the windows as I passed each one. The brain is a strange thing when it’s in a state of fear.

The relief of touching the ground was immense, and I felt proud of myself not only for actually going over the edge (the worst bit) but for raising nearly £100 for a fantastic cause, my way of making a positive difference. 

So Thank you Amy for giving me the push (not literally) and for everybody who sponsored me or simply wished me luck or came to watch us all.

Warehouse Day Madness

Today was the day we had our big collection for the children’s winter clothing packs for Lebanon. We expected a lot of donations, so arrived an hour early to get set up and organized. However, so did half the donations! And they kept on coming, thick and fast. With no time to get organized, the donations were piled up all over the place, leaving no room to sort through everything. It was chaos! But it was beautiful chaos. We had a small army of volunteers working tirelessly to make sense of it all. The council’s donated old wheelie bins came in useful as we labeled each one with an age group and filled them with children’s clothes, ready to be made into winter clothing packs. Our newly built shelving unit held all of our sorted and boxed baby and toddler clothes, ready for making into packs. The huge storage boxes made out of my old kitchen were used to store all the made-up packs. We had a great team rummaging around the warehouse finding all the bits needed to finish the incomplete packs that came in, doubling the amount of completed packs we had by the end of the afternoon.

The response to this project has been incredible. This afternoon, just some of the donations included:

7 car loads of sorted items from NG Solidarity

A van load of Children’s winter clothes packs and other items from Friends of Refugees – Bedford

A car load of children’s winter clothes packs from Refugee Action Nottingham

Several cars of packs in convoy from St John’s Church

Bob’s camper full of 100 packs from Wirksworth and Belper including Bonsall Primary and Anthony Gell School.

2 van loads from Camcrag, Cambridge

50 beautiful packs delivered by Pam from the Hummingbird Project in Buxton

A car load of donations from Nottingham that had been collected at the White Lion in Beeston

A van load of beautifully packed and labelled clothes from churches in Heanor

A boot load of donations from St Mary's Church in Derby

And too many cars to count of individuals who have made up packs on their own, with friends, at their church or local school. 

We were all a bit overwhelmed with it all, but somehow managed to squeeze every last thing into our warehouse. Some of it sorted into packs, some sorted into size and some just jumbled up and piled in. The warehouse is bursting at the seams! But we’ve been here before and we’ll get through it all. There is a container going to Syria from Muslims in Need next Friday and we’ll get a load of stuff on that – men’s and women’s clothes, bedding, toiletries, food. There are 2 trips to Calais planned over the next 2 weeks, with 3 van loads of men’s coats, boots, winter clothes, tents and sleeping bags being taken to Care 4 Calais where it will be distributed to refugees in the area and to those sleeping rough in Paris.  We have 2 big sort days planned for this week – Tuesday and Thursday – where our usual trusty volunteers, and hopefully some fresh new faces, will come and spend time sorting through everything and making sure it all gets to where it needs to be, and carry on ploughing through the children’s clothes and making up more winter clothing packs.

And the thing that makes it all so amazing is that we’re not a major charity, or government or official body. We’re all just ordinary people, doing what we can to help. Making a difference to the lives of so many who have fled their homes due to conflict and danger. Having a bit of a laugh and a giggle along the way, meeting new friends and sharing a sense of purpose. That’s what it’s all about.