I have worked with refugees for 25 years, in Scotland and overseas, so my reactions since returning from volunteering in Calais have surprised me.
Is it because my taxes contribute towards a British-bolstered French security system that slashes and confiscates tents, the only shelter many have against an icy winter?
Because of the anti-refugee rhetoric spewing from our papers and politicians that directly leads to women, children and men sleeping in parks or beside railway tracks in the snow, because they are not welcome in our country?
Because Calais is on our doorstep, and maybe, despite the evidence to the contrary, I expected better?
I went to France with Justice and Peace Scotland to spend a few days volunteering with Care4Calais. My motivation? I work with migrants and refugees affected by detention in Scotland, many of whom have also been detained in France or Belgium. I’ve met a Dungavel detainee who slept rough in France for seven months, finally making it to the UK only to be put in a detention centre. And the deliberately hostile environment our government has created means unaccompanied children are sleeping under trees just across the Channel.
I doubted how useful I could be on such a short trip, but Care4Calais have a welcoming, supportive, streamlined and extremely organised approach, so new volunteers are quickly brought up to speed and put to useful work.
The day starts at 9.30am with a hot drink. The team meeting sets out the agenda for the day, outlines tasks needing done, and the morning is spent in the warehouse, preparing for the afternoon’s distribution. You can choose your task – sorting coats into different sizes; mending ripped sleeping bags; putting together the hot drink supplies for the afternoon; checking the pop-up barbershop has all it needs, or cooking the volunteers’ lunch.
After lunch, the van and minibus are loaded with generators, power boards, a wifi supplier, and the day’s items for distribution – coats, blankets, joggers, gloves and hats. In this harsh winter, it’s all about providing whatever warmth we can. A wee red car is the pop-up tea shop, with hot urn and stacked cups already loaded with tea, coffee or hot chocolate.
Some areas have 25 people sleeping rough. Others up to 400.
At each venue - a small encampment beside a railway track in Calais, a car park in Dunkirk, a city park in Brussels -items are distributed, hair is cut, the charger board bristles with phones and cables and people clasp hot drinks in freezing hands.
Meanwhile, we talk and share – hopes, dreams, tears and triumphs. The courage and resilience, solidarity and support amongst the refugees seem miraculous. But it’s just basic humanity.
I am still processing it all. Wondering what my continued response should be.
I know we all can do something: giving time in France; collecting supplies and getting them to Calais; raising awareness of the situation and lobbying for change; praying or welcoming and working alongside refugees here in Scotland, where there are also homeless or destitute people.
There is no need to do nothing.
Shirley Gillan, Feb 19