Refugee Relief in Calais Camp Falls Short

Publication Date: 
Thursday, February 4, 2016

Jennifer Silverstone recently travelled to northern France to provide volunteer first aid to migrants and refugees at the Calais and Dunkirk camps. She is a wife, mother of two young sons and a registered nurse at Massachusetts General Hospital.

In November, I became aware of two refugee camps on the coast of France, near the entrance to the English Channel Tunnel. Together, Calais and Dunkirk are currently home to thousands of migrants and refugees from all parts of the world, including accompanied and unaccompanied children. In Calais, you will find around 6,000 people from Eritrea, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, Egypt, and most recently Syria. In Dunkirk, you will find a few thousand more people, mainly from Kurdistan and Syria. While the numbers change frequently, reports coming from these camps remain dire. Prior to my trip I was in contact with a U.K. doctor who had heard of the significant dearth of medical care in these camps and made a quick decision to go and provide basic medical assistance.

The Calais camp – commonly called “The Jungle” – is best described as an old shantytown predominantly made up of tents atop 1-2 feet of mud and sewage (the makeshift waste and sanitation facilities are not regularly serviced). Upon first impression it is cold, the wind whips through you, and the sunless sky marks Calais as a desperate and ugly place.

French authorities have generally not allowed any permanent structures at the makeshift camps, and have quickly leveled those that are attempted – citing health concerns and violence in the makeshift camps. Nor does the government provide aid or security for the camp’s residents. The inhabitants of the camps are not prisoners; they can move freely in and out, so long as they don't get caught trying to access to the UK by boarding lorries or ferries, swimming across the Channel, or smuggling themselves into the UK in some other manner. The inhabitants largely govern themselves. All aid coming into the camp is being provided by NGOs and grassroots organizations; Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is often the only medical aid provider present.

Along with two other volunteers and translators, I worked for three days in Calais, delivering proper footwear, waterproof clothes, gloves, camping stoves, tents and mats. We also provided basic first aid to approximately 200 patients per day. We gave cough syrup and lozenges to many people who were constantly coughing. And we bandaged lacerations resulting from individuals trying to scale the fence during the morning rush hour in order to cross the Channel Tunnel into the UK. We also treated wounds suffered in violent clashes with the police. The most recent unrest broke out last week when authorities moved to once again dismantle part of the Calais camp and relocate some inhabitants to containers provided by the government. Many inhabitants refused to move, and faced off against riot police as portions of the camp went up in large flames.

My travel companions and I went with $21,000 of donations and all of it went to basic items in immediate demand: food, water, shelter (tents), waterproof clothing, gas and camping stoves. Volunteers are filling a critical gap in aiding refugees and migrants in the camps. Yet the response cannot and will not be sustained through volunteer aid alone. 

During our time in Calais and Dunkirk, we observed that the French government has also failed to assist and protect those in the camps. For one, authorities do not acknowledge the existence of the “crisis”, and as such have not granted permission to international humanitarian agencies or NGOs to respond. Without requests or permission from the government, most formal humanitarian organization – such as the Red Cross, UNICEF and UNHCR – have declined to operate in the area. Furthermore, French authorities will not allow permanent structures – such as adequate shelter, centralized kitchen or child-friendly spaces – to be erected on their soil to protect people from the elements, relegating thousands of people in the camps to living in tents on the muddy ground.

With winter upon the refugees in these camps, immediate response is required to provide for the basic needs of the inhabitants. While organizations such as MSF are planning additional operations in 2016, much more must be done in the immediate term to prevent further suffering from exposure, inadequate nutrition, disease and other concerns. Beyond the immediate vulnerabilities, there also remains a grave need for longer-term solutions, especially with regard to formal asylum procedures and sustainable protection.

These concerns are not limited to France alone, but have manifested themselves throughout Europe. Many of the official responses thus far have only served to exacerbate refugee suffering in a displacement crisis with no end in sight. These states must be held to the same high standards that they themselves aspire to and promote around the world.

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