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Before you go to Calais… How to make your help for refugees effective

Lots of people now want to help the refugees in Calais – but turning up unannounced with a van-load of stuff can do more harm than good. Kate Bradley looks at the best ways to make a difference

September 11, 2015
5 min read

As the British media has stepped up its coverage of the refugee crisis, it seems like everyone suddenly wants to jump on the ferry to Calais to help out. For organisations like the one I’m working with, London2Calais, this response has been overwhelming – but unfortunately, when donations are not well organised, they can end up creating more problems than they solve.

This article will tell you how you can help by giving donations and time to aid groups – and also propose a political approach to the refugee crisis beyond small-scale acts of charity.

What’s going on in Calais

The camp in Calais is one of the largest refugee camps in Europe, housing several thousand people who are hoping to seek asylum in either France or the UK. People living there have been displaced not only from Syria, but from other parts of the Middle East, Africa and Asia. There are several charities and organisations on the ground trying to provide people with food, clothes, medical supplies and shelter – most notably Secours Catholique and L’Auberge des Migrants, two organisations that are doing a wonderful job of distributing supplies fairly and efficiently. Nevertheless, the need is infinite, and a continuous stream of aid is necessary to keep the camp functioning.

In the UK, groups such as London2Calais and CalAid have been trying to supplement the work of Secours and L’Auberge by collecting supplies here, sorting them into identical aid packages, and transporting them to Calais. The recent media surge has gone some way to remedy the camp’s current shortages, and wonderfully, our organisations have raised tens of thousands of pounds towards food and several warehouse-loads of clothing and supplies for the refugees.

However, this has also been a stressful time for the refugees. Story-hungry journalists have been showing up to the camp, thoughtlessly taking photographs, making intrusive films, and endangering the lives of undocumented refugees – who are still treated as illegal immigrants across Europe.

Moreover, many well-meaning people have decided to show up in Calais without first contacting anyone to drop off supplies at the camp – they have ended up distributing unsorted supplies unevenly and creating understandable resentment for activists on the ground there, as well as the refugees themselves.

If you’re keen to help, there are lots of things you can personally do to support the work of groups trying to help the refugees. It is really important that you do not turn up to Calais unannounced or in small, disorganised groups to distribute aid or take photographs. Instead, it is most helpful at the moment to fundraise for London2Calais or CalAid so they can distribute aid in a coordinated way.

You can also donate usable clothes and supplies from this list to L’Auberge or CalAid. If you have a vehicle, you can come on one of London2Calais’ convoys to distribute food. Humanitarian groups will need more help over the coming months to make sure these projects are sustainable beyond the current wave of attention.

Politicising the refugee crisis

However, we also need to recognise that this kind of charity is not a long-term solution to the refugee crisis. Over the coming decades, as the world population grows, national tensions continue to mount and climate change bites, the refugee crisis can only get worse. Human displacement is not an organic phenomenon that ebbs and flows with time; it is a historical process, the inevitable result of large-scale political decisions for the last 800 years, from the beginning of European colonialism onwards.

Britain continues to act as an aggressive, imperialist power imposing its will on other nations, and resorting to force before attempting diplomacy. For instance, it is no surprise that many of the refugees in Calais right now are Afghan and Syrian – their homelessness is a consequence of the UK’s military interventions.

Though much charity is needed, we also need to be making these political arguments – and you can help. If you have some free time, you could volunteer with groups who are formulating policy and direct action to prevent the global situation from getting worse – for example: Stop the War Coalition, One Million Climate Jobs, Stop the Arms Fair, Global Justice Now and War on Want. If you are a confident speaker or writer, you could write informed, persuasive blog posts and articles to highlight the ways that foreign policies create refugees, or write to your MP to start applying pressure on them to vote the right way in key bills. You could attend protests and events such as the demonstration in solidarity with refugees in London this Saturday, or L’Auberge’s demonstration in Calais on 19 September, and you could use your limited but important vote in elections against political parties and figures whose policies would make this crisis worse.

Many people that London2Calais have spoken to want to help refugees directly, and feel that politics is secondary to charity. Yet the best solutions to problems are preventative, not just palliative. To truly help people in the long run, we need to see fighting political battles as an inevitable part of our effort to intervene in crises before they happen.

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