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7 July 2016

Humanity among the squalor

Labour peer Steve Bassam reflects on a weekend at the Calais refugee camp.

By Steve Bassam

 Like most people long involved in public service, I have seen many things that have shocked, appalled or angered me. But nothing prepares you for what you see at the Calais refugee camp.

Equally, nothing much prepares you for what happens when you pitch up at one of the warehouses where volunteers gather daily to help provide support to the camp.

 The middle weekend of June normally finds me celebrating my birthday with close family. But this year, inspired by the campaigning work of parliamentary colleagues such as Alf Dubs, Yvette Cooper and others – including Jo Cox, since tragically killed – I wanted to make it memorable for other reasons. To do my bit to help make the lives of those in the Calais camp a little more tolerable. So, on the Friday afternoon, my wife Jill and I loaded our car with boxes of new footwear bought with money donated by Labour friends, dry food and clothes, and football kits provided by among others the Premier League.

Driving out of Britain we faced puzzled customs officers wanting to know about our cargo. When we explained about the football shirts being for ‘Jungle United’, they waved us onto Eurotunnel. Once in France, we booked into a hotel overlooking the port, ordered some beers while watching the opening game of EURO2016 and wondered what to expect at the HelpRefugees warehouse the following morning.


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Pitching up at the camp at 9am on Saturday, we are asked to read guidance material and fill out forms. Soon, a 30 strong group of volunteers arrive – with most in their 20s and 30s. Eventually we are asked to form a circle and limber up to get into the right frame of mind. A talk from a volunteer ‘leader’ about what we might do for the day paints an inspiring picture of what the organisation hopes to achieve.

We are told to be respectful of each other and also those living at the camp, and not to photograph anything that makes the warehouse identifiable. There have been problems with rogue journalists and far right activists. We are then split into groups to help in the kitchen or act as doorkeepers, sorters and finders.

Our first task is to unload our car and find a home for the food, footwear, football kits and other clothing for proper distribution. The kits are to go to the youth centre, so we make sure it can be easily found. The new trainers go down a treat with the shoes sorting team but we score badly on dry food. Hot tip for donors: wholewheat pasta takes too long to cook and gas and wood fuel is expensive, so go for easy cook varieties.

The warehouse is vast. An enormous Aladdin’s cave, full of clothes, footwear, pots pans, crockery and china, medical and sanitary kit, tents, sleeping bags, bedding, rucksacks and suitcases, odd bits of furniture, wheelchairs and crutches, cleaning products, make up, soap, shower gel, and dried food. Plus toys for the children. It feels like the detritus of life’s essentials but each donated item is a small symbol of humanity. Someone’s idea of what will bring comfort to those living on the edge.

When you donate you ruminate about the use or value of what you give, trying to imagine yourself in the same position of the likely recipient. Sorters in the warehouse are gatekeepers between the givers and receivers. The team Jill and I join open up and quality check hundreds of bags of donated clothes, ensuring zips work, buttons are in place, and there are no hidden rips or tears. While the dignity of many refugees who reach the camp will have taken a battering on the trek from Eritrea or Afghanistan, decent clothes will help brings some of it back. 

Sorters are also asked to think about issues of modesty for Muslim women and what western clothes say about their religious beliefs. So it’s all about layering with nothing too short or low cut. The rest is easy. Rejected items go either to become textile waste or to vintage outlets where they have a money raising value. Not much gets wasted unless it is unclean or smells. I am impressed by the care taken by most donating clothes with plenty of the stock pressed and neatly packed. 

The clothes get bagged and labelled for distribution by gender, age, size and type – for adults and children alike. Midway through the afternoon, Jill tells me she’s been asked to put together emergency rucksacks for two new arrivals, aged 7 and 8. She goes off to find socks, underwear, tee shirts, warm tops and coats against the rain. I find her sad and tearful looking for shoes while I’m thinking they perhaps need a toy each. She asks how can it be that these children had to be put through this to be saved? 

Such a question is hard to answer. Maybe their parents made a calculation – the sort that would torture anyone motivated ultimately by the desire to do the best for your kids. Or as Jo Cox put it when speaking at Parliament in support of Alf Dubs Lords amendment on child refugees, with reference to Syria: “Who can blame desperate parents for wanting to escape the horror? Children are being killed on their way to school. I know I would risk life and limb to get my two precious babies out of that hellhole.” 


We work in the warehouse until six, with good company and banter across the many languages spoken. Our fellow sorters include lawyers, psychologists, IT specialists, logistics experts, charity workers, students taking a break from finals and a postman. At various points I am asked what I do and explain in a way that makes it just another job – which it is. But I get the impression that we politicians are seen by most as the problem.

Exhausted, we arrange to meet the friends who came over with us. They have been sorting tents all day and now feel fully qualified to erect pretty much any design or shape. We tell the organisers that we will all come back in the morning and have funds to donate. They smile, thank us and ask what long term help we might give: mostly funds and perhaps some professional support. We then head off to ‘celebrate’ my 63rd year and chew over the day’s events.


On the Sunday morning we go back to our sorting station and pitch in. There’s a new group of volunteers and we explain what’s needed while a supervisor makes sure we all get it right. There seems to be more local help today, along with a group of young Parisians. The volume of donated clothes has not diminished but footwear seems in short supply while the vintage pen fills up quickly. Maybe we aren’t getting quality control quite right. 

My feet begin to ache and a tea break is very welcome, during which we reflect on how committed the group we have been working with are. From among them, Faith and Hannah tell us that they are still struggling to match tent poles up with tents. It crosses my mind that hundreds of tents get left at festivals each year and that connecting Glastonbury and the like to Calais might solve a problem. Then I spot the notice board and see that it’s already happening.

We tell the supervisor we have to leave at lunchtime and head off to visit Care4Calais – another group providing support to the camp, along with others in Dunkirk and Paris. We arrive and are briefed by Clare who runs the organisation. The rain is pouring down outside and I imagine how desperate it must make people feel living in the sand dunes. 

While Care4Calais is essentially a spin off from HelpRefugees, it seems to have a different structure and is driven by Clare’s passion. Both depend on volunteers who seem equally determined to deliver but there is a quiet order here and the warehouses are tidier. She tells us that while clothing donations have declined, her biggest problem is keeping ailing minivans roadworthy and insured to move people and material around. 

Clare worked as a senior accountant at Deloitte for 15 years on big company accounts. She is organised and focused, and tells us what to expect when we move around ‘the Jungle’. Another inspirational woman. We set off wearing waterproofs and hi-vis bibs. Near to the site, groups of young men straggle along the approach road – some looking lost, others strolling towards the motorway with carrier bags. Two police officers block our way with cones and ask what’s in the car boot. I show them our luggage, they lose interest.

Having parked up, we take the short walk to the encampment with Clare. We enter what feels like a shanty town on the edge of civilisation: shacks with wire mesh over the front selling bits and pieces of food. You quickly feel engulfed by male eyes. Aside from the Care4Calais volunteers, there are no women. Clare tells us they live in separate parts of the site in formal and informal women and children’s centres.

We are taken through a third world experience built among the dunes that waited expectantly in 1944 for an allied invasion that never arrived. Now a place for the dispossessed, pushed into a cul de sac dispute with two governments reluctant to act fearing a domestic political backlash. The refugees have made temporary homes as they wait for something to happen. Gradually an infrastructure of support has grown as volunteers attempt to fill the vacuum.

As we move around, we see more volunteers giving out clothes and an information centre offering limited legal advice. We visit two schools, talking with teachers wrestling with language teaching and how to help small children. We wander past a collection of shacks grouped into a Christian church, a make shift mosque and a half-built family centre. 

Clare tells of a recent fire that swept part of the site following fights and a murder. We are horrified by what she describes: the problems caused apparently by a small number of organised gang members and traffickers who go unchallenged by any form of law enforcement. The all male environment is ripe for this, and leads to bullying and intimidation.

I ask if there is evidence terrorists are using the Jungle as cover. Clare says no, but it appears that recent attempts by the French authorities to demolish the camp are being exploited by “very bad men”. Resettlement of the refugees in an organised way would enable the authorities to deal with this problem.

We visit a structure that stands out because it is beautifully decorated and surrounded by plants.  The artist is a lovely man whose work is being shown at a London gallery promoting the refugees cause. It’s inspirational that among such squalor such imagination tries to flourish.

Turning a corner, we are confronted by a fence. Beyond this sits a water supply tank and rows of gleaming white painted containers wired up with power on concrete bases. A security check point allows entry to the compound. We are told it is part of a French government initiative to limit numbers at the camp. Clare tells us that each container houses a dozen male inhabitants, including some young boys. She fears this is leading to sexual abuse, prostitution and avenues for trafficking.

Towards the end of our walk, we pass a road where rainwater run-off is pooling into foul and hazardous green slime. We make a final school stop and walk over an area that reminds me of the District 42 clearance zone in Cape Town. A rat runs over my foot. Finally, we reach a field of dreams. A football pitch for the children and which connects the different nations who find themselves in this obscure, forgotten place. A part of France where Europe’s refugee tragedy is being played out while the EURO 2016 tournament takes place elsewhere in the country.

It is time for us to head back to the Eurotunnel and home to Brighton. We drive along roads lined with thick, strong double fencing aimed at keeping out refugees. It’s deeply depressing but we remain inspired by what we have seen this weekend at the warehouses and in the camp. The simple acts of humanity being delivered daily by people giving their time for free.

Now, a few weeks on from our time in France and post the UK’s narrow vote to leave the European Union, I wonder what will become of those stuck in the Calais camp? As we perhaps retreat back into our own small corner of the world, what role or space is there going to be for international compassion? I’m an eternal optimist and whatever lies ahead in our domestic politics, I trust that people here will still mobilise care and solidarity with those seeking refuge from war and persecution.

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