William Riley recently received a grant from the GMS Charitable Trust. His report on his experiences volunteering at the Calais Refugee camp is reproduced below.

Coverage of disasters must change if we are to prevent them

By William Riley


With the help of the GMS Charitable Trust, this summer, I visited the Calais refugee camp in order to assist volunteering projects that protect that care for its 7,037 residents, who have fled war and unrest in their native countries. Reflecting on my experience my emotions are hugely mixed. When I look back at the fantastic volunteers I met and the incredible feats of human compassion, ingenuity and industry I experienced, I can’t help feel hugely positive, almost elated. And all without that vital incentive that is money. Then, in stark contrast, instances where I think of over 6,000 desperate people arriving at our doorsteps yet are unwelcomed and unacknowledged by the government institutions that represent us. How such juxtaposition within human nature can exist is what I found most intriguing, and why if these two sides were attempting to even each other out was there such a disparity in the media coverage of the two.


I volunteered with the Help Refugees charity, and was based primarily at the warehouse, which is a short drive away from the camp itself. Here on an ex industrial site lies a huge warehouse with surrounding workshops and store shelters. The scale and scope of the project was astounding, I spent the first few days in awe of how such a plethora of jobs and tasks took place harmoniously under one roof.



Outside in the wood yard, donated and purchased wood is cut and assembled in order to build shelters, schools, bookshelves and tables; with odd pieces being chopped up and sent to be used for firewood in camp. All this done with tremendous speed and efficiency, made possible only by the pride and sense of purpose experienced by the volunteers involved, not to mention the lack of an overbearing health and safety rulebook.


Inside the warehouse the kitchen bustled and simmered. A hot meal for 2,000 is prepared everyday. Vats of curry the size of small bathtubs are strenuously stirred, the chefs having to use their entire body weight in order to complete a single rotation of the paddle. Daunted, I watch on, waiting to receive these beasts of utensils armed with nothing but a sponge and a bottle of fairy liquid. Having never worked in a kitchen before I imagine that this is the kind of emotion kitchen workers go through: urgency and stress on the build up to get the meals out there to their audience then huge relief and jubilance when the job is complete. However I wonder to myself how the end of mealtime triumph is comparable when feeding 2,000 people who would likely otherwise go hungry as oppose to paying customers who would likely just go somewhere else.


Further inside the warehouse dry food is sorted into packs to go out to the camps residents in order for them to prepare their own meals over fires and makeshift stoves. Inside another gigantic section of the warehouse clothes and shoes are sorted three times over to check usability, then type, then size. Sleeping bags and blankets are checked and hygiene packs are prepared for new entrants into the camp. In another section donated tents are sorted then built to test, ones that are missing parts are set aside to be rehashed with other spare pieces. Bikes are repaired in order to give out to the camps residents; clothes that are inappropriate to be sent into camp are sorted and some set aside to be sold in a vintage shop onsite and online – the proceeds going to buy supplies for the camp. Also in this section, caravans, for the longer term volunteers to stay in are restored and renovated.


A site that produces everything that a group of thousands of people need is remarkable to see. Run entirely by volunteers and started up from scratch with no government or private assistance. A site that offers such a vast variety of services takes a huge amount of organizing, especially when most volunteers, such as myself, only stay for a short amount of time. I struggled to think of somewhere else, outside of other refugee camps, where something like this had been achieved. All of this incentivized purely by compassion; it was massively exciting and addictive to be there.


Experiencing such co-operation towards benevolence made it difficult to imagine that humans could have created such a crisis in the first place. Yet at the same time my awareness of the terrible reality of the refugee crisis heightened, it was unavoidable when you thought past whom your work would benefit. Whilst it is easy and in many ways necessary to stand in awe of the tremendous human response to this disaster, we mustn’t forget that this is a situation created and left unresolved by us as humans.


A small yet sizeable case study of this cruelty and apathy is the situation for children in the Calais camp. At the last count there were 761 children inside the Calais camp, 544 of these are unaccompanied. These children are at risk of being trafficked for child labour or sexual exploitation, as well as this they often put their own lives at risk by attempting to board lorries and trains to gain illegal access into the UK. The Dubs Amendment, which allows 3,000 unaccompanied refugee children to come into the UK from Europe, was passed over 3 months ago, since then have seen less than 20 unaccompanied refugee children enter the UK. To add one final nail in the coffin of how what kind of problem we are dealing with in Europe, in January Europol estimated that over 10,000 unaccompanied child refugees have gone missing since entering Europe; and that was over 6 months ago. Since the start of 2016, 227,316 migrants have entered Europe by sea, likely adding a great deal more to that 10,000 figure. For me these statistics are hard to hear and even more to get my head around. Especially when I contrast our historic failing of these children as a continent with the phenomenal volunteer work I experienced in Calais. I find it difficult to credit the two under the same species.


For every tremendous act of compassion poured into projects like these, acts like these were only necessary due to the void left by others cruelty and apathy. These responses show human nature paradoxically, in a clash against itself, compassion battling directly to clean up the leftovers of human indifference. This is the startling thing about the human condition, when it fails its fellow human there are often individuals willing to show disproportionate levels of compassion to readdress the balance. Examples can be found all across history, our present day instance is those volunteers working full time in Calais and in similar projects across Europe.


I struggle to find a satisfying explanation or conclusion to ensure our compassionate side triumphs in a war it is seemingly losing. However what I can insist is that what is happening inside volunteer centres that aid refugees across Europe is publicized greater and more frequently. I myself uphold an almost dogmatic believe that human emotion passed and shared between us through our interactions; rather like energy, it is transferred between us and it can change form yet is never destroyed. Perhaps when people hear about the admirable work being done that is saving thousands of lives everyday they may be compelled to act compassionately themselves. With this in mind by taking some, by no means all, of the focus from the repeated coverage of awful events in the world toward some of the fantastic work that is being done to prevent the worsening of these disasters maybe we can do more to alleviate them entirely in the future.


Our medias love affair with the shocking and the controversial may be what normalizes our own failure of refugees across Europe. What volunteers do across Europe to help refugees is given little coverage; a more rounded and sophisticated approach to media coverage that highlights the shocking disasters yet also covers how charities and individuals have stepped in to assist the situation is needed. This is what this article has aimed to do, and it hopefully honestly represents my experience in Calais, which it must be said, overall, was a positive one.



William Riley


Thomas Telford School

Summer 2016


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