Don’t Let Them Die in Libya – Sheffield protests 18 January


 Don’t let them die in Libya

Sheffield march and demonstration Saturday 18 January 12.30pm

Meet bottom of The Moor near Moor Market S1 4PF at 12.30 and march to Sheffield Town Hall for a rally at 1pm

“I was lucky to find safety in the UK before Libya erupted into chaos following the fall of Gadaffi” says one of the march organisers Mihreteab Kidane. Now people who’ve lost their money and nearly their lives trying to cross the Mediterranean find themselves in a country that is incapable of safeguarding them from exploitation and abuse”.

Tell the people of Sheffield and the Council what is going on in Libya. Join us and march alongside SYMAAG (South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group) the Eritrean and other refugee communities in Sheffield.

Thousands of refugees and migrants are stranded in horrendous detention centres in Libya facing an early death, torture, rape or being sold as slaves. There are no UNCHR camps in Libya. The European Union (including for now the British government) is stopping asylum seekers from crossing the Mediterranean by working in partnership with the Libyan coastguard and militias. As a result, people seeking asylum in Europe  are trapped trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe. The consequences of EU migration policy should, as the charity Médecins Sans Frontières puts it, “shock the collective conscience of Europe’s citizens and elected leaders”.

Many of those stranded in Libya are fleeing persecution and conflicts from Eritrea, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia, etc. In Sheffield members of these communities are in daily contact with the detention camps and have family, friends and relatives dying in Libya.

We support their demands to

  • Rescue the stranded. Save lives. 
  • Give them safe routes to asylum in Europe.
  • To tell the British government to agree to take a percentage of those crossing the Mediterranean as other countries have done.


Direct Provision – Ireland’s holding pens for asylum seekers

At a recent SYMAAG meeting, our co-chair John Grayson reported on his recent fact-finding visit to Ireland. He visited sites of Direct Provision, Ireland’s system for segregating people seeking asylum. He also interviewed some of the people who have been subjected to Direct Provision and have spoken out against it.

The article below first appeared on the Institute for Race Relations website on September 21st 2017


In the first of a series, John Grayson examines the Direct Provision (DP) system for asylum seekers in Ireland. Part-two will examine the private companies involved in providing services under DP.

‘The Minister for Justice has made an outspoken attack on bogus asylum-seeking and “political correctness” at the Oireachtas Justice Committee. Michael McDowell said the patience of the Irish people would be very tested if they knew the “cock and bull” stories being given by people looking for asylum … “I would prefer to interview these people at the airport, but the UN insists that I go through due procedure,” said Mr McDowell.’ (RTE News, 5 May 2005)

People caught up in the direct provision system are being denied hope by the State and forced to live in a system which is worse than prison … Former judge Dr. Bryan McMahon said anyone forced to live in a system that denied them the right to work or study and determined almost every aspect of their life without any indication as to when their circumstances might change “would go mad”. Some of them said to me: I would prefer to be in jail because I would have a definite sentence and I would know when I was getting out.’” (Dr McMahon chaired the first official Irish government inquiry into Direct Provision in 2014)


Direct Provision in Tralee

johnston-marina-exterior-photoIn a room in the Tralee International Resource Centre in County Kerry in the South West of Ireland, Shahidah had brought me to meet two residents from Tralee’s two DP Centres.

Christine looked frail and ill but she smiled briefly as she sat down at the large table in the meeting room of the centre. I told her I was from the South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group in South Yorkshire ‘I was in Rotherham for a while, six years ago in asylum housing’, she said. ‘But they made me come back here because I had been fingerprinted in Ireland. I have been here in Tralee ever since.’

Christine, originally from East Africa, described the regime in the centre, Johnston Marina, a disused hotel:

‘We are not allowed to cook or even do our own washing. My clothes are ruined in the industrial washers they use in there. I am hungry most of the time. I am vegetarian but they will not cook me food I can eat. All the staff are white, from Eastern Europe I think, they simply do not treat the single Black women, like me, fairly. Even fruit is given out in a racist way, the best fruit goes to the white women, then the families with children, both Black and white – then us, we end up with apples and pears. The staff decide how much is given out and there is by the end of the week often leftovers of the best fruit which is overripe – they then put it out on the tables for all of us. The heating often fails and we have no hot water. It is not a good place to live.’

Ten years ago, when there were 40 women and 45 children in the Johnston Marina centre where Christine lives, there was a hunger strike to protest about conditions. In 2013 the Tralee International Resource Centre was one of the sponsors of the national ‘End Institutionalised Living’ protests held throughout the country, which included a demonstration in Tralee town centre.

In Tralee, talking to Shahidah, Christine and Theresa, a support worker at the Resource Centre, it was obvious that the suicide of a Korean woman in Kinsale Road DP centre in Cork on the 23 August was still affecting them. The woman, a lone parent, had been in the centre about a year with her six-year-old son. Lucky Khambule, spokesman for the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland (MASI) who had himself spent time in Kinsale Road, said ‘She had on occasions been to the doctor and she was evidently a quiet, sad person.’


Racism in rural Ireland

What many in human rights organisations suspect (or are afraid to admit openly) is that Irish society knows full well about the system of direct provision, the vast majority of the population could not care less. In fact, the vast majority may even want a harsher system.’ (Liam Thornton and Carl O’Brien, ‘Closing Our Eyes: Irish Society and Direct Provision’, 8 October 2013,

I was staying with Shahidah and John, both social justice campaigners in Kerry. The couple have lived near Tralee for over ten years, during which time Shahidah has heard racist remarks aimed at her when she walked around town: ‘Some years ago someone in town wound down his car window and threw a glass bottle at me’. John told me ‘I think racism is growing in Ireland since the Crash as people get poorer, even the traditional discrimination against the Traveller community is getting worse. DP centres are often in rundown hotels, and you hear politicians and people in the media saying, “Why are asylum seekers getting hotels, whilst Irish homeless people are on the streets”. People have no idea of what goes on in the DP centres. Tourists actually stand and take pictures of Johnston Marina and its thatched roof annexe.’[1]

©John Grayson

©John Grayson

I had talked to Charles earlier in the international resource centre about his life in the Atlas Centre, the men’s DP centre in Tralee. Charles was a surgeon from the Middle East, and he had just heard that he had been granted leave to remain in Ireland. Charles had been shocked at the racism he had met with in Tralee. ‘I volunteered to help with local work with poor people, and had to give it up, people simply insulted me and my background. In the centre where I have lived for over a year, every single weekend when the pubs shut a gang of young men fill the street outside chanting “Go Home”, and throw things at the windows. The police do nothing.’

Charles had prepared for our meeting by writing a detailed list of points he wanted to raise with me.

©John Grayson

©John Grayson

Charles told me of his despair at ‘feeling useless, defenceless, and confused’, and admitted he had felt suicidal at times. ‘In there, time turns against you, you feel ashamed of living in Direct Provision. The racism makes you feel you have no respect in society even amongst other asylum seekers. Other people in the centre suffered racism and abused people like me as a defence mechanism, facing racism by harming good people.’ He was worried about his professional skills as a surgeon deteriorating with his forced absence from practice. ‘We may be banned from working but they should allow volunteering for professional people, it is about more than just the money.’ Now he was leaving Direct Provision he was obviously very anxious about facing ‘real life’ again.


Direct Provision and dispersal

DP centres are not closed detention centres, new asylum seekers ‘decide’ whether they go into the DP centres and are free to leave. In 2015 there were an estimated 7,937 people in the Irish asylum system, 45 per cent living in DP accommodation, and 55 per cent living ‘outside Direct Provision‘.

The DP system commenced in April 2000, offering asylum seekers bed and board accommodation, and an allowance of €19.10 a week per adult, with an additional €9.60 a week per child. The system of DP also provides health care through the medical card scheme, and education up to the age of 18 for children of asylum seekers. Asylum seekers are not entitled to any other form of welfare payment. They are not allowed to work, and Ireland is the only EU state with a complete prohibition on working. If they decide not to stay in the centres they become destitute and homeless.

Asylum seekers in DP are dispersed throughout Ireland, often in disused holiday camps, hotels, convents, hostels and caravan sites. Many of the DP centres are in remote rural or coastal areas. In these areas, the cost of living is often higher than in Dublin and the €19.10 buys less, and the value of the payment has been further eroded by inflation over the seventeen years it has remained unchanged.


Direct Provision: ‘an agonizing and wasted existence’ – ’a form of apartheid’

Echoing Charles and many others who have looked at or directly experienced DP, in 2012, researcher Zoe O’Reilly after interviewing residents, described their life in DP as ‘an agonizing and wasted existence.’

‘They wait in an institutional limbo for a final decision on their claims. Fed and housed through the “direct provision” system, people are kept on the margins of society, unable to access employment or education, and forced to live a “life without choice” … They are simultaneously inside and outside: inside a system which controls their everyday life and decisions, and yet kept outside of mainstream society, prevented from integrating through a series of deliberate measures’. [5]

By December 2000, 62 DP centres were operating, increasing to 84 centres consisting of nine reception centres and 75 accommodation centres. The first report on the system of direct provision in July 2001 for the Irish Refugee Council and the Combat Poverty Agency, Beyond the Pale: Asylum Seeking Children and Social Inclusion in Irelandraised serious concerns about the system. The recommendations were direct and damning:

  • Direct provision should be abolished
  • Direct provision fosters poverty and exclusion within Irish communities. Asylum seekers on direct provision experience poverty to a greater extent than other categories of asylum seeker. Asylum seekers in ‘direct provision’ had household incomes which fell below the 20 percent poverty line. The extreme poverty experienced by asylum-seeking children in “direct provision” is a direct outcome of current asylum seeker policy.
  • Those who have been accommodated under direct provision are subject to a form of apartheid whereby they are compelled to live apart from the majority community without the social and material support structures to interact with the native population. [2]

As the number of DP centres declined there were repeated reports criticising the DP system, most of them largely ignored by the government, and some legal challenges. As far as the government was concerned the deterrent system was working – fewer and fewer asylum seekers were coming to Ireland. There were 11,598 asylum applications in 2002, 940 in 2012.[4] By September 2014 the Irish Times published a leaked memo from the Justice Ministry setting out the policy. Their headlines read: ‘Minister says system is “inhumane”‘ but … ‘State fears alternative to direct provision will attract asylum seekers’.

The reports on the ‘inhumane’ system had grown, together with hunger strikes and demonstrations by people in DP centres throughout Ireland in 2014. The Irish Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly, in her report in 2013 on a family in DP, estimated that there were around 1,820 children under eighteen in the centres (around 38 per cent of residents) and 640 lone parents. O’Reilly described the DP system as ‘a collective failure of a republic which needs to re-engage with what ought to be its core values.’ She said under the current asylum process ‘an entire early childhood, virtually an entire adolescence can be spent in direct provision accommodation’.

A seminar at the Tralee International Resource Centre in June 2015 on ‘Children Living in Direct Provision’ considered the Irish Refugee Council’s report, Counting the Cost (2014), which stated that the average time spent in DP was three years, with some people waiting as long as seven years for a decision. As the seminar flyer pointed out ‘With 35% of children in DP under the age of 4yrs, the DP way of life is all they know.’

In 2014, the first ever official state investigation into the system was launched when the Irish government set up a Working Group under a retired judge, Bryan McMahon, responding to the protests across Irish DP centres. They were not given a remit to consider the ending of the DP system, only reforming it. The group reported in June 2015, and amongst their list of 173 recommendations, was an increase in the DP allowances to €38.74 for adults and €29.80 for children. [3]

On 7 May 2015, Pádraig MacLochlainn TD, Chairman of the Oireachtas (Parliamentary) Joint Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions, introduced the committee’s damning report on DP, dealing with the lack of rights of residents to appeal to the Ombudsman system:

‘This report on the Direct Provision System is, I believe, a “canary in the mine” moment … This report to the Dáil and Seanad makes it clear to both Houses of the Oireachtas that the Direct Provision system is not fit for purpose.’

The Reception and Integration Agency (RIA) figures for June 2017 estimate that there are still 4,691 people in thirty-two DP centres across 16 counties in Ireland. There are 1,248 children under 18 in the centres, 472 of these children are under four years of age.


Resisting and exposing DP 

anti-deportation-ireland-july-2012In recent years, academic activists, journalists, a tiny number of politicians, and above all people forced to endure the DP system have begun to expose the system in media campaigns and direct actions.

In August 2014, during a hunger strike protest at Mount Trenchard DP centre near Foynes in County Limerick, three of the protesters said they had been waiting ten years for their asylum applications to be processed. Another resident said he had been in the asylum system for the past 14 years. The local Doras Luimní asylum rights organisation said, ‘some residents have been living at the hostel for the past 12 years’ in living conditions that have been described as ‘overcrowded and inhumane’ which see ‘eight male adults of different nationalities sharing a room, contribut[ing] to an environment that exacerbates the volatility of the centre.’

In April 2015, after further protests at Mount Trenchard over ‘poor food, broken windows, regular outbreaks of fighting’, Jonathan Muhwezi, a resident, told the Limerick Leader that ‘Foynes is called Guantanamo Bay … where they send you for punishment.’ 


Newbridge Asylum Support Group

In December, I spoke with two women, Hope and May, who had been in the Eyre Powell hotel, the DP centre in Newbridge in Co. Kildare, not far from Dublin. Hope was from Zimbabwe and had been in the DP system for seven years. She had leave to remain but, like many people in the centres, she could find neither employment nor housing. In July 2016, the Irish Refugee Council published research indicating that in 2015, several months after getting their official papers, 679 people remained in Direct Provision. Hope said that Co. Kildare was the best place for a refugee to try to move on – there were advice services there. ‘The real problem is racism in employment. I am getting interviews but they obviously don’t want to employ a Black woman.’ Hope told me of all the people still in DP after many years. ‘I knew a man from Rwanda, he will have been in DP for ten years, this year.’

Both women were activists in the Newbridge Asylum Support Group and had been involved in protests in 2012. The protest had been raised in the Dáil by the South Kildare TD Jack Wall, who spoke of ‘a detailed written complaint listing twelve areas of concern, signed by a number of residents, sent to the manager of the Eyre Powell centre through the support group. The concerns revolved around food, hygiene and the attitude of management towards residents.

May, from Eastern Europe, who had also lived in Eyre Powell, had her second child in the DP system. She told me of her ‘mental stress over years living in overcrowded conditions in one room. “I was always worried about my children”.’ May’s comments about her children in the DP centres are echoed by the findings of a government survey of 110 children in DP centres completed in 2015.

Children described their accommodation as ‘overcrowded’ and ‘dirty’ and the direct provision system as ‘not fair’, ‘not safe’, and many spoke about older men ‘taking over’ the TV and recreation rooms. ‘There are loads of men bothering us’, said one, while another commented: ‘There is so many men, and . . . they look creepy at you.’ The diets were described as ‘horrible and disgusting’ and ‘unhealthy’ by older groups, and as ‘always the same’ and ‘the food has no taste’ by the younger children, with several expressing the wish their mother could cook for them.

The Irish government refused to publish the survey until forced to do so this year, on 18 July, as a result of a FOI request from the Irish Times.


Are cracks appearing in the Irish deterrent asylum system? 

Unusually, over the past few months news of Ireland’s reception policy for refugees has been filtering over to the UK. On 30 May, the Irish Supreme Court ruled that banning asylum seekers from working was unconstitutional. The Irish Times reported that:

‘The seven judge court unanimously agreed the absolute ban was ‘in principle’ unconstitutional but has adjourned making any formal orders for six months to allow the legislature consider how to address the situation.’ (Irish Times, 30 May 2017)

Then on 14 June, Ireland’s Taoiseach (Prime Minister), Leo Varadkar, announced an increase of €2.50 per week for adults and €6 per week for children to benefit more than 4,000 adults and children living in Ireland’s accommodation for asylum seekers, the Direct Provision (DP) centres. The rate for children will rise from €15.60 to €21.60 per week and for adults from €19.10 to €21.60 per week from August. The adult support rate remarkably had remained at € 19.10 for seventeen years ever since the DP Centres were set up in 2000.

Lucky Khambule, MASI (Movement for Asylum Seekers in Ireland) spokesman, said:masilogo

‘We really feel insulted by the newly-elected Taoiseach, who seems to have no understanding whatsoever about what we have gone through in direct provision for 17 years. The Taoiseach said that these offensively minuscule increases would give asylum seekers more disposable income. If our situation wasn’t so serious this would be a joke. We were not consulted on this, no one asked us what we needed. We are furious that people think that €2.50 or €6 will do anything to address the damage caused to our lives by direct provision.’


Cracks may be appearing in the DP system but deportations increase

The new Irish International Protection Act (IPA) which came into operation in December 2016, replaced the extremely time-consuming process for asylum seekers: first claiming asylum through the ORAC (Office of the Refugee Applications Commissioner), then appealing a negative decision to the Refugee Appeals Tribunal (RAT); and finally, if unsuccessful, making a claim for subsidiary protection to the Minister for Justice, for example, claiming that they cannot be returned safely to their country.

All these stages meant long delays, often of years, spent in DP. In 2015 there were ‘approximately 1,000 people involved in judicial review proceedings relating to the various stages in the system, of whom 66 per cent have been in the system for more than five years.’ The new law, which was designed to streamline the application process for asylum seekers to reduce waiting times for decisions, seems to have stalled with the revelation earlier this year that 4,000 cases had been handed on to the Office for International Protection from the previous system, and that these would be given precedence over new claims.

The IPA also increased the State’s powers to enforce deportation orders. Lucky Khambule, on 19 June, described the rise in deportation proceedings since the introduction of the IPA as ‘alarming’. The introduction of the IPA also seems to signal a new period of asylum refusals. Figures up to May this year show that only 101 people have been granted ‘permission to remain’, compared to 532 in total over 2016. Since 2007, 23,506 people have applied for asylum status in Ireland, and the average rate of refusal is 86 per cent. Just 3,285 asylum seekers have been granted official asylum protection in Ireland in the past ten years.

As Anne Mulhall and Gavan Titley said in 2014, DP provides:

‘a holding pen where people are kept for efficient deportation … for protesters, who live with its constant threat in institutions designed to facilitate their removal, an end to deportation is the most important of their demands.’

The names of asylum seekers and refugees who spoke to me about Direct Provision have been changed. Thanks to Shahidah Janjua, Zoryana Pshyk, and Lucky Khambule for their hospitality and assistance with my research and solidarity trip to Ireland. Liam Thornton, of University College Dublin (UCD) contributes regular legal and other comment on DP to the ‘Human Rights in Ireland’ website And photos and material on the Irish Direct Provision centres can be found at these very useful archives: Asylum Archive, Ireland (2014) Direct Provision Centres and Asylum Archive, Ireland (2014) Resistance 2014. References: [1] The Tralee DP centre features on the current (2017) ‘welcome’ home page of the RIA (Reception and Integration Agency) website. [2] Fanning, B. and Veale, A. (2001) Beyond the Pale: Asylum Seeking Children and Social Inclusion in Ireland. Dublin: Irish Refugee Council and Combat Poverty Agency, July. Download here. [3] Irish Government Department of Justice and Equality/An Roinn Dli Agus Cirt Agus Comhionannais (2015) Working Group on the Protection Process: the McMahon Report, Dublin, June. [4] Irish Refugee Council (2013) Direct Provision: Framing an alternative reception system for people seeking international protection. Dublin: Irish Refugee Council. [5] O’Reilly Z. (2012)  In between spaces’: experiences of asylum seekers in the ‘direct provision’ system in Ireland PhD. Departments of Geography and Media, Faculty of Social Sciences, National University of Ireland (NUI) Maynooth, October. [6] A Hundred Thousand UnWelcomes. Lucky Khambule speaks about Direct Provision on YouTube, published 21 November 2016.

Grande Synthe and Calais: July eyewitness report and appeal for support

Grande Synthe and Calais, July 2016

As Caroline and I prepare for our latest trip, the news from Calais is pretty dire – few volunteers are at the warehouse and cold food distribution has had to be suspended because of a lack of funds, donations and people. Fortunately Sheffield Donations for Refugees have raised a tidy sum, and we receive donations and help from people through Unite, family and friends, for which we are very grateful. We bulk buy lots of food, as this seems to be the greatest need at the moment and once again Nico’s car is thoroughly rammed with donations.

Driving to and around Calais has become second nature now, we get to the warehouse in good time and unload. We arrange to meet with other volunteers next morning to go to the Medecins Sans Frontieres camp in Grande Synthe near Dunkirk. We’re glad to go there again, when we last visited in March the camp had only been set up a couple of weeks, and it will be good to see how things have progressed.

The Refugee Information Bus is on site, which gives advice and legal support to refugees in camp. We’ve brought them ten copies of the Right to Remain toolkit which have just been published, and stop for a chat. Unfortunately many refugees don’t want to hear the facts about how hard it will be for them if they make it to the UK and the intricacies of the asylum system, it’s a tough message to get across.

To save costs we’re staying on a campsite this time. Somehow we make ourselves understood to the campsite owner, despite our abysmal French, and soon we are putting our tent up in a gale. We decide to eat there tonight, even though the menu consists of two steak dishes and Caroline is vegetarian. The campsite owner offers to make up a salad for her, which turns out to be quite disgusting, then over-charges a scandalous amount for the meal. Definitely need to brush up on expressions of outrage in French if we’re coming here again.

Next morning we pack up the car with the items for distribution in Grande Synthe. Camp security is now organised by central rather than local government, and it’s a change for the worse. Previously the security was unobtrusive, but these guys seem to have modelled themselves on nightclub bouncers. They allow our vehicle in as it has boxes and bags for distribution but are refusing entry to other cars. One woman is there to collect furniture from the women and children’s centre to be moved elsewhere but they won’t let her on to get them, much to her frustration.

Our first job is the 12 o’clock men’s distribution, giving out items including socks, t-shirts and toiletries. The intention is to make it feel like a shopping experience with an element of choice, and there is much deliberation over sock selection. Two volunteers are outside advising what items are available, keeping an eye out for queue jumping, scuffles etc. But we’re not expecting any trouble, because we don’t have any shoes. Fights have broken out over shoes more than once – hardly surprising when people are walking around in sandals or in trainers with the backs broken down.

DistributionHuman rightsBarbers

There are more than enough of us so I go and help the woman who needs to shift stuff off site, but as soon as I get in the car a refugee approaches to ask when I am going back to the UK. I explain it will be on Monday, and he asks if I could take some things over for him. I’m not entirely clear what and why he wants to move things, but take his phone number and agree to visit his shelter later to discuss.

The women and children’s centre has really come on since our last visit in March, it’s now screened off from view. It has an electricity supply, enabling people to charge mobile phones and use other equipment; and a row of wood-burning stoves so that the women can come and cook meals. The volunteers there are having a meeting, discussing what activities would be appealing for the women – there is so little for people to do here. Suggestions include massage, weaving and sewing sessions, though these are all dependent on having volunteers with the right skills and equipment. A boy of about 12 with very good English is translating the ideas to some of the women to get their approval.

Women's centre

The meeting over, as we put the chairs and table that need to go off site into the car, the refugee who wants me to take stuff to the UK comes by again, and turns out to be the father of the boy doing the translating; I am also introduced to his mother and younger siblings. In the car park we transfer the furniture to another vehicle, and then the over-officious security refuse to let the car back on site, although they can plainly see it is still loaded with items for the 3 pm distribution. I have to go and get the lead volunteer, but even then they refuse entry – there is no rhyme or reason to the rules, which appear to have changed since this morning. Eventually they let us on but tell us we must be off site again in three minutes.  But they have no real interest in enforcing this, so we take our time unloading for the afternoon distribution.

We go for lunch, which is surprisingly tasty considering it consists only of rice and chickpeas, then Caroline and I go to visit the refugee family.  We are warmly welcomed to their shelter, and given tea and biscuits while they explain the situation. The father has already lived and worked in the UK and has permission to stay, but can’t meet the financial requirement to get visas for his family.  Clearly there is a cunning plan to get the family over, but whatever it is it won’t allow them to carry much luggage. We agree to take a large bag of the family’s clothes and shoes and a pushchair with us to drop off with their friend in England, then head off for the 3 pm distribution, which goes smoothly.

Loaded up with the family’s gear, we go back to the warehouse. We’re not that hungry but grab a bit of lentil curry anyway in case we don’t get another chance, because we’re definitely not eating at the campsite again. We do decide to have one drink there before heading out to another bar though, which also proves to be a mistake – when the campsite owner pours us two glasses of white wine, Caroline is appalled to see a dead bluebottle float to the top of one. The replacements he is forced to provide are warm and we make a mental note not to drink here again either.

At the other bar there is a hog roast, so Caroline is doomed to salad again, even the crudites are secreting bits of ham and fish. We manage a stilted conversation with some French holidaymakers, though it’s not until the end of the evening that one of them asks why we are there. He’s not very impressed when we explain what we are doing, though as guests we are appeasing – we understand that it is a difficult situation for French people in Calais as well, and it is a UK problem. He complains that the refugees get everything for free – clothes and food – which is partly true, but we explain that the clothes are old and the food is limited. Regardless it has been a pleasant enough evening and we decide to return there for the Euro 16 final the following evening.

We get to the warehouse early on Sunday – possibly a mistake as we are then lumbered with all the washing up from the previous day. I bump into one of the volunteers from the Calais women and children’s bus on our May trip, it’s her day off today and she needs another volunteer there, so our plans for the day are sorted.

At the bus the first thing we notice – they’re hard to avoid – are the dead rats littering the place, which look quite fresh except where they’ve been run over. At first we are concerned that there is some new disease around causing them to die, but later we are told that blocks of rat poison have been placed around the camp, so more likely they have eaten the poison and died on the way back to their nest in a sandy pit opposite the bus. Trying to ignore them, we put the day’s items for distribution on to the bus. It has been moved out a bit from the fence to the container area, to create a play area complete with a garden, shed, caravan and gazebo.

Today is cinema day and children start to arrive to watch Space Jam, while women come to collect the limited items we have – mainly baby wipes and nappies – and to sit down and chat for a while. Some of the women I met on my last visit, there has been little change for them in the meanwhile. An air conditioning unit and solar panels to power it have been provided, but no-one has had the time or knowledge to get them working, so as an interim measure the bus windows upstairs have been lined with reflective material and it’s more bearable in the heat.

Through her work Caroline has learnt a few words of Farsi and Arabic which she uses to good effect in communicating with the women. As lunchtime approaches I get a message asking if I could give a lift to a volunteer who needs to work out a money transfer with a refugee he is helping so I go back to the warehouse, and catch an impromptu drumming performance by a very young volunteer on a drum kit that was randomly donated the previous day.


Aidan on drums

While I’m gone lunch arrives on the bus, provided by the warehouse kitchen, which, for the first time I’m aware of, turns out to be a meat dish. Caroline’s on the salad again.

The money transfer mission ends up aborted and I go back out to the bus. The baby wipes have run out, a woman who needs some is angry because there are never any left when she comes to get some. We calm her down by telling her to come back in an hour and I go to get more from the warehouse. As I leave I’m waylaid by two Ethiopian women – could I take them to the train station? It’s not on the way but I know from experience it will take them an hour to walk there so I agree. They are getting the train to one of the other French camps – they’ve been there before, and come back to the Jungle, but are now returning. There seems to be quite a lot of camp hopping going on and we’re not sure why – sometimes to visit other family members, or perhaps just to relieve the boredom.

I’ve been in and out of camp all day but each time the CRS insist on seeing my vehicle pass and driving licence and looking in the back of the car before waving me in reluctantly. Back on the bus, the woman gets her wipes and advice to come earlier in the future. A man comes to the bus door to say that his wife has just given birth, she needs clothes for the baby. We don’t have any here, and again he starts to get angry, but we make a note of his name and promise to bring what she needs the next day. Life here is a continual cycle of frustration and waiting.

Of course we are fortunate enough to be able to leave, and at the end of the day we decide to go into Calais to the Family Pub, catch the end of the Wimbledon final and get an early meal that doesn’t consist of salad. Then it’s back to the campsite and out to the bar for the football, which is of course full of folk with French flags painted on their faces singing the Marseillaise. The guy from the previous night asks us if we have been to the Jungle today – were the refugees aggressive, because they always seem to be aggressive when the French news cameras are there? We tell him about our day and show him the pictures we have taken – the sight of those dead rats perhaps gives him a bit of a different perspective, and his aunt who is with him thinks we are doing a good thing. The mood is more downbeat however once France lose the match and we make a quick exit at the end.


After a poor night’s sleep due to gales battering the tent, we pack up then meet the guy from the Refugee Information Bus and continue our conversation about how to get useful information across to residents of the camp. Perhaps we can get refugees who have settled in Sheffield to come out and advise in appropriate languages; start to link in more effectively with the growing networks for refugee support in the UK. Plenty of food for thought once we are back home.

After an interminable wait for the campsite owner to get over his hangover and return my passport, we drop off a volunteer at the women and children’s bus then spend our last couple of hours at the warehouse making up food parcels, before heading for the ferry and home. On our way we drop off the refugee family’s belongings with their friend and text to say we hope to see them in the UK – we get a text back saying “We hope so too”.

We are still waiting to hear if they have made it. And waiting to find out what the implications of Brexit will be on the camp and border – if the Mayor of Calais has her way, the camp will soon be closed down. Waiting for politicians to stop backstabbing in order to save their careers and put forward some ideas for handling the migration crisis (there are honourable exceptions of course). But at least we don’t have to wait to know whether we will ever see our families again, or have a proper home again. And we have plenty to do, trying to ensure that aid and volunteers keep flowing to Calais, Dunkirk and beyond, and building the networks to support refugees here in the UK.


Thanks to Fran for this report and for the pics

You can read accounts of previous solidarity trips to Calais and Grande Synthe camps here

You can donate to Calais and Grande Synthe here

Your support is needed more than ever

The Business of Migration

For corporations like G4S, Serco, Capita and Mitie the suffering of refugees is part of their “asylum markets”. The biggest ever single Home Office contract – the disastrous COMPASS asylum housing contract –  is up for renewal next year. On the eve of an inquiry into its many failings, John Grayson looks at how global business is licking its lips at the money-making opportunities in housing, monitoring, detaining and deporting people escaping persecution.


John Grayson, BBC TV Inside Out programme March 2015

“The man in the family said they had bed bugs everywhere in the house.” A volunteer in Barnsley, in the north of England, was telling me about conditions in a house provided to asylum seekers by G4S, the world’s biggest security company.

The volunteer went on: “The man spoke only a little English but he was really worried about the house and his young wife Jemma (not her real name) and her elderly 76-year-old mother living with the bugs. His mother was frail and slept on the settee or sat on the carpet — with the insects. They had complained to G4S ten days before, and the local G4S worker said they would replace the carpet, but of course the bugs were still around.”

So the volunteer complained to G4S: “More than two weeks after the family had gone to them, a G4S team arrived — and took photographs! They said they would return in another ten days.”

Are bed bugs such a problem? The volunteer explained: “Bed bugs are a public health risk and bites can directly affect the health of a frail elderly woman. I am getting back on to G4S.”

I visited the family myself a few days after that. G4S had at last replaced the carpet, settee, and all the beds in the downstairs flat. Jemma told me: “We have been living with the bugs since December — the flat is now clean, and nice again.”

Welcome to Britain

Over the past few months I have spoken with asylum seeker families in G4S housing in South Yorkshire, who have spent months in homes infested with mice, endured months without a cooker, months with ceiling leaks, and months with water flooding in from front and back doors. I’ve met a mother who is forced to share a bed in a tiny room with her eight-year-old son. This is what the UK government’s ‘reception policy’ welcoming refugees looks like.

Shared bed for woman and son, aged 8

Earlier this year the BBC and The Times reported shocking allegations about another asylum housing provider, Orchard & Shipman, a Berkshire-based property company working under contract to the outsourcing giant Serco in Glasgow.

Asylum seeker tenants have been “kept in dirty and dangerous homes”, the Times reported on 18 February. They had “felt threatened and humiliated”. The allegations include the case of a mother and baby housed in a cockroach-infested property in Glasgow”. The newspaper reports O&S “staff spraying air fresheners at asylum seekers, while laughing and pinching their noses, and an allegation of a man being housed in a property with blood-spattered walls and no lock on the front door.”

openDemocracy contacted Orchard & Simpson for comment. “We contracturally can’t say anything — it would have to go through Serco,” said a spokesman.

Serco told the BBC: “All property is cleaned prior to residents moving in and checked for compliance with the Home Office requirements.

“Every property is also inspected weekly and both Serco and the Home Office conduct random inspections covering at least 20% of all properties every month.

“Orchard & Shipman staff are expected to be courteous and respectful at all times.

“If any resident is unhappy with the behaviour of staff there is a complaints procedure that residents are briefed on. All complaints are fully investigated and appropriate action taken if required.”

The charity Freedom from Torture recently reported that conditions in asylum housing had not improved since 2013:

“Torture survivors receiving therapy at our centres continue to report unacceptable treatment. This includes allegations of being locked out of their homes, belongings going missing during housing inspections, sexual harassment and physical aggression. In one case, a torture survivor said a contractor even entered their bedroom while they were sleeping.”

A concrete floor in a freight shed

We now know, thanks to a report by Peter Clarke, the chief inspector of prisons, that in the early autumn of 2015 when people made it across the Channel they were detained in Longport freight shed near the Eurotunnel terminus. The Report states that

“Conditions were wholly unacceptable. Detainees were held overnight and/or for several hours with no clean or dry clothes, no food or hot drinks, and nowhere to sleep other than on a concrete floor. Many had had long and arduous journeys before arrival at Longport.

Some detainees had not eaten for very long periods and many were hungry. Detainees gestured to us that they were hungry by pointing to their open mouths.

Detainees arrived with scabies, headaches and other conditions related to dehydration, such as diarrhoea. However, toilet and washing facilities were inadequate and blankets were not washed after each use, presenting obvious health risks. From 31 August to 3 October 2015, a total of 569 detainees were held, including 90 children, most of them unaccompanied. The average length of detention was just under four hours… However, the longest single period of detention was for 21 hours 25 minutes and was of a child…The detention of women and minors in this environment created safeguarding concerns.”

The company responsible for security at this holding centre is a Capita company Tascor working as a contractor for the UK Home Office. Capita are the people who last year tagged an asylum seeker woman in Barnsley G4S housing. They’ve been heavily involved in the Home Office’s ‘hostile environment’ project, texting migrants — and political activists who are longstanding British citizens — telling them to “Go Home” .

According to the industry portal “Capita leads the ranking of the British government’s biggest suppliers of the year 2015 with $14.5bn in sales to the UK government.”

A thriving business, or not?

Asylum detention and reception centres, and housing, are now routinely sold and resold by corporations and companies totally financed from European taxpayers. The Swiss company ORS Service and its reception centres, camps and military bunkers in Switzerland, Austria and Germany have been sold three times since 2005 to private equity companies.

Equistone Partners Europe Ltd, a London-based private equity firm linked to Barclay’s Bank that manages $4 billion of funds, bought the business for an undisclosed sum in 2013, touting the acquisition in their annual report as a new opportunity with “promising organic and acquisitive growth potential”.

Dead mouse, G4S asylum housing, Sheffield 29 March 2016

In the UK, security companies G4S and Serco, and the private housing company Clearsprings are currently negotiating with the UK Home Office to extend their hold on the £620 million COMPASS asylum housing contract they acquired in 2012 – the largest ever private contract given by the Home Office. They are doing this in a growing climate of media and public hostility to the creation of ‘markets’ in sectors of care and protection which have traditionally been the responsibility of government.

In rare front page coverage of an under-reported scandal, G4S and its subcontractor Jomast was accused of creating “apartheid on streets of Britain” by painting asylum seekers’ doors red and thus identifying them and leaving them open to attacks.

G4S, struck by a BBC Panorama that broadcast apparent bullying, verbal abuse and physical assault by its workers in a child prison — Medway Secure Training Centre – has decided to sell its government contracts.

Recent reports in the FT suggest that outsourcers running UK immigration centres are losing money. Rupert Soames, CEO of Serco and grandson of Winston Churchill, argued on Radio 4’s The Bottom Line in June 2015 that Serco was set to “lose £115m over the next five years” on their share of the COMPASS contracts, and that they had “raised £700m from shareholders to meet these costs”. When John Whitwam, G4S head of COMPASS and their managing director of immigration and borders, answered questions at the Home Affairs Committee hearing on the ‘red doors’ on the 26 January, he also claimed that G4S was losing money on its asylum housing saying: “This is a loss making contract…no profits at all.”

So who is making money out of the UK’s ‘reception’ policies?

Mitie (Management Incentive Through Investment Equity) claims to be “the largest single private sector provider of immigration detention services to the Home Office, less than three years after entering the market”, and it now manages the controversial Harmondsworth and Colnbrook immigration detention centres. In August 2015 MITIE reported an increase in annual profits which the company attributed to the new contracts. The Home Office is handing Mitie £180 million for an eight-year contract to run these centres.

Mitie’s Harmondsworth detention centre, the largest detention centre in Europe, was visited by Peter Clarke the UK prisons inspector in September 2015. He found that

“Many men were held for short periods but well over half were detained in the centre for over a month and some for very long periods. Eighteen detainees had been held for over a year and one man had been detained on separate occasions adding up to a total of five years.……Some of the newer accommodation was dirty and run down but the condition of some parts of the older units was among the worst in the detention estate; many toilets and showers were in a seriously insanitary condition and many rooms were overcrowded and poorly ventilated. ……Many rooms designed for two were being used for three detainees and some for four, with insufficient furniture. ……Staff told us that there had been insufficient clothing available and some detainees were in ill-fitting clothes; shoes had been in short supply for several weeks and some detainees had only flip-flops.”

In October 2015, shortly after accepting a Conservative peerage from David Cameron, Mitie CEO Ruby McGregor-Smith gave an interview to the Financial Times. She fondly recalled her years at Serco, and the early 1990s when Margaret Thatcher handed public contracts to commercial contractors. “It was a young industry,” McGregor-Smith told the FT. “It was exciting; there was a sense of limitless potential.”

The newspaper reported that McGregor-Smith took £1.5m a year — “more than 100 times the earnings of many of her 70,000 cleaners, carers and security guards, a lot of whom are on the minimum wage”. She took umbrage at the FT reporter’s interest in that.

Ruby McGregor-Smith, chief executive, Mitie (Ed Robinson/OneRedEye for Mitie)

Rupert Soames of Serco claims that privatisation is profitable. In June 2015 he told Radio 4’s The Bottom Line that the outsourcing market “makes Britain now to public service provision what Silicon Valley is to IT”.

In November 2014 Serco were given a further eight years and £70 million by the Home Office to renew their contract to manage Yarl’s Wood detention centre in Bedfordshire despite allegations about abuse, sexual exploitation, rape and self-harm.

In March 2015, following revelations of abuse and neglect of women at Yarl’s Wood, the Labour Party’s then shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper declared: “This is state-sanctioned abuse of women on the home secretary’s watch and it needs to end now.”

The Home Office commissioned Stephen Shaw, a former Prisons & Probation Ombudsman, to lead a Review into the Welfare in Detention of Vulnerable Persons and his report was published in January 2016. Shaw visited the family detention centre known as CEDARS, that is run for the government by G4S and the children’s charity Barnardo’s, and reported: “My overriding impression was of a misdirection of public money that could be better used for other purposes. The centre has had no residents on either of the two occasions I have visited.”

He wrote: “the cost per family must be many tens of thousands of pounds, yet up to half are actually released rather than being removed.”

He went on: “The current use of the centre is simply unacceptable at a time of financial austerity,” and urged its closure or change of use.

The Home Affairs Committee supported Shaw’s call in its report on 4 March calling the level of spending per detainee “outrageous and unsustainable.”

In the ‘low security’ markets of asylum housing the Times reckons that G4S contractor Jomast — the company that painted asylum seeker doors red — will trouser £8 million of public funds over the next year for housing 2,646 asylum seekers. Stuart Monk, head of the family firm, has a personal fortune of £175 million. When Monk appeared before the parliamentary Home Affairs Committee on 21 January he defended his business, saying that he was supplying a “product suitable for an asylum seeker”.

Stuart Monk of Jomast, Home Affairs Committee, January 2016

Two weeks later, on 9 February, the committee grilled James Vyvyan-Robinson, managing director of Clearsprings, a company which entered the asylum housing business with its partner Reliance Security in 2012 with a £75 million contract for the south of the UK and Wales.

Clearsprings forced asylum seekers to wear red wristbands to get food in its centre in Cardiff. Vyvyan-Robinson admitted that his annual salary was over £200,000 despite the ‘small amount’ (a two to three per cent return he claimed) the company made on the contracts. Graham King, the founder and chairman of Clearsprings, had taken £960,000 from the company in the last financial year. Vyvyan-Robinson had been with Clearsprings for ten years, before which he served as director of business development for Group4 Securicor (G4S), then Reliance Security.

Chukka Umunna, MP for Streatham, at the committee hearings, observed that many people would see asylum contracts as a “bit of a racket”.

Scrutiny and transparency

The Home Office revealed to the Financial Times late last year that it was negotiating with G4S, Serco and Clearsprings about the option to extend the COMPASS contract for asylum housing for at least two years beyond 2017.

These negotiations are taking place behind firmly closed doors. On 20 January SNP Member of Parliament  Stuart McDonald raised the issue of scrutiny, asking: “When will a decision need to be made into the extension of these contracts and what opportunities will there be for parliamentarians to scrutinise and input into that decision?”. (20 Jan 2016 : Column 1429 Hansard)

The immigration minister James Brokenshire simply ignored the question.

For months McDonald has been calling for an Inquiry into the COMPASS contracts by the Home Affairs Committee of which he is a member. Glasgow and Sheffield City Councils and the Scottish Refugee Council have all called for an inquiry. SNP members signed an ‘early day motion’ (EDM) in the Westminster parliament on 25 February to this effect.

When the Times exposed Jomast’s red doors policy on 20 January it was Brokenshire who ordered an  “an urgent audit” of Jomast’s properties in Middlesbrough.

Red doors and whitewash

According to the Home Office audit report, the inspection team “discussed incidents of anti-social behaviour and verbal and physical abuse with approximately 60 asylum seekers”. But they accepted the evidence of multimillionaire property develop Stuart Monk, concluding: “It was not a deliberate policy for asylum seeker accommodation to be identifiable by the colour of the doors. This was a consequence of the sub-contractor Jomast painting the doors of many of their properties red, a practice going back 20 years, according to the evidence which Stuart Monk the Owner and Managing Director of Jomast gave to the Home Affairs Select Committee on 26 January.”

Never mind that the chair of the Home Affairs committee Keith Vaz had described Stuart Monk’s evidence to the committee as “unsatisfactory”.

The audit was not an audit of tenants’ repairs and property complaints about the Jomast Middlesbrough asylum housing stock as one might expect. After all, Stuart Monk of Jomast told the Home Affairs Committee when asked to send the complaints to the Committee “There’ll be a lot, there’ll be an enormous number.”  [video here: 5.31pm to 5.33pm]

Instead, a Home Office team inspected 78 properties over six days and audited paperwork from previous Home Office and Jomast planned inspections. How well did Jomast perform in responding to the ‘enormous number’ of complaints from tenants? We don’t know.

Brokenshire used his Home Office ‘red doors’ audit to suggest more generally that the contractors for COMPASS were ‘on track’. They were now being fined much less for providing unfit properties under the contract. Only £158,000 in 2014/15 compared with £5.6 m in 2012/13. In fact, wherever activists monitor asylum housing they find a shocking world of rats, and asbestos, with tenants being ridiculed and punished by G4S and Serco staff.

The Home Affairs Committee itself issued a report on the ‘red doors’ and ‘red wristbands’ on 4 March that contradicted the conclusions from the audit. It concluded that the: “delivery of the contract has been mostly unsatisfactory to date, with these episodes highlighting flaws in accountability and oversight of the contracts, and a failure to ensure that the way asylum seekers are treated and housed meets basic standards.”The HAC was clear in its report on 4 March that they plan to investigate “the quality of accommodation provided in all parts of the UK under the COMPASS contract.”

Last month Keith Vaz announced that the Home Affairs Committee would indeed start a full inquiry after visiting the “horrific” housing provided by Serco’s contractor Orchard & Shipman in Glasgow.

“Before the Home Secretary signs the next contract, the committee will have things to say,” Vaz told the BBC.

“So we will conclude our inquiry in plenty of time for the Home Secretary to be able to reflect on it before she signs the new contracts.”


This article was originally published at Open Democracy


As part of our input into the inquiry into the COMPASS asylum housing contracts SYMAAG is organising two evidence-gathering sessions on May 21st in Sheffield and Barnsley. If you want to contribute (details will be anonymised) get in touch with us or come along to one of the sessions on May 21st. Venue and time will be on our Events page.

Back to Calais, a 2-way aid trip

We had to leave a lot of stuff behind in Sheffield on our November trip to Calais, including 70 food parcels that were lovingly made up by the good people of Pitsmoor. Post-Christmas there have been appeals for more food donations for the camp and we know we have to get back over there. Finally, after a ridiculous battle with the courier company who say they have delivered Stuart’s passport but haven’t, we are no longer sans papiers and ready to go.

This will be a quick weekend trip to deliver aid and drop off a few specific items in the Jungle, such as books in relevant languages donated by Burngreave Library, and ESOL materials collated by a neighbour who teaches English to refugees. Stuart’s friend Emilie, who is French but living in Sheffield, is keen to join us. Bearing in mind the lessons of our last visit, we sort through the many donations we have received, ensuring everything is labelled with contents and sizes and ruthlessly stripping out anything that isn’t priority. I pick up the hire van on Friday afternoon and shift the heavy trays of food parcels for what feels like the umpteenth time, promising myself that someone else can unload them at the other end.

I’m looking forward to going back to the Jungle as our last visit was so inspirational, but there’s a bit of trepidation as well. Since Bumble the camper van was torched at the end of our last trip, volunteers staying at the youth hostel have had their tyres slashed, and some have been assaulted. Racists have attacked refugees near the camp while the police stand by, a couple of Syrians have been stabbed. It seems increasingly likely that the van was burnt out by fascists, so we book ourselves a cheap hotel rather than go back to the hostel.

We set off at 7am on Saturday morning and make good time. Amazing how much difference it makes to be in a spanking new vehicle, and not to have to stop every half hour or so to reapply gaffer tape to the driver’s side window. We make a leisurely stop at the services, and discuss the news we have just learned – Jeremy Corbyn is supposed to be visiting Calais today, at the same time as permission has been given for a refugee demonstration from the camp to the centre of Calais. Our original plan was to drive straight to the warehouse to drop off the aid on Saturday, then spend the day in the Jungle on Sunday before driving back, but when we make it onto Eurotunnel earlier than planned and realise that our hotel is only five minutes walk away from the site of the refugee rally, the decision is made for us.

We park up at the hotel and head off in the general direction of the camp. Tipped off by the sight of police vans, we soon see the demonstration heading towards us.

It’s fantastic, bigger than I expected (the press report 2000, which is perhaps a little conservative). About half and half refugees and supporters from all over Europe. The atmosphere of course has defiance and anger within it, but also all the elements of resilience, pride and positivity that so struck me on our first visit. It’s exhilarating to watch and join in, surprisingly pleasant to have only a hazy idea of what the chants or songs are about, and refreshing to be on a demo where I don’t recognise anyone. There’s music and dancing and sit-downs, culminating in Place D’Armes.


In the square there is a small platform where people are making speeches that can’t be heard very well even if you understand the language. We chat to various refugees – whenever we say we are from the UK we get smiles and handshakes and questions for David Cameron. There is a fond illusion amongst many refugees that Cameron is a reasonable man who must surely see that the border is ridiculous, they are good people, why does he not understand? We don’t want to destroy their hope, and make promises to keep fighting for their right to join their families in the UK.

We’re mulling over whether to leave and get to the warehouse before evening when there is a flurry of activity and everyone seems to be heading for the opposite side of the square. Here there is another small platform and more incomprehensible speeches, then the crowd head off again, towards the port. We’re not really sure what’s going on but start to follow. I get briefly distracted by a conversation with an Iraqi guy, and then cannot see Stuart and Emilie, so hang around a bit before catching up with the tail end of this new development. We make our way closer to the port where a ferry is in dock, through two portions of fencing that have clearly been cut down. Ahead I can see people running in a bizarre crisscross towards the ferry, as we get nearer I see they are crossing a tiny bridge.

I ask someone what’s happening? She shrugs French-style, “They are trying to get on the ship.” From the rear this is clearly a doomed enterprise – there’s no way that ship is going to sail even if the refugees manage to board it – but I follow just to see where it will lead. By the time we reach the bridge a couple of CRS (French riot police) vans have turned up, but are still waiting for reinforcements. They actively encourage people to jump the next barrier and head into the port. At that point I’m thinking, if they want us to go forward it can’t be a good thing, and immediately afterwards CRS vans start to arrive in force.

I posted this video on Facebook later that night. On closer inspection it doesn’t show what I thought it did, the CRS telling people to jump the barrier; once the reinforcements arrived they discouraged them; but shortly before they were “come right in” and even helping people over.


Reconvening at the hotel with Stuart and Emilie (who were ahead of me it turned out), they explain that once the protesters had got into a relatively enclosed area in the port, the CRS attempted to tear gas everyone. Stuart – who’s been around – had never seen so much tear gas, but it was not very effective in the wind. A group of refugees and No Borders campaigners did make it on to the lower deck of the ferry, but by then the doors to other parts of the ship had been locked so no chance to stow away.

We head to the pub to meet up with other volunteers, old friends and new. The rumour mill is in full force, 300 stormed the ship, the CRS are bent on revenge, all hell could break loose. And more stories about fascist activity – volunteer vehicles have been attacked not only at the youth hostel, but at the warehouse and the hotel where we are staying. It seems the safest place to park a volunteer van is in the Jungle itself.

Sunday morning we’re checking out the news, and of course the Daily Mail have got the full story. According to the Mail, protesters “broke through police lines” to storm the port and the ferry. Except there were no police lines till after the event; although the CRS were out in force on sections of the march, in the square they were few and far between, mainly hanging out by the Charles de Gaulle statue (it got defaced anyway). The sprint to the ferry caught them totally on the hop. The Mayor of Calais is sulking, “We let them protest and see what happens”. Hmm, 50 protesters making it on to the lower deck of the ferry and waving a bit was symbolically significant, but they were hardly posing a threat. However Emilie’s mum tells her the national French news portrayed the CRS in a poor light and Jeremy Corbyn’s sympathetic visit to the camp is also getting good coverage in the British press.

The van is untouched and we set off to the warehouse. It’s changed a lot since our last visit. “The mountain” of clothes donations is no more, the place is looking far more organised and has separate dropping off points for clothes, equipment and food. There are portaloos! The food area has a station for making up food parcels and a kitchen where massive meals of the day are being cooked to go out to the kitchens in the camp. The guy overseeing this area asks tentatively about the content of our food parcels, we assure him they are made up according to the latest specifications and he breathes a sigh of relief that he won’t have to undo them all to take out inappropriate items. As well as the food parcels we’ve brought bulk buys of tinned and fresh food, . I fulfil my promise to myself and have a brew while overseeing the unloading.

Now we have an empty van and almost immediately we are commandeered to fulfil a mercy mission. A group of volunteers have promised a decent mattress to an Iraqi family with four kids, they have a shelter but nothing to sleep on. We squish several mattresses and volunteers into the van. It’s a tough call between Stuart’s navigation skills and the volunteer’s satnav, but Stuart ends up in the back.


The usual route into the Jungle is blocked off by CRS, there are more police than usual in evidence, so we take a circuitous path in but pull up next to the Ashram kitchen, near to the Iraqi family’s hut. The father turns up with his kids, delighted to get the mattress. We also have a few random items with us to give out, so the kids get a baseball glove and ball and a yoyo.

The Jungle itself has changed. There is now an abundance of the wooden-framed shelters covered with tarpaulin, more of these than tents. While they don’t keep the cold out they are much sturdier and resistant to the elements than tents are (the weather is mild today though, a relief after the horrendous conditions in November). There are more water stations and toilets, new structures such as a kids play area, and clearly defined waste areas. We know a clean-up and sanitation crew have been out this weekend including a minibus from Sheffield, they have been doing a brilliant job.

Stuart is in conversation with some Afghan guys while Emilie and I give another mattress to a refugee, who brings us cups of mint tea as a thank you. We go to to deliver the ESOL materials; there are now two schools, one for adults and one for children. There are regular English classes held in both and a range of other classes for the kids. Solar panels have been installed outside so there is now a power supply, and plans to get computers in.

In the rucksack underneath the ESOL materials is the Soviet hat, complete with hammer and sickle, that was amongst the donations that came from the Barnsley Miners Hall. We offer it to the Afghan guys, who see the funny side! They take turns wearing it for a bit before ripping the badge off (which they donate back to Stuart), and strike up a conversation about communist vs liberal democracy. As one of them astutely sums it up, in communist democracy the government makes the decisions, in liberal democracy the corporations make the decisions.20160124_124738

Emilie and I then go to give books, pens and notepads to Jungle Books, the library. This has also expanded with a new children’s section, and there are plans afoot to get a wifi connection. We are near the scene of my first Jungle experience, having to sort an ambulance for a young Eritrean woman who was struggling to walk. We happen upon her straight away and she greets us with a massive hug. Her leg is completely healed, she is cooking on an open wood fire and invites us to join her. She has moved into a slightly larger hut next door to her old one, and is proud to show it off.

We walk around the camp and come upon the new container section. Until a couple of weeks ago this was the Eritrean section of the camp, but the French government decided to bulldoze the area and put some containers in to house people instead. This prompted a huge refugee and volunteer action, to move the shelters that had been built to a different area of the camp before the bulldozers came in. The “homes” are bleak looking crates stacked on top of one another, and refugees have to check in and out through a biometric systems that requires five fingerprints. The area looks grim, completely unsuitable for families, and not surprisingly, is mostly shunned by the population of the Jungle. The graffiti artists have paid a visit though!

As well as graffiti (including the Banksy by the entrance to the camp) there are other bits of art and installations, many of them very amusing!

This is what continually impresses me about the people in the Jungle – the refusal to be victims or charity cases despite their many hardships, the determination to be recognised for the hard work, humanity and wit of the individuals and collective groups who are forced to live here.

By the container camp we talk with a Kuwaiti guy. He has been in the Jungle for five months, and like every single refugee we have this conversation with, he wants to come to the UK because his family are there. Once again we get broad smiles when we say where we are from, as he associates the UK with compassion and democracy; but his face drops a little when Emilie says she is French. Although there are lots of French volunteers on site who are helping out, his view of the country is inevitably coloured by the actions of the CRS who have regularly invaded the camp with tear gas and rubber bullets, and of the right-wingers who have attacked his friends when they have been into Calais. It feels cruel to explain that things would probably be just as bad if the camp was in the UK and that David Cameron is unlikely to be their salvation. We tell him we campaign in the UK for a new government, which he seems a bit unnerved by. In the home countries of refugees a change of government is usually the result of civil war or a coup. We leave him with the only message of hope we can give – good luck in making it over the border in whatever way he can manage, keep fighting, and we will keep doing our best to support them.

We grab a delicious and enormous meal at an Afghan restaurant then go to see if we can take anything back from the warehouse to the UK in the now empty van. Maybe we could take some of the unsuitable clothes and cash them in for 40p a kilo? But there’s a lorry coming in a few days to take these to Belgium, where they’ll get a better rate. They are more concerned to shift some of the inappropriate food that is constantly donated – stuff in glass jars, when it’s not safe to have glass on site; mountains of pasta, which is unfamiliar to most people in the camp and requires lots of water to cook; the pork products and baked beans. No-one wants to see food wasted, so I suggest taking it back for the food bank in Sheffield.20160124_164257

Three pallets of food are crammed into the van. It’s worth it just to see the expression on the face of the border guard when we tell her we are carrying food to poor people in Sheffield that has been donated by refugees in Calais. Obviously struggling to process this, she uses a torch to take a good look in the back, but finds no Persians lurking in the pasta. It’s a smooth journey home and the following morning all the food is delivered to the Burngreave food bank. There’s so much that the manager will share it around the other food banks in Sheffield. (Editor’s note: The Sheffield Star published a 2-page spread with the title “Supplies for French refugee camps handed back to food banks in city” on Friday 29th January, baffling bigoted contributors to its website)


The trip has again been a huge learning experience and it feels as if we have been away for much longer than a weekend. It’s heartening to read that Jeremy Corbyn has been arguing for long-term solutions to address the roots of the refugee crisis; for the unaccompanied children in Calais and Dunkirk to be allowed entry; and for more to be done to help those with relatives in the UK to reunite their families. Though as ever, the Ukip-type comments underneath these news articles are depressing – Corbyn is dismissed as “naive”, or it’s a French problem and nothing to do with us.

I cannot fathom the logic of creating a European fortress to keep people out when we are not under attack. Masses of resources are poured into increasing security and obsolete weapons systems, that could be diverted into settling people, making empty homes habitable, using the skills of refugees to develop our infrastructure. It’s not an easy solution – nothing about this situation is easy – but better to turn our energies into tackling the massive inequality that underlies so many problems and building a sustainable future, instead of trying to prop up the existing system that is so obviously, irretrievably broken.


by Fran Belbin


Thanks to Fran for this great write-up and photos, originally published on her blog, where you can see more pictures and videos of the trip.  And thanks for all of her work organising, loading and driving (including driving back this time).



Have you been inspired to go to Calais by this? We hope so. If so the information below will be useful. We plan to make regular trips from Sheffield  to Calais, sometimes with one vehicle, perhaps a small convoy. If you want to find out when we plan to go next email, leave a message via this website, follow @SYMAAG on Twitter or have a look at our Facebook page.




Calais Migrant Solidarity

l’Auberge des Migrants (French)

Facebook groups:

l’Auberge des Migrants (mainly English)

UK – Calais Solidarity

There are also lots of specialist groups linked to this group – e.g. for waste management, construction, firewood, food distribution

For Sheffield people:

Sheffield – Calais Solidarity

Sheffield drivers and passengers group

Fran pictured in the Sheffield Star's piece "Supplies for French refugee camps handed back to food banks in the city" Picture Dean Atkins

Fran pictured in the Sheffield Star’s piece “Supplies for French refugee camps handed back to food banks in the city” Picture Dean Atkins

“The refugees simply command respect” – eyewitness report from Calais


After reading about others making solidarity trips to the refugee camp in Calais, my friend and fellow Unite Community member Stuart and I decided to do our own visit, taking over a van load of donations and staying to volunteer for a few days.

We had fantastic support from people, raising sponsorship from Unite and lots of individuals, as well as donations of equipment and practical help making food parcels.  We also get lots of excellent advice when researching the trip through various Facebook groups and L’Auberge des Migrants, a French volunteer organisation.



We have to leave a lot of stuff behind as we are over the weight limit for my camper van, but eventually manage to set off at 6am one November morning with only the most essential donations.  It’s really windy and a dodgy window on the van causes some concern but is resolved by begging gaffer tape off lorry drivers in a lay-by.  We make it onto Eurotunnel only slightly late, the border police search the van when they hear we are volunteering, but only in a cursory way and are not unpleasant.

On arrival we spend an hour or so getting lost in Calais, but finally make it to the warehouse to unload.  It’s getting near knocking off time when we arrive but we get all the donations moved to the relevant part of the warehouse.  A visit to the toilets round the back – Glastonbury long drop style – reveals a few people staying in caravans, so we decide to park up there as well, ready to start work in the morning.


Reproduced by kind permission of the cartoonist Kate Evans from

Reproduced by kind permission of the cartoonist Kate Evans from

Part 1 – The Warehouse

Volunteers meet at the warehouse at 9am, and first order of the day is warm-up exercises and an introduction to how things work around the place.  The more long-standing volunteers are identifiable by orange hi-viz jackets, the rest of us are in yellow, but they are at pains to point out that there is no hierarchy, everyone is welcome to suggest improvements.

The majority of volunteers only stay for a short period, and today most of us are here for the first time.  We soon discover that it doesn’t take long to become a veteran – some orange jacketed people have been here for a grand total of one week.  It’s a good, co-operative atmosphere.  Snacks at break times and lunch are provided, everyone is made to feel welcome.

Inside the warehouse it seems pretty chaotic at first.  Most noticeable is the mountain of unsorted donations.


The mountain

Many, many donations arrive like this, not sorted or just split into men’s / women’s or similar – all of them end up in this pile.  Someone then has the tedious job of going through them all and separating into men’s trousers, men’s t-shirts, etc; followed by another round of sorting into small, medium and large sizes.  Same goes for shoes, coats…  All this takes up lots of space and time – it’s immediately obvious that loads of volunteer time would be freed up if this stuff was sorted in the UK by people who want to help but aren’t able to come to Calais.

Stuart and I are put on the “lucky bags” team, getting boxes of pre-sorted clothes and bagging them up to contain a jumper, t-shirts, socks, pants, hat, scarf and gloves, to be distributed to refugees in the camp.  At various points I also work on hygiene packs, made up of toothbrushes / toothpaste, razors and shaving foam, soap, shampoo and the like; and welcome packs including a sleeping bag, torch, clothes etc.  Again, all stuff that could be done in the UK freeing up valuable volunteer time.

lucky bags

Lucky bags

Then there are the items that are not fit to be worn, and the ridiculous stuff – the high heels, the dinner suit complete with protective cover, the improbable hats, the wine glasses, the empty unwashed marmalade jars.  Loads and loads of kids’ stuff is donated, far more than can be used by the number of children and babies in the camp.  I spend an hour or so at one point tipping items that have just arrived straight into “cash for clothes” bags – at least then a bit of money is raised, but it seems such a waste that people have filled vans with this stuff and spent money on petrol to bring it over.

On Thursday afternoon I’m trying to tidy up the area near the front of the warehouse that has got overwhelmed with random arrivals.  With a few of us on the case it gets done, and by the end of the day the place is looking a lot better.  It turns out that the fire in camp the week before had created some turmoil in the warehouse, with an urgent need to get donations distributed in camp to people who’ve lost everything in their shelter.  There can be lots of volunteers at weekends but less during the week, so it’s good to be back on top of things in time for the weekend rush.

By Friday I’m a one day veteran, and am able to be a bit more proactive as more and more people arrive, helping them unload and getting the donations to the right area.  I’m a bit embarrassed when one woman catches me “cash for clothesing” the stuff she’s just brought – but she takes it in her stride and understands she needs to focus on different items next time.

I feel like I’ve learnt loads that can be taken back to the UK through the warehouse work, and am pleased to have tried out a variety of jobs so know how it’s done when I get back.  But we’re keen to get down to the Jungle itself now – with all respect to the warehouse team, the people who supported our trip will want to hear about the refugees themselves rather than the volunteers supporting them. We start to frequently remind the orange jackets that we want to go on a distribution trip, and when the call finally comes early on Friday afternoon we drop what we’re doing in the warehouse and leap into action.


Reproduced with kind permission from Kate Evans.

Reproduced with kind permission from Kate Evans.

Part 2 – The Jungle

There are six of us in the distribution team and we’re first given a briefing on how it will work.  The driver will stay in his van, and once the back doors are opened two people stand on each side at the back, flanking the middle person who is giving out the packs to people in the line.  Without people on the flanks the refugees start to all crowd around the back of the van, it can get chaotic and some people start to take more than their fair share, it’s altogether more dignified if everything happens in an orderly way.

We drive quite a way into the camp before selecting a distribution point, so I have a chance to form some first impressions.  There is a main drag strung with lighting; restaurants and shops have been constructed using wooden frames and tarpaulins – some look better stocked than the shops near my home in Sheffield.  Behind and in between these there are a lot of tents but also quite a lot of small shacks, they too have been built using a wooden frame and tarp.  Lots of people are chatting away on mobiles and one guy is polishing his windows.  It’s all far more structured than I’d expected. Maybe it’s the association with those long drop toilets, but I’m actually reminded of Glastonbury – a rain-sodden mudbath of a Glastonbury, as although it’s dry now it’s been periodically lashing it down over the previous 24 hours.

We decide where to distribute and immediately some refugees come up to the van, calling out, “line, line” and getting into a queue.  Hearing this more refugees start to join the queue, we’ve got the back doors open and I’m handing out the lucky bags.  These all look pretty much the same so no-one’s trying to swap or holding out for a different item.  Everyone is good-natured – one boy of maybe 14 keeps trying to come back for another pack but we’ve got his number and turn him away with a smile and a joke.  When the packs run out some people are left disappointed but no-one gets cross.  The line seems to be self-policing and the whole thing takes less than 15 minutes.

Pleased that it’s gone so quickly, the driver suggests we have a look around for half an hour and everyone is up for it.  We go to park the van a little bit away from the Jungle then walk back in.

We visit a building called the information centre, which amongst other things gives out advice on asylum matters in the UK.  This is right up Stuart’s street, and straight away he gets pulled into conversation with the volunteers there about UK asylum law. The others head off to the nearby library, and I pop out shortly after them to make sure I can see where they’re going, the other side of the church.

Just as I’ve spotted them, two teenage boys approach me anxiously; they are trying to call an ambulance for a woman in a nearby shack, but have very little French or English. Her boyfriend has to help her into her trainer so she can hobble out to show me what is wrong, her leg is clearly giving her a lot of pain. I have a long garbled conversation on their phone with the ambulance operator in English, the upshot of which is that we need to get her to one of the entrances and call again with the correct street name.

Stuart has caught up with me by this time and is on the case checking we are doing the right thing, getting the street name and ringing the ambulance again as she makes her way slowly and painfully to the entrance, reluctantly leaning on her boyfriend and me when she needs to. This has all taken some time and we know the others will be worrying so Stuart goes off to explain, they’re coming out later on another distribution and will pick us up in an hour. The ambulance arrives and the Eritrean woman is driven off, her boyfriend having to trudge back into camp.

We go on a bit of a wander, check out the library and chat to the people volunteering there. I consider using the toilets but the couple I look in are as bad as the worst Glasto toilet you ever saw. We are frequently greeted by refugees with smiles and hellos and handshakes, beckoned into restaurants. A young woman asks us if we can get her a suitcase, she wants to leave this place and go to another country but she needs a suitcase. We explain we don’t have one, maybe she could ask when another distribution team comes in and she quickly abandons us, no use to her.

After an hour darkness is edging in so we call the driver. He’s back in camp and explains that they’re in the middle of a jumper distribution, but it’s getting a bit hairy and he wants to call a halt – he’ll pick us up at the entrance. Ten minutes later here’s his van – with several refugees on top of it, a few more clinging to the back and more following behind – “line, line!” He says he’ll pick us up a bit further away from the camp, some of his distribution crew are still in the jungle; Stuart and another volunteer go back to find them while I catch up with the van, now well out of camp, but with 30 or so refugees still around it. Everyone seems good-humoured – they don’t even want jumpers, they want shoes, they want coats, they want a lift to London, to Paris, maybe Italy?  We’re trying to stay jokey and light-hearted but it’s dark now and it all feels a bit intimidating, we’re relieved when the other volunteers finally show up, perform a slightly frantic synchronised leap into the van and scoot off.

Lots of us meet up later in the pub and exchange stories and thoughts, there’s been too much going on today to process it all for now, so it’s good to relax a bit and get to know some other folk. A pint of wine is cheaper than a pint of Stella, this is my kind of place!


Next morning my plan is to join the clean-up crew in the Jungle for the day, but after a bit of confusion (not because of the wine surely) the lift I grab is headed for the warehouse not the camp. I immediately volunteer for a distribution going out, now a two day veteran. It’s the van of jumpers from the night before, but now many people are in bed after being up all night trying to jump the trucks, so we can take a bit more time over it, ensuring people get the right size and a bit of choice. It’s blowing a gale and freezing cold with rain coming in.  Some of the refugees are wearing flimsy sandals but we have no shoes with us – one volunteer whips off his own socks to give to a young guy in just a pair of flipflops.

We hand out most of the jumpers then I search out the clean up crew. They’re working in a section where most tents have collapsed and been abandoned; every piece of rubbish that I pick up reveals another three.  It’s now started to piss it down and after half an hour I’m soaked and have made sod all impact.

Muttering vaguely about catching up later, I head off to see if the Eritrean woman from yesterday is back from hospital. Her boyfriend is worried, she’s not come back, he wants to go to the hospital to see her. I spend the next hour toing and froing, finding a medic who offers to drive him but doesn’t know the way, trying to find a map; her French speaking colleague offers to phone the hospital, so I go back to the boyfriend to get her name, but it’s not recognised by the hospital, back to get a date of birth (she’s 17), still not recognised and, defeated, back to the boyfriend to apologise, I cannot find anything out.  He is downcast but thanks me anyway.

I’m fed up at this failure and need to do something practical to keep going. The Ashram cafe has enough people helping out already, but a woman there hands me a bag full of tent pegs and a hammer.  Tents and tarps are flying about all over the place, many beyond repair and having to be abandoned. For the next few hours I’m roaming the camp helping people to fix what’s salvageable.

The weather is still filthy, even the more solidly built structures are affected, the roof is coming off the library, but many people are out working, rescuing tents, getting on with their building projects. I help out various people, too much wind and rain and not enough language in common to get into proper conversations, but plenty of handshakes and smiles and good to feel useful again. A group of Iraqi men are delighted to see a claw hammer, they use it to get the nails out of a pallet to re-use on the shack extension they are building. One of them who has better English turns out to be from Middlesbrough, here visiting family members.

If there is one big thing I take from this visit it is the determination and resourcefulness of the refugees throughout camp, who carry on working despite the weather, making use of whatever resources are to hand, creating order out of mayhem. Before the visit what kept me awake at night was worrying about facing up to the misery and desperation of the refugee crisis, but on the ground I can only admire the grit and ingenuity on display – if I were faced with their circumstances I think I’d be curled up in a ball whining, but they just get on with it, usually with a grin. The pep talks at the warehouse about how to respond to people in the Jungle are by the by once in camp – it’s not about volunteers bestowing dignity, the refugees simply command respect. If Cameron and his ilk only want people entering the UK who will bring skills and work their arses off, you really couldn’t get better than these guys.

Photo by A Gerrard

Photo by A Gerrard

In pub conversations with other volunteers, we reflect that the Jungle may actually be a step up for many  people there – in their home country they may well have been living in shacks or slums and in poverty – at least here they’re not being shot at or bombed. Others have come from better off circumstances, driven by war out of their professional roles and apartments, and of course I’ve only seen a fraction of what’s going on in camp, but just getting this far requires immense perseverance.

One encounter in particular makes my pre-visit white privilege angst seem a tad ridiculous. An Eritrean guy stops me for some pegs, I offer him the hammer but he says he lives too far away, that’s ok so we set off and on the way he explains his wife is pregnant, in between apologising for the distance.

We arrive at one of the little wooden-framed shacks and he sets to work with hammer and pegs to an adjoining tent, insisting I go inside to meet his wife. As he said she is pregnant, so has been afforded an actual mattress and decent blankets. She’s pinned more blankets to the walls and at one end of the narrow strip of floor space has set up a little table, on which are laid out her toiletries and comb (and a candle in a jar – eek). The carpet covering the rest of the floor is a most attractive Bradford City AFC sleeping bag.  I’m afraid my boots will besmirch it but she has a cardboard mat to protect it.  It’s proper cosy. We make some limited small talk, how many months pregnant, how many months in the camp, and she gives me a custard cream. She couldn’t be more gracious and hospitable.

The afternoon wears on, I haven’t planned a lift back anywhere and am a bit wary of it getting dark after the previous evening, so around 4 I decide that’s it for the day, return the hammer and head off. As I’m walking out the best thing happens – the Eritrean boyfriend comes running up, his girlfriend is home, and here she is, she’s had a night at the hospital and been dosed up with antibiotics, she looks loads better and we share a hug. As I leave I’m elated that I got to find out the ending to that little story.

While this high remains throughout the walk back to my van, which I’ve considerably under-estimated and takes an hour, I also get a reminder that the situation isn’t going to go away – 15 minutes out of camp a group of new arrivals stop me to ask for directions to the jungle. New people are arriving all the time, the camp has doubled in size over the last few months.

In the evening we meet volunteers who’ve been out to Dunkirk, where another camp is building up, composed mainly of Kurdish people. There is much less structure there, the stories really are of desperation and misery, of women and children drenched by the rain and not even a tent to shelter in. As in the Jungle there are no aid agencies on the ground, just the likes of us doing our amateur best to help out*.

I can’t pretend to represent the views of any refugees as the conversations I had were short and limited by the language barrier, but I have to make a couple of very obvious political points. Despite my earlier comparisons, the camp is nowhere near the size of Glastonbury. It’s a few thousand people, less than one for each town in the UK. And yes, of course more will come, especially as the bombs keep dropping; so there is absolutely no point playing the numbers game, the boundaries are constantly shifting . Open the borders across Europe and start working together to enable everyone to contribute to our society. I really can’t see any alternative – the current situation means refugees have no choices open to them, so for god’s sake let’s get on with the job of getting people settled and stop with the “not enough room” nonsense and anti-refugee rhetoric.

* Doctors of the World UK provide a clinic in the Calais camp and are amongst the refugee charities being supported by the Guardian’s 2015 Charity Appeal.

Reproduced by kind permission from Kate Evans

Reproduced by kind permission from Kate Evans


Part 3 – An explosive ending

So yes, then the van exploded. We didn’t see it, others did, we’re told it was loud, there was a fireball when the petrol tank blew, the firefighters were heroic; one woman was cowering in a stairwell expecting the shooting to start.

I later realise that the explosion must have taken place at the time we were chatting away in the pub with a guy I’d met earlier at the warehouse, where he’d taken an interest in the van, tightening up a loose light fitting, chastising me for not cleaning it, recommending a website for a replacement window. A guy called Boomer, as it happens.

We just arrive back to the charred remnants.

van 1

Most likely the fire was set by thieves breaking in and burning it down for the fun of it, though we can’t rule out more sinister motives.  But pointless to speculate, as the French police couldn’t be less interested.



We’re somewhat shell-shocked the morning after the van getting torched, and upset to find out that there has been a fire at the camp also, destroying 50 shelters. As usual this was probably caused by a candle. We get lots of support from other volunteers and a lift to the ferry; after some delay and form-filling because our passports have been burnt or stolen we’re on the ferry, and my partner has thankfully driven all the way to Dover to collect us on the other side.

Back in Sheffield I’m still processing everything and am distressed to read that the camp fire was in the Eritrean section; someone has posted on Facebook about a pregnant lady who has been made homeless, and I’m not sure if it’s the same lady who welcomed me into her home (have since found out it was a different pregnant lady, but no means of knowing whether the Eritrean people I met were affected by the fire). In this context the loss of the van feels like small beer, although the loss of our passports means we can’t go back to Calais as quickly as we’d like.

And we will definitely be going back. My circumstances won’t allow me to go for as long on each visit, but we can certainly do shorter trips and have the knowledge to make them as useful as possible.

Spreading the word here in the UK is also vital, building solidarity amongst our communities, getting practical advice out to those who visit Calais, and campaigning for political change.



Have you been inspired to go to Calais by this? We hope so. If so the information below will be useful. We plan to make regular trips from Sheffield  to Calais, sometimes with one vehicle, perhaps a small convoy. If you want to find out when we plan to go next email, leave a message via this website, follow @SYMAAG on Twitter or have a look at our Facebook page.


I’m not going to name all the brilliant volunteers we came across in Calais because I will inevitably forget someone, but what a great group of people, so pleased to have met you all.  Since we came home many are already busy raising more funds and planning to go back, so I hope we will meet again.

This page is really aimed at those who are thinking of going over to volunteer for the first time, with some thoughts on where your time is best placed and some practical tips.

Firstly, do research your trip properly.  There is loads of great advice available on the various Facebook groups dedicated to UK-Calais solidarity (all links on next page) – people there will answer any questions you have.  If you’re taking donations over please please please make sure it’s the right kind of stuff and is properly sorted.

If like me you are a novice at such things, I really recommend working with l’Auberge des Migrants who manage the warehouse.  The warehouse work isn’t particularly glamorous and it can be frustrating to be doing stuff that could be done in the UK, but it’s great for getting an understanding of how donations are used, meeting other people and for getting experienced people alongside you when you visit the Jungle itself.  They know how things work in camp and how to get donations to the people who need them most, as well as the general distributions.

If you have construction skills to offer, l’Auberge also focuses on construction work, building shelters and getting materials into the Jungle so that the refugees can work on their own projects.

If you have other skills, there are other groups doing specific work, e.g. medics, that you should be able to find details of by asking in the Facebook groups .  As a volunteer librarian, one of the things I am going to focus on is getting more books to the library, Jungle Books, especially bilingual dictionaries and ESOL learning materials, and books in the relevant languages (Arabic, Pashto, Amharic, Tigrinya, Farsi, Urdu).

If you don’t have much time and/or feel confident enough to go straight to the Jungle, make sure you are taking the right donations – there is already a huge waste management problem out there so don’t make it worse – and seek advice / think carefully about how you will distribute them.

Other general tips:

  • The youth hostel offers a reduced rate for volunteers after the first night, you need to quote the relevant name which you can get from l’Auberge des Migrants if you volunteer with them.
  • The hostel, warehouse and camp are not particularly close to each other, a few miles between each, so think about how you will get around.
  • I’m usually not bad at finding my way around when driving, but didn’t get my bearings in Calais at all!  Take a satnav if you can!
  • The Family Pub.  It’s a terrible name for a pub, but very welcoming to volunteers, decent mid-priced food and great for meeting other volunteers and sharing experiences at the end of day.
  • Try not to get your van burned down.


by Fran Belbin, first published on her blog







Calais Migrant Solidarity

l’Auberge des Migrants (French)

Facebook groups:

l’Auberge des Migrants (mainly English)

UK – Calais Solidarity

There are also lots of specialist groups linked to this group – e.g. for waste management, construction, firewood, food distribution

For Sheffield people:

Sheffield – Calais Solidarity

Sheffield drivers and passengers group



Thanks to Kate Evans (Twitter @cartoonkate) for her kind permission to reproduce some of her cartoon “Threads – the Calais cartoon”. You can see the whole thing in its full beauty here.

Thanks to all those people who made our trip possible.  Unite the Union NE/GEO/1(Sheffield East branch) which donated £1000, Unite Community South Yorkshire and many people who gave money. And time: someone had to fill 300 bags with portions of coriander, salt and turmeric.

Unless otherwise credited, photos are by Fran. And special thanks to her for doing most of the planning, loading and all of the driving to Calais. At least you didn’t have to drive back. RIP Bimble the camper van.