Blog Archive

Tuesday 15 March 2016

Report on BARAC humanitarian aid visit to Calais and Dunkirk, March 2016

Since Summer 2015 BARAC has been coordinating humanitarian convoys and taking solidarity and aid to refugees in Calais and more recently Dunkirk.

Saturday 12th of March was our most recent visit, we were blessed to be accompanied by The Black Fathers Support Group who brought much needed essentials and food and played a key role in distributing aid on the day.

We were also joined by Ray Rakaba, Documentary Film Maker, who made a film of our first solidarity and  fact finding visit to Calais. Our transport and travel was sponsored by the CWU union and the CWU staff branch of GMB for which we are truly grateful. Our thanks also go to the PCS union for providing a drop off and storage point for donations and booking our transport.

Our key coordinating team for humanitarian work consists of Hector Wesley, BARAC National Steering Group, Donna Guthrie, BARAC National Women's Officer, my son  and myself,  but we are joined by different volunteers on each visit from  BARAC, other black community organisations and the wider community.

Each distribution has its own challengers from Border Control and police delaying and questioning us to adverse weather and break downs but what ever the challenge we meet our key objective of taking much needed food, toiletries and essentials - responding to the cultural, dietary, religious and gender needs of those in the 'camps'.

This distribution was no different. We were questioned about the nature of our visit to France by Border officials having watched the car full of people in front of our vehicles being waved through without so much as looking at their passports, we  faced racist negative stereotyping from another volunteer and then several lots of police barriers blocking our entrance into the Calais shanty town, followed by hostility, difficulties in reaching our contacts in the 'camp'  and barring of aid at the Dunkirk camp.

It took a long time, driving around before we eventually found an entry point into the Calais shanty town that police did not block our entrance to. Ironically we were allowed to enter by police via what used to be the South Side of the 'camp'  before it was demolished by French authorities accompanied by riot police just over a week earlier.

What used to be a space homing thousands of refugees in fragile structures, complete with make shift cafes, shops, places of worship, a class room and a library was now a post- apocalyptic smouldering waste land of asbestos infested mud land.  Embedded in the uneven ground were items people were forced to leave behind in their haste to reach a place of safety in the face of the brutal demolition of their temporary living spaces.

Here and there were people searching through the mud for items lost.  In the distance we spotted a team in white coats combing the area.

In the midst of this sea of  mud and lost items was an oasis - the church and library still standing, inside the church was serene, clean and orderly,  in stark contrast to its surroundings. Outside a young woman we knew from the Eritrean cafe  which served as an eatery and resting place for young Eritrean, Sudanese and Ethiopian women and men, was using an outside grill to make tea and food for the few refugees remaining in the area.

A few months back we had brought clothing, African hair products and cooking equipment for the people using this place, now it no longer existed.

Before the demolition 

After the demolition

Even though we had seen all the reports of the demolition nothing could have prepared us for what greeted us.  We had difficulty meeting the brothers and sisters, refugees who usually work with us to do our distributions because nothing and nobody was where they used to be and places we could have driven to before could not be reached.

We stopped near the art school which being over the other side of the shanty town had not yet been targeted by  the authorities for demolition.  A young brother invited me into the art school to see the latest art and his own skilled work creating sandals out of rubber tyres. Several people stopped to speak with us and asked us for clothes. Many people had lost their clothes when the south side of the 'camp' was destroyed - we had brought a range of clothes but had dropped these to the warehouse for sorting and distribution. We regretted not bringing it with us to give to the people there who needed it so they would not have to wait.

We had brought a mixture of individual packs with essentials, food and toiletries as well as traditional foods for the community kitchens but due to the destruction of the camp the community kitchens were not running as usual. We distributed what we had brought at two points and were helped in organising and managing queues by refugees as usual.

After leaving Calais we went straight to Dunkirk, keeping a few items to take there only as we had been told that the officials running the new government camp were not allowing aid to be brought in - in stark contrast to our visit to the old Dunkirk camp weeks before where essentials and food were desperately needed.

Before going to the new Dunkirk camp we went to the old camp - at a glance you might think it was still in use as tents, essentials, clothes had all been left behind on the advice of the authorities in an attempt to prevent any disease spreading to the new camp.

It was surprise therefore, given that people had had to leave everything behind that same week that we were told that nothing could be taken to those inside the new government camp.

It was like the end of time at the old camp - as if all civilisation had been wiped out suddenly leaving or like a city that was hastily evacuated.

At the new camp we were not allowed to drive in but were told by security stationed at the door that we could park and go in.  We were banned from taking in the few items we wanted to give as gifts to children and women as we had been warned.  No explanation was offered for this refusal.

The security guard said we could leave the items with him until we returned and made us sign in one by one  registering our names and organisations. He told us that people there did not need any aid as they received a hot meal every day. There was no mention of what they ate or drank during the rest of the day. He told us that the class room was not yet open so we could not take the educational items for children in, although we saw lots of children playing around the camp who we felt would have welcomed the items we had if they had been given a chance.  A class room is important but it is not the only way that children can appreciate books.

The new Dunkirk camp was in stark contrast to the old,  Solid structures made of wood housed families in neat rows in  place of flimsy tents soaked in mud, damaged by adverse weather.   There were leisure activities and mobile phone points. I  managed to take in some toiletries in my bag which was not noticed by the Security Guard and gave these to some women and young girls I met.

An Irish volunteer informed us that aid was banned only if people from Britain were offering it and that French people were allowed to bring aid. I asked him why. He said that those running the camp did not like British people. He advised us on a place we could drop the items off nearby to be brought in by authorised volunteers later on.

We spotted a fast food van with a sign announcing that chips would be served at 6.30pm.  It wasn't clear if this was just an optional snack or the evening meal.

On our way out what he had said became very apparent as I spotted some French women carrying some of the kitchen utensils we had been made to leave outside.

I asked her what she was doing with them given we had been banned from bringing them in. She explained that she was taking them to the kitchens and that she had been allowed to take them in because she was French. She advised us in future to hide items in rucksacks, pointing to her own back and 'smuggle them in'.

Our next distribution will be in a few weeks time.

If you would like to support our humanitarian work you can do this in a number of ways.

You can sponsor or co-sponsor our transport and travel to France, contact us directly  and make a payment directly to BARAC.

You can donate  to our GoFundMe account  - you contribution will go directly towards food, toiletries and essential items for refugees in France.  DONATE HERE

You can drop off essential items, tinned  / non perishable food, clothing, camping equipment etc to us at PCS union HQ, Clapham Junction, London, addressed to Zita Holbourne, C/O Harvey Jacobs.

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