I Worked for a Refugee Support Organization in Calais. Here’s What I Saw.

Dover, England has a hill that runs down from the main street through housing estates, past school, and to the town centre and port. A section of road that runs just before Christ Church secondary school is marked by mini-roundabouts. Each one is painted with the slightly faded white and red of St. George’s cross.

At the bottom of the hill, inside Dover’s shipping port, a red line on the floor designates the bicycle check-in route. The line crosses the trucking lanes and port reception building before reaching the small passport check booth. There, five to six armed border officers are busy with their breakfast.

The officer at the window checks passports and assesses potential travelers. Calais, a French city, is only 21 miles away by ferry across the English Channel. It’s the most popular landing point for British tourists traveling to the continent by boat, but for those planning to spend a night in the area, serious warnings are issued: There are migrants in the Calais area. Travelers must be “aware of this, and very careful.”


It’s Tuesday afternoon in Dunkirk, France, and a large van has pulled off the motorway, slowed down to a crawl, and turned a hard left onto the narrow farm service road. The van continues to drive for another 100 m, and then pulls into a gravel parking area where several organizations have gathered to help refugees who live nearby.

The services offered today include hot drinks, food bags, basic medical care, hairdressing facilities and phone charging. There will also be games like Dominoes or Connect 4.

This isn’t an unusual sight in Calais or Dunkirk. You might be able to see it through the window of a passing vehicle. A small group of vehicles with volunteers in plastic gloves distributing basic goods to around 80 refugees.

Calais/Dunkirk is home to approximately 2,000 refugees. There are many nationalities and cultures represented: Syrian, Iraqi Afghan, Eritrean, Kurdish, Eritrean, Afghan, Eritrean, and Syrian. Officially, these tent and tarpaulin settlements — often situated in forests, under bridges or on fallow farmland — are illegal. But recognized by the state or not, it’s here that the refugee communities are sleeping and gaining access to basic provisions.

It’s 2 pm when the van pulls in, and the volunteers climb out. Two volunteers help move the van into place, while others place cones to encourage spacing. A coordinator jumps out, unlocks and then wrenches the rear door.

As the bags are being handed out and distribution picks up pace, a small group of people forms to one side. This is a common practice, with some members of the community choosing to wait apart from others. Today, the group is made up of two women and a man with crutches and a single 10-year-old boy. This separate group requires a balance. Today the weather is good, and there’s plenty of food to go around, but these are desperate living conditions, and there can be complex internal relationships and hierarchies at play.

After waiting a while, the women with the crutch and the man with it receive food bags. The van door closes and the last bag is distributed. But the boy protests on his own 15 minutes later. His family is asleep at camp, he claims, and he needs his bag to take back and share it with them. Although the story sounds plausible, it is important to remember that a bag for four people cannot be given to one person.

To the left of car park scene is a folding camping table set up along the tree’s edges. A refugee from Afghanistan and an international volunteer, are crouching behind the table, filling up cups with water from large tanks and placing them on the tabletop.

“What will happen here in the winter?” the refugee says. “I think it’s getting too cold.”

The volunteer looks up at him, “You stay here for longer?” she says. The man shakes its head.

“I don’t know,” he says.

“And this winter?” the volunteer asks. “What is your plan for this winter?”

The man laughs and turns his hands to face the sky.

“My plan?” he repeats, grinning and shaking his head. “Yes, what is my plan?”

The man is drenched, his cheeks are a tissue paper-like texture as he smiles. Today’s scene is calm and ordered. But over the next month there will be nightly raids of French police looking to use the seasonal change to force refugees from the coast. Zooming out even further, we see a chaotic politics, growing international tensions regarding border control and the threat hostile policy changes for 2022.


A large hospital serves Calais. Between the hospital building and the distant motorway fly-over, there is a system of roundabouts, fishing lakes and scrub-land, and it’s here, hidden behind the first line of bushes, that we find the largest settlement of refugees in the region. This site, named “Hospital,” is home to a highly transitory, mixed-nationality community. The distributions are bustling. Although the environment is generally calm and controlled, living conditions such as these must be respected. Unseen factors can cause instability.

It’s Friday. Distribution usually takes place at Hospital on Saturday afternoons. But other organizations and community links have reported disturbing news. The previous night, police entered the settlement with teargas and destroyed many of the possessions and tents. They then loaded many of them onto buses and drove them away. The coordinator said that the exact location of the refugees is unknown. If the raid had been planned, it is possible that they would have been dropped at a police station in Arras (the region’s capital). Often, however, relocations like these are intended to scatter the population, driving them far enough from the hospital to discourage them from returning on foot.

Heavy rain echoes off the warehouse roof as volunteers gather for their lunchtime briefing. There has been a change in plan. Basic provisions will be needed for refugees who were unable to get back to the Hospital settlement by transport or who managed to return in the early hours.

The van, loaded with 150 blankets and 150 tarps, pulls into the Hospital site at 7:30pm. The refugees are aware they are coming and have formed an organized line to collect the goods. They look tired and stretched out in the dark. After a period of poor health, their only possessions were taken from them. Many have had long, difficult journeys on foot to return to this location.

The coordinator pulls on his handbrake and turns to give instructions to the volunteers. The current line position is not going to work. It will need to move about 100 meters across the parking lot.

The van is repositioned, and volunteers attempt to convey the message calmly. The rearrangement appears to be possible at first, with most community members working together to keep order. As the van parks and the door opens at the rear, the line starts to march and bunch up. A few people from the rear try to get a better position.

“We have enough for everyone,” the volunteers repeat. They have said similar things before and, no matter how hard they try to enforce fair distribution, the back door of the van will always remain closed.

A few men fight for their place as the refugees reunite. This sort of distribution is usually a place for laughter and a few jokes. Tonight, however, the community is tired and bleary-eyed. They take the items, thanked the distribution team in quiet tones, then make their way back to the scrub.

Old Lidl

New signs were installed at the Hospital distribution site that evening. This area serviced the largest number of refugees in the region, but now it’s clearly prohibited to distribute here. The signage changes are not a new idea for volunteer coordinators. It is just another temporary measure brought in by a policing system that is focused on short-term measures. Hospital is a 15-minute walk from another refugee site. Reports suggest that the community may have moved there.

This was once the home of a Lidl supermarket. However, the building has been demolished and left an empty lot next to a dusty field. The road between Hospital and the old supermarket is bustling with people when the distribution van arrives at 2 p.m. The van pulls across the tracks and into the lot. The van pulls across a dirt field about 200 meters away. A dense tree line is visible with a string tarpaulins along its edge. Despite the great desire for tents, blankets, tarps and jackets, the organizations are unable to be reactive, and today’s drop will be the pre-arranged food bags.

40 minutes into the distribution, a heavy shower of rain comes in. Everyone runs under the cover of the largest tree and covers the charging boards.

A group of boys in their early teens gather at the rear end of the parking garage. Two of them move off toward the distance, looking for an industrial site. The rest of the group kick at the dust at each other’s feet and observe them intently.

One of the boys approaches the van towards the end of distribution and asks for shelter and winter clothes.

“The police, they come at night and take everything warm,” he says, pointing a finger toward the road. “From the Hospital, we come here, and last night they follow us. They are okay sometimes. But sometimes they shoot gas or abuse … sometimes very bad abuse.” The boy steps back and mimics someone hitting the ground with a club repeatedly.

After a few minutes, the rain stops. It’s early evening when they climb up into the van and take their seats.

When a member from the refugee community approaches the passenger side window, the key is put in the ignition. The coordinators address the man by his name.

An emergency situation is unfolding. The man points towards the tree line. Last night, someone was seriously injured and needed urgent medical attention. There is a protocol in place for emergencies such as this. The volunteer coordinator gets out of his van to deal with the situation.

Ten minutes later, the coordinator is promoting for the injured man when two French riot police transporters arrive inside with eight officers. The officers approach volunteers and demand IDs and documents of insurance for the vehicles. One of the volunteers isn’t carrying ID, and is threatened with detainment and a large fine.

The atmosphere appears to have calmed as the police retreat to discuss the matter among themselves. The chief officer approaches the coordinator and speaks to him directly. He says that the organization will be allowed leave this time, but that the maximum fines will be imposed next time.

Blame the victim

Human Rights Watch published after the demolition of the Hospital settlement. a report warning of the “daily harassment and humiliation” faced by the refugee groups.

The autumn season saw a surge in refugee sea crossings. With many people being found dead in the English Channel and media coverage growing, the United Kingdom’s Home Secretary Priti Patel, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson, publicly blamed France.

In July 2021, Patel had promised a fresh £54 million for increased fencing and police presence in Calais, but now, following the rise of crossings, there are open threats to withhold the money, and French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin declared that “not one euro” has yet been paid.

As the weeks go by, the pressure on refugees continues to mount. In late November, 27 people drowned on the channel. This happened while U.K.Home Secretary Patel was in London. targets the French government for allowing these crossings, her counterpart, Gérald Darmanin, fires back, citing the U.K.’s illegal labor market as the main incentive for the refugee migration. It’s an international blame game that shows little understanding of the complex motivations of the refugee groups, or the shared responsibility that the U.K. and France have for managing the situation. Patel and the U.K. government have a longer-term view.

Toward the summer of 2022, the U.K. government hopes to pass the “Nationality and Borders Bill,” a complete overhaul of the policy in respect to refugee and asylum seeker treatment. Raza Husain (eminent human rights lawyer) led a legal review of the legislation. has found the document in breach of multiple articles across the European Convention for Human Rights and the United Nations Refugee Convention. Husain’s report depicts the bill as a destructive rollback of previous legislation, reversing “a number of important decisions of the UK courts, including at the House of Lords and court of appeal level.

If you are interested in the proposed legislation does pass, refugees trying to make the crossing will be met with criminalization at the U.K. border, subsequent detainment at purpose-built offshore facilities, and the possibility of relocation back to “safe third countries” if their asylum application to the U.K. should be rejected (safe being a complex and subjective concept).

“What’s clear from these proposals is that Priti Patel’s anti refugee bill is cruel, inhumane and deeply flawed,” concludes British human rights organization Freedom From Torture, and the effect of the new policy “will actually just lead to a greater number of vulnerable people living in limbo, in constant fear of removal to persecution and enduring unbearable hardship and exclusion.”

But the proposed policy changes wouldn’t stop there. The bill also contains the controversial Clause 9, which would allow government to remove British citizens without warning if necessary. within “public interest” or “the interest of national security.”The inclusion of Clause 9 sparked a huge reaction from the British public, particularly among ethnically marginalized group, and an online petitionOver 300,000. people have signed petitions calling for a review on Clause 9. “We believe these provisions should be removed,” the petition’s organizers state. They are “unacceptable, and inconsistent with international human rights obligations.”

Critics see these policy changes as a power grab by the British government. It is an attempt to establish a higher degree of centralized control with particular consequences for asylum seekers, protesters and non-white British communities. They are also more likely to be threatened with their citizenship and disproportionately penalized by increased stop-and-search powers. We can be certain that 2022 will be a turbulent year for British politics, regardless of the outcome of policy changes.