Francois Lo Presti / AFP / Getty Images

Grass-roots response to Calais refugees outpaces governments’, aid groups’

European activists collecting donations for refugees in French port say people can succeed where governments fail

Grass-roots efforts to provide relief to thousands of refugees at a camp in the French port town of Calais have outpaced those of governments and large aid organizations, according to activists, who say their success shows that concerned people don’t have to wait for officials to respond to Europe’s growing refugee crisis.

The Jules Ferry camp, located near the Eurotunnel that connects France to England, is home to around 4,000 refugees and migrants who fled war and other hardships in countries including Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Eritrea.

The camp offers little relief. Described as “third world” by activists, the site is plagued by water and sewage leaks, and has few shower or toilet facilities. Many of its residents also lack such basic necessities as shoes, warm clothing and tents. Men, women and children often sleep on the ground.

Jules Ferry is one of many camps across Europe where some of the nearly 400,000 refugees and economic migrants will arrive after a dangerous land and sea voyage. Those who make their way to Calais hope to sneak through the Eurotunnel and claim asylum in the United Kingdom, where many have friends and family, and where job prospects seem better. But heightened security along the border has prevented many from completing the final leg of their journey.

Recognizing the humanitarian crisis unfolding in the Jules Ferry camp and frustrated by what is widely seen as an inadequate official response, activists in nearby countries — including Ireland, England and Belgium — have mobilized grass-roots campaigns to collect and distribute supplies to the refugees.

“Often people just sit back and wait for the NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] and the government,” Rachael O'Sullivan, a Cork-based organizer with the Ireland Refugee Solidarity Movement, told Al Jazeera. “But our government has been weak in this respect and I think I’m witnessing a real sense of empowerment … suddenly we’re like, ‘Oh, God, we can do it ourselves.’”

O'Sullivan said the group started as a few friends wanting to collect donations and easy-to-build shelters to be sent to Calais. They put up a crowd-funding appeal online about three weeks ago with a modest target of around $450, and weren’t prepared for the overwhelming response it received. 

“It got to about 60,000 euros [$67,000] in five or six days, and as it’s going we will soon have over 100,000 euros [$112,000],” O'Sullivan said, adding that the group’s single depot in Cork to collect donated goods has since expanded to 70 drop-off locations across Ireland.

“We’ve had donations of trucks. It has just basically ballooned, and it feels like we’ve become the focal point for an outpouring of support and people wanting to help,” O'Sullivan said.

London-based Calais Action began in a similar fashion — with a few friends who wanted to help refugees by driving a van of supplies to Calais, founder Libby Freeman told Al Jazeera.

On her first trip in August, Freeman met refugees from war-torn countries whose stories inspired her to continue collecting aid for the Jules Ferry camp. 

“There was a boy about 20 years old who I spoke to. He had come from Syria and he’d been separated from his family and recently found out they were in the UK,” Freeman said. “He was trying to get there.”

She said another refugee from Ethiopia told her, “I know what everyone thinks — that we’re animals and terrorists — but we just want peaceful lives.”

Shortly after Freeman returned to England, Calais Action’s efforts were reported in national media and “it just exploded,” she said.

“We have an absolutely ridiculous amount of donations. We could have a fleet of lorries. It’s brilliant,” Freeman said.

Brussles-based Solidarity for All — another group that started as a few friends that wanted to help — attracted thousands of supporters within days of publishing an appeal for donations on Facebook, founder Peter Terryn told Al Jazeera.

“Instead of one car we went with 120 vehicles, amongst which were two 10-ton trucks, five to six other trucks and a lot of vans,” he said.

Most of the refugees Terryn met in Calais were escaping from countries “that have been bombed by us,” he said. “We know our air force within the coalition has bombed in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya and is now planning to do so in Syria — that’s exactly the countries where most of the refugees come from."

Solidarity for All has received so many donations that the group is now facing the problem of where to store the items, he said.

“There are no depots or distribution structures, so we plan to use donated money to rent out a warehouse,” Terryn said, adding that his group aims to create a distribution system that will allow aid to reach the people who really need it, not just those at the camp’s entrance.

The activists said that governments and large aid organizations have so far been absent from Calais, and are only now starting to address the crisis.

Calais Mayor Natacha Bouchart in July appeared to be trying to shift responsibility for the refugees from the city and onto other governments.

“For too long, Calais and its population have been handling a situation which they are not responsible for,” she said on Twitter.

Bouchart did not respond to request for comment by the time of publication.

And while large aid organizations — including Doctors Without Borders and the International Committee of the Red Cross — have mobilized to aid refugees in Greece, Italy, Turkey and other popular entry points to Europe, it has so far been grass-roots organizations that have come to the aid of refugees in Calais.

In August, however, The European Commission agreed to allocate $5.8 million to “set up a tent site offering humanitarian assistance to around 1,500 irregular migrants” and “to support the transport of asylum seekers from Calais to other locations in France,” Milica Petrovic, press officer for the European Union’s Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship body, to Al Jazeera in an emailed statement.

The commission’s announcement received mixed reactions — with many activists and politicians welcoming the move, but noting that it would not adequately meet the needs of camp residents.

“It’s a gesture but a pretty feeble gesture. It’s 25 million [euros] that would be needed,” Bouchart said.

Ifty Patel, a volunteer with Leeds-based, expressed a similar sentiment.

“Why can’t some people send help now? Yeah, it’s alright promising, but we need help now,” said Patel, lamenting how long he thought it would take the EU to build such a facility.  

“The toilets haven’t been emptied for days, so they can’t be used. Sewage is leaking — we’ve been digging drainage holes all day. How can people think about building things when basic needs are not being met?” he said.

As government actions catch up to grass-roots efforts, activists who spoke to Al Jazeera said the experience has shown them that many of the people in their countries want to help — despite the often-disparaging views propagated by some media and by right-wing nationalists.

“I think we reached a lot of people you hardly ever hear from who are looking for ways to help and show solidarity with the refugees,” Terryn said. “We have a network of 45,000 people who want to help, and I believe it’s just the beginning.”

With wire services

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