By Dr Stacey Johnson, July 2020
Coronavirus or ‘COVID-19’ amongst other labels, has been referred to as ‘the virus that doesn’t discriminate.’ In reality, certain vulnerable groups in society, particularly refugees, have become more isolated during the pandemic due to a lack of ‘pre-existing conditions such as medical, economic, social, political and racial (Ironstone, 2020; Solnit, 2020).
Whilst governments and health providers constantly remind us to tackle the virus by wearing a mask, washing our hands and keeping our distance, such practices are almost impossible for the millions of refugees worldwide who may not have access to fresh water points, toilets or basic shelter, let alone masks or soap. As a teacher/ early career researcher in the UK, I was aware of the worsening situation for refugees during the COVID-19 pandemic but was unsure of how I could help as travel restrictions were enforced in the UK. However, in March 2020 I saw a BBC post on Facebook reporting that the NGO’s were shutting down operations which served refugee camps in the North of France. Whilst the situation there had never been pleasant, the pandemic meant the refugees in Calais and Dunkirk were more vulnerable than ever. They were previously supported by several organisations who, due to COVID-19, had ceased operations. The footage showed those who had left their war-torn countries in the hope of a better life, in terrible conditions. Without food and shelter, families with children were sleeping rough amongst the ‘Jungle’ of Calais which tore at my heart strings. Having been made redundant due to COVID, it meant I had some time to try and help in any way I could. Within 10 minutes, I had begun to make travel plans to travel to France in order to help out.
During the lockdown in early 2020, entry to France was extremely difficult but Care4Calais provided me with documentation which classed me as a ‘Key worker’ volunteer. But there were still obstacles to overcome. Initially, my family disproved of me travelling during the pandemic and thought I was risking my personal health for a cause which they were not overly supportive of. Travel restrictions also meant the journey to Heathrow airport was difficult. However, I was determined to try and help in any way possible and give a ‘volunteer’s gaze’ into the refugee camps so that others who hear my stories may be more compassionate at this time towards refugees who are already in dire circumstances. Entry into France, with soaring death rates, was difficult and required 9 pages of official documents. In addition, the French were not keen on foreign volunteers travelling to help migrants who were already unwelcome in their country. Despite these obstacles, I made it to Calais and began helping straight away.
Volunteers worked 6 full days a week. The first half of the day was spent in the warehouse organising donations and preparing food/clothes/ sanitary packs. The afternoon was spent doing distributions of the food packs, tents and other essentials which were needed by the refugees. We also set up first aid points, handwashing stations, phone charging stations, facemask distribution and a hairdressing/ manicure station. However, the operations within the organisations had been massively affected by the pandemic. With reduced donations, cases of COVID-19 in the camps* and expensive PPE, volunteering was tough and tiring. The safety of the volunteers was prioritised which meant our small team were made to wear full PPE including an outer suit to cover our clothes, 2 masks and plastic gloves at all times. Obsessive handwashing and hand sanitising became the norm throughout the day and immediately after our distributions, the PPE was disposed of. All equipment including vehicles were also sanitised and washed down after visits to the settlements.
My opinion on the refugee crisis has changed completely after seeing the situation with my own eyes. I felt privileged to meet such an amazing, resilient and diverse group of people from across the globe (mainly Syria, Afghanistan Iran, Kurdistan and Africa) who were willing to share their harrowing stories with me. As I was present during the Holy month of Ramadan, many of the Muslim refugees were fasting and became exhausted from the heat of the Calais sun. Nevertheless, they were mostly upbeat and jovial as they offered us dates and sweets while they broke their fasts and showed me pictures of their families and the lifestyle they once had. We shared laughter and tears over tea as they discussed why they left their countries and, in many cases, their families.
The situation was not always as pleasant; my first visit to the site in Calais was very sombre as the French police had cleared and ‘evicted’ 80 people by destroying their tents and showing extreme violence. As volunteers, we attended to their scuffs and cuts from the clashes using donated first-aid kits. Whilst we struggled to encourage the refugees to adhere to social distancing, the French police were more than comfortable using force and threatening to tear gas anyone who dared to seek shelter in the woodlands. Following the evictions, the refugees slept next to burning pallets for some warmth. Without tents and sleeping bags or even a piece of plastic, protection from the harsh weather conditions was challenging. It’s no surprise then that when questioned about the Coronavirus and how it has affected them, many refugees commented that it was ‘the least of their concerns.’ When I returned to my rented Air B and B, I often broke down in tears as I considered how privileged I was to have a roof over my head whilst others were trying to survive in such terrible conditions. In his book Agier (2011) asks ‘what difference does it make to be in a refugee camp’ and ‘if having a camp is better than nothing.’ After reflecting on my time in Calais, I would certainly say that organised camps would have been a better alternative than having to face regular violence from the French police and having no fixed dwelling to shelter from the elements.
Despite the difficulties, the people in the settlements were very appreciative of our help, often asking God to bless us for our help and wishing us long, happy lives. At night, I often felt mentally exhausted from all the translating and listening to their stories, but I am grateful to be given the opportunity to volunteer and make a small difference. Now when I hear people complaining of the restrictions the pandemic has brought them or the excessive handwashing and mask wearing, I ask them to spare a thought for those who struggle to access soap, water and masks.
*Whilst the areas where the refugees set up camp in North France are often referred to as ‘camps,’ since the violent eviction of the last encampment in October 2016, there are no more official camps in France. The refugees usually seek shelter in woodlands or abandoned warehouses.
Agier, M. (2011). Managing the Undesirables. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Ironstone, P. 2020. “The Pandemic is (Extra) Ordinary.” Topia: Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies . https://www.utpjournals.press/journals/topia/the-pandemic-is-extra-ordinary. [Crossref], [Google Scholar]
Solnit, R. 2020. “Coronavirus Does Discriminate, Because That’s What Humans Do.” The [UK] Guardian, April 17. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/apr/17/coronavirus-discriminate-humans-racism-sexism-inequality .