The summer of 2016 was memorable for various reasons, from studying in Singapore for a month, to participating in an international work camp in Palestine. I met a lot of people from all over the world and learnt a variety of things useful for both my academic and personal life. Particularly, my introverted self gained confidence to adventure myself into similar opportunities in the future. Hence earlier this year, when I was presented with the option of doing a funded internship in China, I was unable to say no to the opportunity.
(Between the 19th and 23rd of March 2016, I went to France to volunteer as part of the humanitarian response to support asylum seekers and migrants in ‘the Jungle’ refugee camp (Calais) and in the Grande-Synthe refugee camp (Dunkirk). I didn’t go alone: I joined a group of students from my university. We travelled to Calais by car, using the ferry link from Dover, and stayed in a youth hostel.
During our trip, we worked for two days in a warehouse from which material aid is distributed and then we spent another two days working in the refugee camps. In this blog series titled ‘Trip to Calais and Dunkirk’ and made up of four parts, I will talk about my motive for volunteering, my experiences and my overall thoughts about those four days.
PS: If you don’t know anything about the Refugee ‘Crisis’ in Europe, I suggest you research independently a bit before reading all my posts, in order to understand my experiences better. I will explain a bit of the situation in the camps in Calais and Dunkirk in my following posts, but I won’t cover the whole issue. Also, I don’t want to direct you to any website or video specifically because I can’t promise I will be objective.)
Although I applied to participate in the trip to volunteer in France just a week before my group and I departed, it was not an immediate decision: I had been planning to volunteer to help in the Refugee ‘Crisis’ in Europe since last year (I quote the word ‘crisis’ because I don’t like to refer to this situation as a ‘crisis’). I suppose many assume that my resolution to volunteer was guided by my “emotions” and my “soft-heart”, but it was actually a very logical and well-thought decision (by the way, there is nothing wrong with channelling your emotions to do something positive and stand up for what’s right). My resolution was not driven by sympathy and pity: it was driven by empathy and understanding. While I’m a sensitive person who tends to put humanity first, I’m also a rational individual who believes in abiding by international humanitarian law and protecting everyone’s human rights.
Moreover, I’m aware of the consequences of ongoing conflict and I comprehend why people escape persecution. Survival is key for our species. Everybody wants to feel safe and have a good well-being, nobody wants a life full of suffering and insecurity. This is why I will never demonize people who leave their countries in search for something better because their lives and survival is at risk. I don’t care if they are “illegal” migrants, refugees or asylum seekers. I don’t care if that “endangers” my own privileges and lifestyle (I don’t even believe this is true or bad). If you want to call me foolish and emotional for thinking like this, go ahead. I’ll never think that socially constructed borders and documents are more important than human lives and their welfare. Never.
Of course, I’m aware that legality is not the only reason many European politicians and citizens have reacted negatively (or not reacted at all) to this situation. As said above, I don’t like to call it a ‘crisis’ and brand it as problem that ‘the poor Europeans’ have to face. It is important to point out that people crossing the Mediterranean Sea to get to Europe isn’t a new phenomenon (nor are the deaths), even though it wasn’t very highlighted by media outlets till last year. This is a problem I’m very familiar with because it has been going on in my home country for years. I still remember watching the news when I was a kid and hearing reports about boats sinking near the southern coasts of Spain, migrants that had to be rescued and death bodies that were found in beaches. All this made me feel very sad, wondering why it was allowed to happen: I was too young to understand the complexity of the situation. Too young to understand politics.
Now I’m older, I’m studying a subject very related to this issue (International Development) and I could say I have a better understanding of it, yet I still don’t get why there is such a lack of appropriate political response to the tragedies in the Mediterranean. And more now, when the number of people risking their lives to get to Europe keeps increasing, and the problem has expanded, with various informal refugee camps appearing in countries like Greece and unsafe migration routes forming across the Balkans. To be honest, a part of me knows the answer to that question. Lack of willingness. Disregard for human rights. Hatred towards migrants and asylum seekers. Dehumanisation of Africans and Asians.
There are valid issues to be worried about when comes to dealing with a high influx of people into a region, such as money, capacity and infrastructure, but oddly yet not surprisingly those aren’t the main reasons singled out by enraged European citizens who don’t want to welcome asylum seekers to their country. Not even by many European politicians who refuse to abide by international law. Sometimes, I feel stupid for being shocked by the cruel, inhumane and negative response that many in Europe have shown (are showing) during this ‘crisis’, from governments to citizens. Most of the reasons people and states have not reacted properly and humanitarianly to this ‘crisis’ are rooted in racism, Islamophobia and xenophobia. Orientalism, fascism and exacerbated nationalism. Still, humanitarian law and human rights apply to everyone regardless of nationality, ethnicity, religion or race. You can’t cherry pick.
Because of all this, I have been a staunch defender of the rights of refugees and migrants in Europe through this period of ‘crisis’ in the continent. At some point, after months fighting with trolls in Twitter, signing petitions, and supporting protests, I decided that I could no longer stand still and do nothing productive. I decided that I had skills that could be put into use. I decided that I was acquiring knowledge (in university) that I should use for real life and not just for my assessments. I decided that I would not stand by, be neutral, wait for the British government to do something and hand out all my energy to xenophobes online. I decided it was time to volunteer to help with the humanitarian response and actively join those who cared about the situation. And while I know that humanitarian aid doesn’t tackle the root of any problem (a ‘sticking plaster’ they call it), the welfare and dignity of people is important, and that’s something humanitarian aid can help a lot with (if done correctly).
I had volunteered many times before in a wide range of settings, but never abroad or in that context. Before leaving, together with other members of the group with whom I travelled, I attended a training about humanitarian law & human rights, refugee movement history and working in a refugee camp. It made me feel more prepared. At the same time, I had been following the situation in Calais and Dunkirk, where I chose to volunteer, for months (through checking social media updates from NGOs on the ground), so I had an idea of what I was getting into.
I knew the experience could be emotionally distressing (for me and for asylum seekers). I knew I had to be careful and aware of my privilege. I knew I wasn’t going there to be a saviour and impose my help on anyone. I knew I didn’t decide to volunteer to feel better about myself. I knew I was travelling to support as I could with the skills I had. I knew important changes were occurring in both camps and anything could happen. Yet sometimes, knowing isn’t enough, just as good intentions aren’t enough. Nevertheless, I still went and volunteered because NGOs and grassroots organisations needed help with the humanitarian response. And fortunately, I don’t regret doing so.